A Principled View of Navigation

Michael Grey – Lloyds List 27 0ctober 2008 

MORE than half a century ago, I had been accepted as an apprentice with a celebrated British shipping company. My career had been decided. The indentures, with their archaic language about “not frequenting taverns and alehouses, except upon the said Master’s business”, had been duly signed, sealed and witnessed.
I was awaiting the appointment to my first ship, which I understood would be in about six weeks. I thought it would be prudent to acquaint myself with something of my chosen profession, as my textbooks were still to be ordered. I had however, a very old copy of The Admiralty Manual of Navigation, obtained from goodness knows where, and I diligently applied myself to this, starting at the beginning.
It was all about the principles of navigation, and it was like a fascinating new language, full of new terms and concepts, that were hugely enlightening, although it did give a Grey Funnel Line view of the navigational world which was not entirely applicable (as I was to discover) to merchant ships.
But I was grateful for this few weeks of introduction to this wonderful navigational world, which made the business of actually sailing on my first ‘real’ ship rather less bewildering.
Navigation is less of a mystery these days, what with friendly satellites hovering in space. It is also a much more ‘universal’ activity, with mobile telephones providing Google Earth maps and TomToms adhering to car dashboards. The average yachtsman can leap aboard his or her boat and determine its position on the surface of the earth to a heartwarming degree of accuracy, without actually doing very much, other than pressing a few buttons.
There are orienteers and hikers on Dartmoor who, by virtue of their hand-held Garmin satnavs, might be thought of as followers in the footsteps of Captain Cook. Navigation, once the mysterious craft of the professional navigator, has been demystified and made accessible to the masses.
So in the face of this popularising and simplifying of a craft once seen as the business of professional specialists, is there much need for an understanding of the principles of navigation? If somebody with the numerical skills necessary to work a cash register or an adding machine can accurately determine a ship’s position, is navigation such a big deal these days?
To answer this question, it is probably useful to determine the number of casualties which, despite all this electronic assistance, has obstinately refused to diminish and mostly are attributed to poor navigational practices. For my part, I was greatly impressed by a conversation with the commander of a Trinity House lighthouse tender, who suggested that despite all the manifold aids to navigation, which are available on the average merchant ship bridge, navigators kept running over buoys, denting beacons and generally causing maritime mayhem in the sealanes, requiring much more than changed lightbulbs to put right.
And it was caused, said this acute observer of the maritime scene and man’s abusive treatment of machinery , by the basic reluctance of these electronically astute experts to look through the wheelhouse windows with their Mk.I eyballs.
Is it still necessary to understand the principles of navigation, when the end product can be portrayed instantaneously on a screen, electronic chart or readout? Well, I don’t mean to be a spoilsport about all this populist navigational accessibility, but I think that you really do need to know what you are doing.
This question occurred to me as I wrenched open the wrapping paper parcelling up the 10th edition of The Admiralty Manual of Navigation Vol.1, which, as it did in the past, all those years ago, covered these selfsame principles of navigation. This book has been published by The Nautical Institute and authored by the Royal Navy, being released to the navigational community, exactly one century after the first of these useful volumes hit the street, about the same time as the first Dreadnoughts were terrifying the other great powers.
It cannot have been easy to produce such a volume and the author Alan Peacock is greatly to be commended. You might say that principles are principles and not to be trifled with. But we are operating ships with very different navigational outfits aboard them, ranging from the basic to the highly sophisticated integrated systems. Can the navigational principles remain valid throughout this spectrum of complexity? Commander Peacock, who already has produced the Admiralty Manual on astro navigation, has produced a volume that is true to navigational principles, and will not, most importantly, be rendered out of date by technical innovation in a year or two. So, while the book covers satellites and the electronic chart, it provides the reader with a solid background in navigational techniques along with the essential understanding that goes with this.
The old Admiralty Manuals were overtly ‘naval’, with no real attempt to provide information for the merchant mariner or those studying navigation for its own joys. This volume is much less military, and these principles can be transferred to the chartrooms and bridges of merchant ships without tremendous intellectual efforts. We all need to know the principles that govern safe navigation, which surely predates the arrival of sophisticated navigational equipment. Understand these principles and so much becomes infinitely clearer.
There is a huge amount in this book, which is a manual in every sense of the word. Ranging from positions and directions on the earth’s surface, to hydrographic surveying, through chartwork, sailings, position fixing and coastal navigation, the volume provides much practical instruction for both the navigational specialist and the generalist who need to know how to keep a navigational watch.
It is a book that inculcates the best procedures and practices, the importance of planning if one is not to be surprised by the untoward, along with the essential tenet that more than one position finding method needs constantly to be employed.
There is much useful advice on practical ship handling in coastal waters and narrow channels, safe anchoring and blind pilotage techniques. It has an excellent section on tides and tidal streams. It is a book that provides solutions to operational problems and in doing so encourages real professionalism.
If anyone believes that navigational principles are some sort of optional extra in the new dispensation, they need to study the regular publications of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. So many of these reports into accidents point to navigational complacency as a major contributory factor. We make assumptions about what we think we are seeing on our instruments. We take the easiest option, because it is easier. Then things go wrong and there is no available escape plan. Contingencies were not considered, because the emergencies were not thought sufficiently probable.
The need for what might be thought of as ‘layered’ defences against bad navigational consequences may not occur aboard the lean manned merchantmen, even though it is something that “ought” to be provided. But so often accidents occur when the participants are clearly ‘winging it’, in an unplanned fashion in a waterway, where the problems come crowding in.
Failure to operate an adequate bridge management system is a further reason for casualties which seems to appear at regular intervals. This also seems to demonstrate an ignorance of navigational principles. The warship, with a properly manned bridge, properly planned navigational strategies and competent communications seems light years ahead of what often happens aboard lean-manned merchantmen. But why should it be? Should not navigational safety be universal?
Much of what happens is so predictable, so avoidable. You have masters and pilots who cannot, or won’t communicate with each other. You have the emergence of what amounts to dual control, with the pilot thinking he is in charge, with the master quite simply undermining the expert, or refusing to accept his advice. There are helmsmen who cannot steer, or, even if they can, are unable to understand the helm orders because they speak no known language. And there are regrettably schooner rigged operations where masters are quite literally conning their ships in crowded waters on their own, with every other available hand committed elsewhere.
There are pilots who feel that giving away any details of their plan is akin to conspiracy, masters who cheerfully acknowledge the helm and engine orders of the pilot but apply their own interpretations, with their hands on the controls. Teamwork it ain’t. And if you think that I might be exaggerating, talk to the Suez Canal Authority, where the inability of seafarers to steer has become a major point of contention.
There is much to be said for naval ways of doing things, if there is a plethora of manpower, and carefully planned procedures. The naval way in which the ship is handled by the navigator, with the captain in a position of complete oversight has much to commend it, but may be difficult to transfer to a commercial shipping situation, where the master finds himself with the con, and much else besides.
The manual offers a whole range of practical hints about shiphandling, but I guess does make certain assumptions about the adequacy of the manning arrangements and the competence of those doing the navigating. But there again, if you do not have the manpower to practice the principles, perhaps there is something else that is seriously wrong.

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