Navigators these days find themselves in a curious sort of transitional period between the age of paper charts, which extends backwards in time to the dawn of cartography in medieval times, to the screen-based products of today. Virtually all but the youngest qualified mariners will have learned their chartwork at nautical college and indeed, begun their careers, using traditional paper-based navigation.

Some will now be serving in an “all-electronic” situation, their ships operating ECDIS systems exclusively, and will have been trained in both its generic use and the specific equipment employed on their particular ship. For them, the use of paper charts will be receding into the past, like the sextant and celestial navigation practices – something learned at college, but never practised. Others will still serve aboard ships which exclusively use paper charts, their challenge being the traditional one of ensuring that their folios are up to date when an inspector calls.

Others are in a “half-way house”, with paper charts used in combination with the screen-based products which of course are soon to become mandatory. There may be a reluctance to completely trust the unfamiliar; and while junior officers may be delighted with the new, the tried and trusted paper may remain the requirement of the senior officer.

It is also a fact that there are large numbers of unlicensed products being used aboard ships, something that both the hydrographic authorities and administrations have recently warned about. The UK Hydrographic Office has issued warnings about “pirate” products being found aboard ships in both paper and electronic forms, while more recently, the Australian Maritime Safety Agency has given notice of ships being detained after inaccurate charts had been discovered by Australian port state inspectors. Some of these “products” were charts which appeared to have been scanned and printed off, but which were being used for navigation purposes.

There have been a number of groundings where ships have been found to have been navigated, not by the paper charts which were still “officially” used aboard, but by some illegal and unlicensed charts loaded onto a laptop being used on the bridge. Pilots have also reported ships which have clearly been using unlicensed or out of date and inaccurate systems loaded on ship systems.

It is probably true to suggest that the impact of a mandatory use of ECDIS and the transfer from paper to electronics has been a process, the importance of which may have been underestimated. For those who have been trained with and become accustomed to paper navigation, it has been a very big change indeed, and one that has required a considerable level of retraining. The issue of trust of new systems and procedures is also one that has been an almost “cultural” change and for some individuals exceedingly difficult. The process has not exactly been assisted by the fact that there has been little effort to standardise the systems being introduced by the different manufacturers. Moving navigation from the paper chart to the screen has been even more of a change for a traditionally trained navigator than getting to grips with the satellites and GPS, some years ago. It has been altogether a bigger deal than many had anticipated.

Author: The Watchkeeper                  Source: BIMCO