AIS, texting and understanding

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Aug 252008

Even languages as similar as English and American have their moments of mutual incomprehension. I use the word ‘moments’ quite deliberately. A recent commentary pn the BIMCO site by Andrew Guest highlighted the confusion that can be caused by the different notions of the acceptability of VHF and other means of communications for collision avoidance and touches upon language differences.

“Momentarily” is a case in point. In English it means “for a moment” while in American English it is “in a moment”. In English if I say I’m going to study a chart momentarily, it would imply that I’m actually not going to study it very well, I’m going to study in for a moment, while in American English it would mean that I’m going to look at it a short time in the future. That’s an important difference.

Then there are languages that have been heavily influenced by English, like Tagalog, the ‘national language’ of the Philippines. The English “to stand by” has transmogrified into “istambay” and undergone a great change of meaning. “To stand by” in English means to be prepared and ready for action while the Tagalog word “istambay” means, to borrow an American phrase, “to goof off”, to stand around taking it easy.

The differences in meaning between what is passably the same term may obviously have disconcerting results.

Another example from Spanish and Tagalog is “mamon”. In Spanish it is a reference to a woman’s breasts which in Tagalog refers to a type of cake. My good friend, Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo, discovered this the hard way when asking for some “mamon” in a Madrid bakery.

If such ambiguity can exist between the Philippines, the world’s largest single supplier of maritime manpower with the third largest English-speaking population, what hope then when crews don’t naturally have English as a first or second language?

According to research at the A Coruna University’s School of Nautical Studies in Spain almost one in five ‘accidents in a maritime setting’ involve lack or misuse of a “common” language.

Guest picks up on recent research by the Cardiff-based SIRC, Training and Technology Onboard Ship: How seafarers learned to use the shipboard Automatic Identification System Training and Technology Onboard Ship: How seafarers learned to use the shipboard Automatic Identification System, showing that the introduction of AIS is making seafarers positively chatty on VHF and that is raising questions about the use of various methods of communication for collision avoidance.

Observing traffic in the Dover Strait SIRC concluded that since 2004 the percentage of VHF calls initiated between ships as risen from 11.5 per cent in 2004 to 20.8 per cent in 2007. Of those 94.2 per cent in 2007 were about collision avoidance, up from 89.4 per cent in 2004.

The good news is that ships were increasingly taking the initiative to use communications with other ships to check their own AIS set-up and more willing to altert other ships of problems with their AIS transmissions. Perhaps worrying is that a number of AIS units were inadequately set-up and could not be corrected onboard because that information could not be changed without a password which those onboard didn’t have.

These included ship’s callsigns such as “f**k” and “s**t” entered at setup. No doubt the technicians who set up these systems had a hoot telling their mates down at the pub how clever they had been. Says SIRC: “The fact of such errors thus raises further questions regarding the integrity and professionalism of those who installed the equipment and / or the access that others have to this level of data input. The fact that basic identifying information may be incorrect is clearly significant for shore-side authorities concerned with issues of security but also for any ship’s officer seeking to establish contact with affected vessels” to which MAC has nothing to add.

Increasing use of VHF for collision avoidance between ships raises a different concern.

In the UK and other jurisdictions using VHF for collision avoidance is frowned upon. Voice contact raises the danger of misunderstanding, without it one must fall back on the ancient and proven wisdom of colregs. Elsewhere, including the US – which has always insisted on being different from everyone else since Webster mispelled his dictionary – encourages the use of VHF for collision avoidance.

Guest says: “The mixed message to seafarers is illustrated by two recent casualty investigation reports, one into an actual collision and the other into a near-miss. In the first, involving a collision between two tankers in the Singapore Strait, one had tried to contact the other by VHF three times without success. The report says this wasted valuable time and that the use of radio in such situations is “fraught with danger”.

“The other report noted in a near-miss situation in Australia the failure of a bulk carrier to use VHF to contact an approaching Ro/Ro. It said the Master of the bulk carrier should have used VHF to alert the other ship to his presence and faulted him for not making use of all available resources as required by the collision regulations.

“In other recent collision cases this confusion in both official approaches and bridge practices is apparent. In a collision between two containerships in the Taiwan Sea one believed it had agreed a passing plan with the other when it later transpired it had, in fact, been communicating via VHF with a third ship. ”

Different companies also have different policies regarding the use of VHF for collision avoidance, which can be confusing for officers from one company joining another.

But it doesn’t end there. The SIRC brings up the issue of the text-messaging facility. Texting usually involves abbreviated and phonetic word, like CUL8R for “See you later”.

SIRC says: “there is evidence of growing and widespread use of the AIS text facility, especially for inter-ship communication. The full significance of the emergence of this form of communication is still to be determined… A final observation from the analysis of the text messages which may have already struck the reader is that many of the authors of the messages made use of an abbreviated text language which varied between individuals. What is not apparent to the authors is the extent and nature of the variability. That is, is this entirely an individual matter or do certain groups, e.g. do those within the same company or of the same nationality abbreviate in similar ways? Equally, do those messages composed in languages other than English similarly contain abbreviated forms? This is a topic that may bear further investigation.”

Part of the answer is that the language used in text is usually abbreviated on the go, there is no formalised structure and aims for meaning rather than grammatical correctness. It is still evolving: those words and phrases which serve a useful puropose and are widely understood survive.

MAC predicts that a study would reveal that crew from developing nations will utilise texting more effectively and be better understood. Modern texting began with the cellphone. In Europe and the US people tend to make cellphone calls rather than texting, except possibly for the under 30s and teens. In developing countries with lower incomes texting is popular because of its cheapness and are more familiar with it.

Of course, it is those developing countries from which most of today’s crew are recruited.

SIRC asks whether texting is an appropriate use of a navigator’s time but the fact is that it’s here to stay, it isn’t going to be uninvented and it’s going to be used.

We’d better figure out how to use it wisely.