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objective and, due to their relative independ- ence, less open to forms of abuse.” Of course, the biggest obstacles to onboard

training today are pecuniary: there simply aren’t enough berths, and companies are loath to provide more because they are regarded an additional expense with no guaranteed return on investment. The concept of loyalty between employer and employee – in either direction – vanished into the ether a long time ago.

Tick-box culture 30

“An officer might be driving a cruise ship for three months, then be transferred to another vessel with one-day handover. Such cases are no longer the exception. This has resulted in some training centres operating as certificate factories to serve officers switching vessels, in case an inspector does a spot check. “But there’s a growing realisation that a piece of paper doesn’t necessarily imply a thorough understanding of how an ECDIS works,” explains Broster. ECDIS Ltd has seen an increasing stream of

inspectors passing through its doors recently. “What we’re teaching them is practical assessment skills. That’s a crucial difference. They tell me that officers have certificates coming out of their ears, but many are unable to perform relatively basic tasks. These practical assessments have to be objective, but avoid the weaknesses of a tick-box exercise.” There are signs that the current certificate-

based system is creaking under the pressure. Broster recalls the grounding of the Ovit in the English Channel in 2013: “Though overshad- owed by the human tragedy of the Costa Concordia the year before, Ovit exposed almost everything that’s wrong with the situation today,” says Broster. “It was a classic example of failure in the three principles of navigation: planning, checking, and cross-checking upon execution. Yet, worryingly, the crew all had valid certificates. Moreover, just nine days prior, there was an independent inspection of the vessel. Everything was carried out according to the procedures set down in the company’s safety management system. “The incident occurred in spite of this

flawless paperwork. It was only by a stroke of luck the vessel didn’t completely block off the Channel. It was a wake-up call for us, but because disaster was narrowly averted, maybe it wasn’t loud enough for everyone to hear.” ‘Inexperience’ was a keyword in the conclusions of the official investigation report

More fleets use ECDIS as the primary means of navigation.

So sending crew to learn about paper corrections and sextants isn’t going to cut it

anymore. It’s reminiscent of the transition from sail to steam

issued by the UK’s MAIB. But is this really any surprise when complex technologies, such as ECDIS, are being introduced at the same time as commercial pressures are driving down the quality and number of the people shipping companies employ? It’s no wonder operators are almost salivating over the concept of autonomous ships, allowing them to do away with crew (and their salaries) altogether. The human element is cited as a factor in around 90% of groundings. Proponents of unmanned ships can take the line that such robotic vessels would only ground around 10% of the time.

Human factor

Broster readily admits human operators are fallible: they lose concentration, get tired and require sleep, but he remains ambivalent on whether or not unmanned ships will come about. He believes more evidence is needed to prove the safety case: “Simulators would be a great tool for this. The proposed unmanned craft could sail in simulated environments with the computer throwing in random events, a mixture of unexpected navigational obstacles, such as stray yachts or leisure fishers, and onboard mechanical failures. The trick is to run it for millions of hours and see how it copes – the same approach Google took with their driverless cars project.” Broster also questions whether or not true autonomous operation is really achievable… “If the ship is being monitored or driven by

an ex-seafarer in some sort of control centre, then the responsibility has been shifted, not

actually eliminated. The extra distance between the operator and his vessel could create new problems or risks,” he says. In some respects the industry is already

going down this road. Today most passage plans are no longer produced by deck officers. Instead, they are produced by shore-side staff, who optimise tracks down to the centimetre in order to save on fuel. Because weather routing and optimisation algorithms produce broadly similar results, what we see is that vessels operated by different shipping companies are following the same route. You only need to watch a public-domain AIS vessel tracker to see this convoy effect in action, says Broster. “ECDIS is to blame for this. It was hard work and logistically onerous copying and tweaking paper charts to this degree. With ECDIS, on the other hand, routes can be manipulated to your heart’s content on a computer screen, and then when you’re happy, they can be quickly sent as an email attachment, or shared online.” In fact, it’s not unheard of for passage

plans to be produced as much three months in advance. This shouldn’t pose any problems as long as it’s properly checked ahead of the passage being executed. Such procedures and safeguards are essential, Broster stresses, to minimise the likelihood of a recurrence of incidents similar to the Ovit. Overall, Broster believes that the industry is

on track with ECDIS. However, he goes on to quote the cyberpunk author William Gibson: The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed. Ships are using ECDIS more and more as their primary means of naviga- tion. Although some officers are still getting to grips with the technology, a growing number possess an intimate working knowledge. Today, this unevenness in distribution is

most evident shore-side, particularly at colleges and organisations charged with inspecting vessels. Fortunately, both are tackling the issues facing them.

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