Feb 042010

Captain S. Pullat

Electronic navigation isn’t the future, it’s now, but are today’s navigators too complacent and trusting? Is eNav a threat to good seamanship?

MAC contributor Captain S Pullat sends up some signals.

What paradigm shifts through couple of generations from total visual navigation to complete electronics dependence! Ask practitioners and what is surmised is that Radar, VHF, ARPA, AIS, Integrated Bridge, VTS and the rest put together has precipitated so, COSCO BUSAN a sad example.

From the days of single locked Radar to S-mode for safe-n-quick user friendly switching, the navigators have come a long way! And given the 25yr or so lifespan of ships with grandfather leniencies, one can be sure that all and sundry systems and practices sail side by side; the navigators on contract switching between such diverse technologies.

The resultant improvement in navigation including fuel savings and transit time gains is best balanced with failures and their root causes. Whilst the jury is still out on it, the final arbiter is the test whether the navigators are using their senses especially common sense. Though a pilot would be the best judge to quickly gauge and report on such automated efficacy, surveyors, inspectors, auditors, superintendents and so on have been providing feedback for a while with mixed results bordering on scary findings.

Electronic Navigation with DF, Radars, Decca, Loran….started providing too much information that was seldom effectively used with reliability and confidence. Having got over such issues over the last generation, present problem is one of over-confidence and blind reliability forgetting first principles of navigation leading to increasing avoidable accidents. All attributed to human error of course.

Is celestial navigation practised at all as a fall back? Smelling land, looking out for birds, observing changing colour of the sea, haze/loom on horizon, Cricket’s chirping –for “rain soon” (Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was saved thus),tide rips, co-relating objects with symbols on charts, etc prepare/focus mind/senses during approaches. Can fog signals be heard in closeted wheelhouses? Can’t Leeway, Set, Drift and distances off be gauged from the wings? Would they use echo sounders and a soundings contour line traversed as obtained from them? Would they transfer position lines to cross with another one if two are not obtainable simultaneously? Transit bearing and parallel indexing, at the least? There is no substitute to practice of good seamanship as called for in Colregs. Is it alien to electronics?

Coining terms like situational awareness is only jargon making, as the Commander in his elements should possess it whilst conning without instrument panel inputs cluttering his sixth sense. (OK, call it seventh sense, since all have a sixth sense for survival). Most of us were mentored thus, using the electronic ones for a double check. Has electronics become THE primary source for reliablity? If so, with redundancies too instrumentation supported, we cannot blame navigators for surrendering their sixth sense.

That navigational sense with confidence is the only saviour when under information overload leading to confusion and stress. Experienced navigators have stored in the back of their minds what they will rely on when information seem to conflict. It IS that gut feeling that prompts decision making while giving orders. Call it intuition if one would. It can be learned and earned only from experience suspecting electronics and its omnipresent input streams to the user -as its own outputs.

Too many instruments and too much info can be and are perplexing when they have to be grasped and assimilated quickly, and action taken to avoid close quarter situations in heavy traffic and accidents at the nick of time in extremis also.

ECDIS like all others is only an electronic aid and its display should not impart a false sense of confidence or information. Knowing to use it and using it effectively are two issues navigators are facing. Fast track education with little practical training makes it all the more questionable. Simulator training too does not convert one from a trained, certified, competent one to a confident one. The real learning takes place when it is applied in practice and so the onus is on the Master and bridge team to tune in greenhorns with them before passing the baton with faith and trust.

The oft quoted sea-air comparison is far from the truth. Sea navigation is much different from air where the pilot has a free right of way and guidance from ATCs. After thorough pre-flight check, it is his to get on. He has little time really to worry and recheck; abort is an option though. What he does is to take off on clear runways, cruise, circle for turn and land safely with emergency teams on standby. He navigates in air corridors and hasn’t got to take evasive measures.

The elements of wind (also tides), slow speed and traffic have much more impact on ships manoeuvring in congested areas with the hazards posed by multiple type crossing vessels. Technology permitting, ultimate control of all vessels through VTS may be an option, legal issues notwithstanding. Even then the human element at VTS may not suffice to handle all of them simultaneously with varying ships in differing situations. Hence marine navigational risks would remain an enigma to be tackled.

Automating record keeping has not received attention for the benefits that be accrued. Do we need Logs for Radar, Echo Sounder, VHF, GPS, GMDS…now that VDRs are around? Performance tests, perhaps. Can’t they all be E-logged including markings on Course recorder (itself non-mandatory) sheet to reduce documentary workload? Can’t `control testing’ be recorded automatically –in whichever done- instead of entries and check lists to prove so? Documents as evidences to support or negate claims are unavoidable, but overdoing it with the fear lest they be turned down, must be curtailed. Ergonomics, false(?) alarms and the like aside, human error for scapegoating mariners for errors in navigation and management remains the final proximate cause so that claim can be raised.

Lack of adequate rest hours and under-manning remain as the unaddressed questions whilst IMO is into STCW review. This after direct and anecdotal evidences from accidents, near-misses, audits etc as also through ISM Reviews when they are professionally reported. Rest hours is an issue conveniently swept under though all along the chain are well aware. Manning on the other hand is Flag State mandated –based on what working hours all can wonder- invariably well complied in numbers with often a hand or two extra, but inevitably still short for running well-rested safe ships. Unless these root issues are set right there is no point improving anything else.

Tired navigators are prone to make errors with any equipment. Efficiencies, productivities and safety enhanced by electronics are compromised by human elements and unless they are corrected, investments in them to reduce manning will remain an aberration.

(Originally published in Marex Bulletin and reproduced with permission)

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