Electronic Charts are not enough

By Paul Whyte MBE AFNI, Associate Master Mariner, LOC (London Offshore Consultants), IUMI Professional Partner -

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has made the carriage of ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) mandatory under SOLAS V (Safety of Navigation) for most large vessels, although entry into force has been staggered between 1 July 2012 and 1 July 2018. 

ECDIS is a valuable addition to any ship’s bridge, providing a range of real-time automated information, and continuously determining the vessel’s position in relation to the land, charted objects, navigation aids and any unseen hazards. But it is not a replacement for navigational skills, and there are many reasons why the bridge crew should continuously double check the information against other sources.

It is now possible to buy a jamming device (overpowers the GPS) or a spoofing device (creates a false position) relatively cheaply from the internet. There have been reports of criminals using these devices to prevent a hijacked truck from being tracked or delivery drivers using it to ‘hide’ their exact GPS position as they go off route.  The electromagnetic radiation used in such devices can disrupt a massive area which could easily include ships. As a result, it is really important that the ship’s navigational crew is not relying too heavily on the GPS input to ECDIS.

The ECDIS display is smaller than any paper chart. The small footprint screen is filled with sharp vectorised images of sometimes old hydrographic information, and so it is far too easy to become over-reliant on what you see and to assume that the technology is correct.

It is still important to look out of the window, an officer on watch can spot the loom of a light from a lighthouse much further out than the radar image overlay within ECDIS. 

It is still important to conduct voyage planning checks too. There should be route validation and a one to one scale manual check for the entire voyage, berth to berth, to ensure that every hazard has been identified.

Last but not least it is essential that all of the ECDIS users have completed the IMO approved training and familiarisation courses as it is highly likely that Port State Control will want evidence that the crew are competently using the technology. The third officer or the master could be tested, and asked questions about system settings to demonstrate their proficiency in using all the safety features.  

Passive navigation involves simply ‘monitoring’ technology but ‘active navigation’ means cross-checking with all navigation sources such as with visual marks, radar and echo sounders. It is vital that despite increasingly sophisticated technology, ships’ crews do not lose touch with the rest of the navigational information available to them.