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The role of the watchkeeper in the days of E-navigation

The role of the watchkeeper in the days of E-navigation
Navigators of a certain age, who sailed with decent companies under respectable flags, were brought up with the golden rule that “keeping a good look-out” was the absolute priority for the hours they were on the bridge. There was nothing more important, because the sea always had the capacity to surprise the person whose brain had gone into neutral.

But that was in an age when the watchkeeping officer was rather more directly involved and probably had fewer distractions.

While casualties in general are happily in decline, P&I Club claims statistics largely agree that those due to navigational causes remain stubbornly constant, a source of frustration to those who look at the extraordinary range of equipment available to the modern watchkeeper and wonder why this fails to make any difference. But perhaps this should not be such a mystery, if we analyse the circumstances of these accidents, many of which are kindly outlined in the reports of accident investigators.

There are those which can be attributed to simple human failings, many of which involve an exhausted officer, aboard a ship where he is alone on the bridge, simply falling asleep in the comfortable chair now routinely provided. Ingenious equipment manufacturers have tried installing alarms which have to be regularly activated, even movement sensors which would detect an incapacitated watchkeeper, but ships still grind to a halt on rocks and shoals, after a sleeping officer has failed to alter course.

To look at the latest bridge designs is to anticipate further disasters, with even more comfortable chairs and even more electronic equipment grouped around the wretched OOW, so that he becomes even less mobile and more likely to nod off at the crucial moment. With an all-enclosed bridge, to keep the electronics snug and dry, the watchkeeper cannot get out in the fresh air, while walking about the wheelhouse distances him from the instruments he is supposed to be vigilantly overseeing, while risking injury, bumping into things in the darkness.

And the role of the bridge watchkeeper in the age of e-Navigation means that this trained navigator is supposed to sit there like a lemon, watching the electronics doing all the work, only called upon to intervene if the computer has done something silly. Of course he or she is supposed to be checking the ship’s position by alternative means to that provided by GPS, just in case the hackers have been at work. But if the blooming GPS is always right, where is the challenge? Where is the incentive to stay alert? Watchkeepers are human beings - should we be surprised that the mind wanders and that boredom, the precursor to somnolence, sets in?

It is also worth noting that a worrying number of navigational accidents involve the failure to keep a visual lookout. Once again, why should we be surprised, if the attention of the OOW is directed to the instruments inside the wheelhouse, carefully grouped around the chair by advanced ergonomics, rather than offering any encouragement to look outside at a distant horizon, or something rather nearer? We have a generation trained, practically from infancy, to peer at screens in front of their noses.

You have to wonder if the people who design all this extraordinarily clever equipment have ever kept a navigational watch. Have they ever considered what they are doing is actually benefiting anyone, when they “de-skill” a navigator, replacing this once –engaged person with a disengaged officer in that comfortable seat? But maybe they know precisely what they are doing – making it possible for maritime employers to hire less skilled seafarers, who are only navigators by default – and probably a good deal cheaper. The strandings and collisions can be considered just part of the price of this sort of progress.