Home' Baird Maritime : October 2011 Contents Breakers ahead!
Thoughts from the distinguished maritime commentator Michael Grey MBE.
There are still plenty of places on Earth where the geography
remains a little uncertain, and sea areas where the work of
hydrographers is still lacking.
In the 1950s and 1960s navigators around New Zealand were
still using charts where the depth of the sea had been ascertained
by Lieutenant Cook and the officers and crew of HMS 'Endeavour'.
It was only in the 1960s, when the coast had been resurveyed
using a ship borrowed from the Royal Australian Navy, that the old
charts were superseded.
Modern hydrographers may have very advanced tools compared
with old Cook's leadline, but they must also cope with ever
increasing demands from people who insist on building ever
deeper-draught vessels and taking big ships into areas where no
navigators went before. It is one thing to have surveyed a channel
or sea route to the depth of the deepest draught ship in service, but
if the next generation of tonnage exceeds that draught by
one-third, all that work must be done again. With 400,000DWT
ore carriers now entering service, replacing ships half their size,
there needs to be great certainty that these monsters will have
adequate water under their keels.
Big ships are now penetrating very high latitudes, whether it is
cruise vessels taking thrill-seeking passengers into Antarctic waters,
or tankers and ore carriers moving into the Russian or Canadian
Arctic as new mines and oilfields are developed. The pressure is on
hydrographers to survey extensive sea areas where nobody, even
forty years ago, would have thought there could be any
commercial value in such expeditions.
There have already been many accidents in the Antarctic Ocean,
with even sophisticated naval units coming to grief on rock
pinnacles that nobody had previously found. There are better and
certainly cheaper ways of discovering underwater obstructions!
Of course, it is one thing to have the charts available, with
reliable soundings, but it is important to ensure that they are up to
date and used properly. With rather too many people prescribing
the courses that ships must take, there is perhaps an excuse to
assume that somebody ashore knows what they are doing, and
cede responsibility for the ship.
It was not that long ago that the navigators of a Capesize en
route from Brazil to China discovered that the charterers had
helpfully routed them right over the top of a shoal in the Indian
Ocean. Because they were competent seamen, they could make
the necessary adjustments, and the master felt justified in firing off
a "we fail to understand" letter to the routers.
However, what if the crew were not quite as competent, or
those aboard were traditionally trained navigators struggling to
make sense of the electronic chart display system with which their
vessel has been equipped? ECDIS is an integral part of the
"e-navigation" regime with which the shipping industry is coming
to terms, and while it has many obvious advantages, the
differences between it and traditional "paper-based" navigation are
palpable and clearly require specialist training.
Bugs in the machines
There have already been accidents where watchkeepers and
navigators have been caught out by their inability to work "state
of the art" navigation equipment competently. Sometimes it has
been the absence of training, from shipping industry convinced
that this new equipment was something that the navigator could
take in his stride, with five minutes instruction and a hasty run
through an instruction manual left behind by the installing
The jury is still out on the extent of the training required, with
flag states and authorities in earnest debate with owners about its
duration, costs, and the usual efforts of the owners to minimise
them. But training there must be!
One difficulty has come from the necessity, when transferring
information from a paper chart into electronic form, to ensure
that vital data is not "edited" out for reasons of clarity, or to
avoid cluttering the screen with unnecessary information. It is a
sensible enough aim, given that the electronic displays replacing
large paper charts are no bigger than the average desktop
However, there have been cases where the editing process
has eliminated shaded or hatched areas indicating
shallow water, and, more alarmingly, rocks or even islands. A
recent German investigation into the grounding of a large
heavy-lift ship in the Western Pacific found that the transfer of
the course from paper to a GPS and electronic chart effectively
eliminated a one-mile clearance area, setting the ship right
into the atoll. The available scale was such that the officers
using the system apparently could not see the dangers ahead.
Another accident near the South Atlantic island of Tristan de
Cunha, which saw a ship lost and caused heavy pollution, is still
Electronic navigation would appear to be a great advance, but
if hazards are not on the chart to be seen, it places the navigator
in a position not much better than that of Cook, all those
October 2011 BAIRD MARITIME
Links Archive September 2011 November 2011 Navigation Previous Page Next Page