Captain Antony Tibbott has spent his life on container ships and reefers. First as a master and now as a pilot, he has enjoyed watching a new generation of officers come into the industry. Times have changed since he was a young officer taking bearings and plotting a vessel’s position on paper charts. Back then, he was taught to always use all means available to fix a vessel’s position.
Today Tibbott navigates the English Channel and North Sea, anchoring vessels off European ports when required. He works on tankers, VLCCs, pure car carriers and U.S. Military Sealift Command vessels as well as container ships, and he was one of the first deep sea pilots to do a generic ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display & Information System) course, although to do so is now becoming regulation for pilots in the UK.
Pros & Cons
Far from being against ECDIS, he has embraced it, but there are limitations. Like other experienced masters, Tibbott does not have the same unfailing confidence in the system that younger officers do. Many of the masters he knows are also uncomfortable about not having paper charts on board. There were serious glitches in some early ECDIS systems, such as not displaying stranded wrecks, and although these have been addressed many anomalies still remain.
“Dispensing with paper charts is the cheaper option in the long run, I suppose,” he explains, “but I feel at this stage of the ECDIS rollout it isn’t the best way to do it. Shipowners might argue that it is the requirement and they are not going to spend more money on paper charts, but I think a lot of officers would feel that having a paper chart system in the background would be advantageous. I’m getting this feedback all the time.”
Tibbott’s most recent assignment found him on a 350m container vessel without paper charts. He asked a young officer on board if he could fix the vessel’s position without the GPS functionality of the ECDIS system. The officer eventually worked it out, but it took some time navigating five-deep through the menu system. For the young officer involved, it was a potentially valuable lesson.
“Young officers have much more faith in electronics than older ones,” he cautions. “We’ve all read the manuals that say in the event of a power failure backup sources will kick in, but I have been in a situation on a bridge where we have lost all the electronics. When we did get power back there were still problems.”
With only ECDIS available the ability to handle a GPS malfunction should be part of the safety management system on the ship, says Tibbott. “The master should have standing orders to the effect that the officer should practice fixing the vessel’s position on the screen by manual means using bearings at least once a watch,” he adds.
Looking Out the Window
Tibbott sailed the world as master between 1991 and 2009. At times he had as many as five cadets on board. “I used to say to them that electronic charts are not always right, and they would look at me as if I came from Mars.” He would ask them to count all the visual display units on the bridge and would not accept their answer until he had pointedly shown them the windows. “These are visual display units also,” he chided.
Although marking a bearing on a chart is time spent not looking out the windows on the bridge, at least it does involve going outside to take the bearing. Young officers, no longer needing to do this, however, are not taking the extra time to focus on the windows as their confidence in ECDIS is so strong. With some officers, the time saved by ECDIS will just enable them to do more paperwork, not use the windows to improve their situational awareness.
There is a growing tendency for seafarer competence to be measured by administrative and electronic expertise, but this can mask poor performance when basic seamanship is required, says Tibbott. Routine situations can turn into emergencies very rapidly, and the current design of some ECDIS systems does not help. It is possible that the alarm that sounds when an ECDIS system has reverted to dead reckoning mode is easily missed, he says, and visually may only involve a small alert on the corner of the screen. This is inadequate.
“The rollout of ECDIS needs a bit more input from experienced seamen,” he concludes. –