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Last week saw the second “ECDIS Revolution” conference arrive in London presenting another opportunity to chew over the issues surrounding the adoption of digital navigation, a process that begins in earnest in July next year when the first deadline rolls around.

The trouble – as many articles here and elsewhere have pointed out – is that ECDIS is many things to many people. It is also some things to some people and different things to others.

One of the recurring themes of the conference struck a philosophical note: when was an ECDIS not an ECDIS? When the gyro input failed? When GPS went offline? When you plugged in a flash drive? The answer it seems is “it depends”, though at least the event had a degree of levity to sustain it over the two days.

Part of the problem is that adopting ECDIS is not like upgrading your satcomms. It involves officers, superintendents, flag states, port states, class societies, equipment suppliers, chart agents, hydrographic offices. It requires rewriting of operational and office procedures, establishment of set standards and interpretations and yes, perhaps even a philosophical mindset.

The other problem is that it is to some extent taking away an aid to navigation that mariners have relied on for hundreds of years (the paper chart) and replacing it with a new form and function for primary navigation.ECDIS consultant Paul Hailwood put it best when he said that with paper charts what you see is what you get, no more, no less, right or wrong. With ECDIS, the role of the hydrographic office, the software supplier and the equipment manufacturer were directly involved in the mariner’s navigation experience. What you see with electronic charts is not what you get – it can be far more, and sometimes less.

The system is dynamic, it gives you options, it demands engagement in a completely different way than checking a paper chart and marking off positions based on where you were rather than where you are.

Read the accident reports of ECDIS-assisted groundings and a theme immediately becomes clear: where officers are inadequately trained and the equipment is incorrectly set up then things go wrong. In fact, there are comparatively few instances of ECDIS-assisted groundings, but those there are tend to seized on by those who think that every technological step forward is actually a step back.

Let’s be clear about this – ECDIS is not going to be another GMDSS. Or at least it should not have been. The decisions taken on mandation and the subsequent timeline on introduction have given the industry plenty of time to prepare and understand the implications; except of course that the shipping industry tends towards doing the minimum required until absolutely necessary and then scrambling to comply.

That won’t wash with ECDIS. Dave Elliot of ship owner Arklow told the conference its implementation of ECDIS assumed a two year lead-time (on a small short-sea and European trading fleet) but in the event three years was more like it.

Karen Kruse of Nordic Tankers said that equipping the company’s fleet of chemical tankers had required a far bigger commitment than expected, and the company had quickly realised that the vagaries of the regulations meant that the company would have to spend a lot of time understanding what the performance standard meant to its flag state and how it would equip its crews to deal with the day to day operational realities.

In the case of Princess Cruises’ Nick Nash, the answer – speaking he stressed in a personal capacity – was to develop one’s own bridge team management, with more importance placed on role than rank and to have clear guidelines on how to work together. Of course, Captain Nash has the luxury of bodies on the bridge, but his employer also has the liabilities of 1,000-plus guests, so that’s probably no bad thing. 
As Mark Broster of ECDIS Ltd. pointed out, training and preparing has always been about the money that shipping companies are prepared to spend and beyond the IMO model course requirements, the differences in training, whether classroom and shipboard, distance and computer-based made a huge difference to competence and preparedness to navigate on ECDIS.

Here lies one of the most worrying statistics about ECDIS – that no-one – at least none of the experts at the conference – could agree on the scale of the ECDIS training challenge. Do you, as one did, assume there are four officers per ship that need training and, having added a manning factor of say 1.5, multiply that by 40,000 for the number of SOLAS ships, or do you assume 6 officers per ship (3 on, 3 off) and multiply that by 50,000 ships?

Either way, there will be a squeeze on training places at reputable colleges – and to judge by some of the horror stories there are plenty of poor ones out there – and the volume of officers in need of training simply adds to the argument that this is a process that should be started sooner than later.

Even the equipment manufacturers – who get plenty of flak for the differing ways in which their systems display menu and function information from the ENC database – pointed out that this was a task that called for top-down collaboration. There were even suggestions that some of the systems on the market had a questionable case for type approval, and that some shipyards would only outfit their ships from a preferred list, limiting customer choice.

And why is the ECDIS screen so small? Well yes, it’s smaller than a nautical chart but it’s very high resolution. It also contains more data and more options for navigation than a paper chart. But why, ask the doubters, can’t we have a 40” TV screen? The answer is that you can, but try it and the resolution makes it unusable at close quarters, meaning the navigator would have to stand at the back of the bridge to read it – and presumably have someone else operate the machine. Buy a very high resolution large scale monitor and you are adding USD 10,000 per ship to your outfit costs.

It’s typical of the misinformation and mystery that surrounds the subject, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Read Admiralty’s 10 Steps to the ECDIS Mandate or one of the many educational books available and if you haven’t already done so, make a start on the journey. And when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Source: Neville Smith via BIMCO News