September 25, 2014

The ECDIS abyss

Much maritime legislation is ill thought out, poorly planned and haphazardly implemented, and ends up an anaemic shadow of its projected self. The mandatory carriage of ECDIS- which comes into force, on tankers, less than ten months from now- is going the same languorous way. 

A combination of poor legislation, foot dragging by ship owners, poor understanding and commitment by navigators and their true to form total reliance on far from perfect electronic systems- that have been abysmally introduced by people who have little idea of bridge watchkeeping in congested waters today- has already resulted in quite a few accidents that are attributed to the ECDIS and its use. By the looks of things, we will have many more before we are done with this game.

Not to speak of the fact that the industry has not even begun to factor in the recurring costs of upkeep, even periodic renewal, of the ECDIS system itself. Captain Charis Kanellopoulos- Superintendent of Mare Maritime, which has been running ECDIS on its ships for six years, writes, “We would all consider a five year old cell phone or computer as outdated! Why does the same principle not apply to such a critical piece of equipment like ECDIS?”  He thinks that there is a very real possibility that ECDIS equipment will need to be renewed every 5 years, and that “a company might have to spend more than 50 percent of the total equipment installation cost in repairs” within that time. 

This, when shipowners are shying away from installing the equipment in the first place! The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) said recently that the majority of ships in the global tanker fleet have yet to adopt ECDIS, which will become mandatory for them on the first of July next year. Over 8,500 tankers will be required to comply by then, but the UKHO says that as much as 58% of these ships ‘do not yet use an ENC service’- a euphemism used, I guess, for ‘no ECDIS installed.’ This means that, the next ten months will see about 5000 ships hastily buying and plugging in ECDIS systems and subjecting their navigators to the (often substandard) generic and type specific training required, and then unleashing these folk on the world’s waterways and oceans. The term ‘computer game’ comes to mind, except that you don’t get three lives at sea.  

Unsurprisingly, then, the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has attributed yet another incident, that of the chemical tanker Ovit grounding in the Dover Strait, to the poor use of ECDIS. This is the third such grounding connected with ECDIS, MAIB has said. 

The vessel ran aground on the Varne Bank because the navigating officer was following the ECDIS route which passed directly over Varne (!) and which had been “planned by an inexperienced and unsupervised junior officer and was not checked by the Master before departure or by the officer of the watch at the start of his watch”. (This officer’s situational awareness was so poor, by the way, that it took him 19 minutes to realise that the ship was aground.)

So you have at least two officers and a Master that were incompetent, in this case. But what about shore VTIS systems? Dover Coastguard, that has a system and procedure for warning ships approaching the Varne Bank, could not act “as the coastguard watch officer was unqualified, unsupervised and distracted,” MAIB says. Clearly, it is not just the systems and people aboard ships that are not doing what they are supposed to do. 

Other MAIB findings in the Ovit case show that the ship’s position was monitored solely against the intended track shown on the ECDIS; that Varne’s navigational marks “were seen by not acted upon”; that the scale of the ECDIS chart was “inappropriate”; that the ECDIS audible alarm on the ship did not work, and that the Master and deck officers were “unable to use the system effectively.”

MAIB Chief Inspector Steve Clinch recommends improvements to existing systems. “Unfortunately, the current generation of ECDIS systems, though certified as complying with regulatory requirements, can be operated at a very low level of functionality and with key safety features disabled or circumvented,” he has said.

All of which hardly inspires confidence in the ECDIS circus, does it? 

I think there is a good case for postponing the 2015 ECDIS deadline for tankers. We are obviously unprepared. Everybody- navigators, Captains, manufacturers, regulators and managers- is immersed in issues of cost, training, regulations and installation logistics connected with ECDIS. The absolute and dangerous reliance on electronic systems is not something new, and is only increasing. Owners want to keep ECDIS costs down, manufacturers want to sell approved equipment and ENC services and navigators want to just sit through training that is poorly conceived and abysmally (and often corruptly) implemented.

In this contest, nobody has apparently realised that the ECDIS is a safety-critical piece of equipment. Nobody has realised, apparently, that this is not a game.


1 comment:

Lt. Naveen said...

In you're profile you describe yourself as an old sea captain trying to learn new things.... How's the ECDIS annoying you anyway... I'm sure during your second mates years you'd have wished such things in place... Mere copying of passage plans from other vessels and implementing the same on the paper chat is far more worse than navigating with an ECDIS....