The Time I got Paid to Get Drunk and Drive a Ship

maine-maritime-academy-ship-simulator-alcohol-affect-on-mariners

Maine Maritime Academy’s ship simulator. (photo: The Atlantic)

One of the most unusual jobs I’ve ever had was the time I participated in a graduate school research project studying the effects of alcohol on merchant mariners.

The study, led by professors from Brown University and Boston University, took place at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, ME during my senior year (1999) and was designed to get students intoxicated and rate their effectiveness performing various ship navigating activities in the school’s life-like ship simulator.

As I was heading back from class one afternoon, there was a simple note on the dormitory wall that said “Student Volunteers Needed for Ship Simulator Study. Earn $50. Must be at least 21.”

Curious, I called the number listed on the note and spoke to the coordinator who explained what they needed me to do.

merchant-marine-alcohol-effects“You want me to get drunk and pretend like I’m driving a ship?” I asked her in disbelief. “What time do you want me to show up?”

When I arrived at the ship simulator building later that evening, I was taken in to a side room where I answered a few questions and performed a hand-eye coordination test (keeping a small marble centered on a curved sheet of metal). They weighed me and took height measurements (presumably to help control the amount of alcohol they gave me). I was also given a breathalyzer test to ensure that I hadn’t already been drinking when I showed up for the experiment.

After the preliminary questionnaire and coordination test, I was placed in the ship simulator and asked to perform a series of maneuvers (basically maneuvering the ship out of port into a shipping channel).

After the first run in the ship simulator, I was escorted back into the side room where I was given a 2 liter mixture of tonic water, vodka and lime juice with instructions that I had to drink the mixture within 10 minutes. One of the keys to the study was making sure the test subjects didn’t know how much alcohol they had consumed.

After forcing the mixture down (they didn’t allow ice) they had me wait another 15 minutes for the alcohol to take its effect at which point they administered another breathalyzer exam to measure what my blood/alcohol level was.

Once they had their measurements, they had me perform the same hand-eye coordination exam again followed by another scenario in the school’s ship simulator. The effect of the alcohol was unclear as I performed the new scenario in the ship’s simulator. I’ll say that I felt more “confident” performing the maneuvers, but this may or may not have been attributed to the effect of the alcohol.

When I finished the testing I answered a few more questions about my performance and whether or not I felt like I was drunk. I told them I certainly felt something, but I didn’t feel like my performance or concentration was affected in any way. They took a few more notes and the session ended.

As we wrapped up the meeting, the study coordinator gave me a crisp $50 bill; I said thank you very much and made my way for the door.

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