October 21, 2010

Basic Instinct

Any navigator worth more than a pinch of salt should know that GPS uses the WGS84 Datum, which often requires GPS positions to be corrected before they can be plotted on charts in use. All paper charts so effected will have printed, in the General Notes, something like “Positions obtained from satellite navigation systems are referred to the WGS datum; such positions should be movedx.09 minutes SOUTHWARD and 0.06 minutes WESTWARD to agree with this chart”. Pretty simple, right?

Then why is it that in my experience, few watchkeepers actually make this correction? Some assume it is small, and some simply do not know that it exists. I remember a Second Mate being flummoxed, a few miles off Kaohsiung breakwater in Taiwan a few years ago, at the almost half mile difference between his GPS position and my radar fix. He was, pardon the sarcasm, completely at sea about the correction.

The London P & I Club said last week that an unnamed containership on a regular schedule ran aground because the officer on watch “commenced a significant alteration of course about half a mile before it was due.” The reason he did so was that he was “wholly unaware” that a significant correction had to be applied before GPS positions could be plotted on the chart. The Club appears to recommend that proper passage planning would have eliminated this dangerous navigational illiteracy.

I beg to differ with the passage-planning bit. It is the responsibility of maritime schools and examination systems – not a ship Captain’s- to ensure that an officer is educated in the basics. ‘Proper passage planning’ should not have to include a course for certified officers in basics of chart reading, limitations of equipment or accurate position fixing. But then, we seem to have become terribly fond of finding complex reasons- after often uselessly elaborate risk analysis- for tardy watchkeeping: the fact is that sometimes an officer’s certificate is not worth the paper it is written on, and no amount of on-board training will change that. If one cannot put down even a GPS position accurately- something I could teach a ten year old to do in an hour or less-then one has no business being a navigational watchkeeper at sea.

Equally worrying is the fact that the industry seems to have accepted as fait accompli the notion that electronic navigational instruments (and, with ECDIS and Integrated Bridge consoles, entire navigational systems) should replace traditional navigation, and even overcome such navigational blunders as shown in the incident above. Witness reports of the main reasons for the Shen Neng 1 grounding in the Great Barrier Reef earlier this year: besides fatigue, the fact that a changed waypoint was not entered in the GPS (which meant that alarms did not sound on the GPS or the Radar when the ship was off course) is seen as material. Of course, it is, but overstressing this fact also tells me that many seem to have accepted that traditional navigation was superfluous; are we determined to navigate only if an alarm sounds somewhere? If so, it is another dangerous sign. Old fashioned navigation- visual or radar fixes, being aware of and monitoring electronic aids to navigation (not for nothing are they called navaids, you know), being aware of the limitations of equipment, parallel indexing, following the COLREGS, and simply looking out of the bridge porthole for quick situational awareness- are enough to avert many accidents. Do we even need to say this?

Overreliance on navigational aids is a long held and universally acknowledged bad practice. Why are we then promoting this? My uncharitable view, not fully formed yet, is that the industry is also using these gizmos to justify lower manning levels. I therefore wonder: are electronic systems like the ECDIS being mandated at least partly for the wrong reasons?

Stating the obvious, electronic navigational systems are not a panacea. They are excellent tools provided one understands their limitations and verifies what they are telling you periodically. They will, however, not be able- or should be expected to- cover up for inadequate education and training, poor certification or, simply, lousy watchkeeping. Before asking navigators to be aware of GPS corrections, we should be asking them to use basic watchkeeping skills.

Another grounding a few years ago saw a ship equipped with ECDIS and two GPS receivers go off course after the GPS connected to the ECDIS malfunctioned and switched to Dead Reckoning mode soon after an alteration of course. An alarm sounded when this happened, but was switched off by the OOW; no action was taken. Amazingly, the ship sailed this way for over thirty hours before running aground, often coming close enough to land for navigators on the bridge to have noticed that fact visually or on the radar. Twice in this thirty-hour period, positions were ‘checked’ by navigators with radar fixes and nothing found awry. A thirty-hour period would have seen the entire navigating team on watch at one point or another- none of them realised that the ship was sailing on DR and drifting to danger. Nobody verified position with the other GPS, which, given the bridge team’s incomprehensibly awkward proficiency with radar fixes, should have been mandatory. When, finally, islands were seen on the radar fine on the bow where they should not have been seen, the OOW thought they were bands of rain. Inevitably, the ship ran over some rocks thereafter.

By the way, North Korea is rumoured to have developed the ability to block GPS receivers, with South Korea saying that signals were intermittently jammed over many days in August this year. The possibility of countries blocking GPS signals- or feeding errors into them- have always has been a risk to navigation. With the advent of the ECDIS, however, the consequences of GPS failure have escalated. So have the chances that a downloaded virus will play sudden havoc with IBS or ECDIS systems that are run by inexperienced or incompetent officers. (I get livid when, in the event of a sudden and short blackout at sea, many officers run to the GPS to see if it is working when they should be switching over to manual steering and more concerned about the gyrocompass instead. Their actions tell me that GPS is their God; they also tell me that these officers are somewhat less than competent.)

Therefore, training, situational awareness, basic watchkeeping and position fixing skills must be strengthened and refreshed, not weakened and cast aside. If we do not do this, we will go the sextant way- we know that a large majority of present day watchkeepers are not proficient in either taking or working out sights. This is a sign of professional incompetence born out of lack of practice, besides being a pity. A ten-year-old schoolchild can read a GPS readout; navigators should be able to do more. Will we see, in the future, officers at sea who cannot fix a position, either visually or by radar, if the GPS or ECDIS malfunctions? What about a Gyro malfunction, which will obviously throw all synchronised displays out of whack? Will we see industry still looking at solving these issues using jargon and tools of risk analysis, examining root causes and auditing elaborate systems when the truth is much simpler?

The projected shortage of officers will, inevitably, translate to quicker promotions and relatively inexperienced watchkeepers at sea. ECDIS systems will soon be everywhere. Elaborate courses will be designed, mandated and undertaken across the world; many already are. Generic and equipment specific training will be given to people, some of whom display unshakeable faith in anything showing a Lat/Long readout. ISM and SMS systems will continue to be hammered into officers, many of whom will continue to have problems even understanding the language in which their manuals are written. ECDIS systems will probably be used as tools in what the experts will call, pompously and ominously, fatigue management.

Hold on to that jargon and that training for a bit, is my opinion. Address basic competency skills first, before it is too late. Make existing navigating officers prove their basic watchkeeping instincts are correct. or mandate training that ensures this.

Walk before you try to run.


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