Keeping Navigators Awake

We are not doing enough to keep the navigator sufficiently involved in the job of ship operating. The results have been accidents caused by complacency. A recent article from Lloyds List by Michael Grey.

I HAD swallowed the anchor a long time before any great mechanical mind came up with the Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System, the marine equivalent of the ‘dead man’s handle’ that facilitated the reduction of the operating crew in a railway train to a single driver.

In its most elementary form, it is an alarm that the wretched lone officer of the watch must reset at a predetermined interval to demonstrate that he or she has not dropped off in the posture-perfect chair with which most navigational bridges are now generously equipped.

It would have driven me barmy, possibly because it would have gone “ping” just as I was altering course, or taking a bearing, or I would have forgotten it completely as my mind wandered, setting off alarms all over the ship.

Of course, when even taking a seat on the hard wooden pilot chair was regarded as absolutely forbidden by night or day, its installation would have been a bit of a waste of time in our more than adequately crewed ships.

That was then and this is now, and next month sees watch alarms becoming mandatory for new cargo ships and passenger vessels. Perhaps one should not be surprised, after umpteen casualties contributed to by the incapacity of exhausted watchkeepers, although many of them had simply turned the irritating alarm off.

There are also better systems around, which employ motion alarms and which ought to detect the inactivity of a sleeping watchkeeper — or one who has fallen dead or unconscious. They are arguably less of a nuisance to the alert watchkeeper, who might have a sort of aversion to being treated like a sort of Pavlovian dog, hitting the button on demand.

There has also been more than one case of a ship being wrecked with the OOW cancelling the alarm without properly waking up from the catatonic trance in which he was conducting his lonely vigil.

It was Dr Martin Dyer-Smith, an eminent industrial psychologist and former ship’s officer, who, after conducting numerous “ship-riding” missions on behalf of an earlier Maritime and Coastguard Study into lone watchkeeping, concluded that it was boredom, almost as much as interrupted sleep patterns and fatigue, which reduced the effectiveness of the officer of the watch.

It can be extremely boring, and not just on an 18-day transpacific passage, but anywhere these days, thanks to the splendid integrated navigational systems that reduce the OOW from an active participant in navigation and actually ‘driving’ the ship to that of a monitor of the electronic systems.

Sure, you are supposed to be constantly checking the equipment, but if it seldom goes wrong, and it undertakes all the activity, like establishing the ship’s position, shaping the computerised course and calculating what to do about other ships, there cannot be a great sense of achievement at the end of a watch.

I can recall having terrible arguments with friends in the navigational equipment business about what I saw as their gradual erosion of the role of the human being in the navigation of ships.

They believed they were answering a demand, raising the standards of safety with equipment that brought to the worst navigator the capability of the best.

There were even integrated navigational consoles which, their salesmen proudly told me, would give the operators little tasks to do, to maintain their interest and provide them with a sense of involvement.

I accused the salesmen of taking all the fun and sense of accomplishment out of the art of the navigator, so that only a person with a very limited imagination would wish to do this mind-numbing job.

I can remember getting particularly angry with watch alarms. If you are going to treat sentient human beings like animals, or robots, I suggested, the next stage will be giving watchkeepers periodic electric shocks, or loudspeakers bawling insulting imprecations at them, should some device detect that their eyelashes are moving insufficiently. That correspondence became really quite heated.

I still think we are not doing enough to keep the navigator (or marine engineer, for that matter) sufficiently involved in the job of ship operating. The results, as we have seen, have been accidents caused by complacency, or the human letting the computer get on with the job, and the computer carrying out its task to the letter, even though the human being had forgotten to load the right program.

And if you are sitting there all alone in your darkened wheelhouse, watching a little light moving up an electronic chart, and noting the course alterations being accomplished perfectly, what motion is actually necessary, other than that required to reassure the motion sensors? Yawning or scratching your armpits should do the trick.

Perhaps with each successful course alteration, or anti-collision manoeuvre accomplished, you can applaud wildly, whooping like they do on one of those dreadful television game shows.

No wonder we have been having these dire warnings about the use of mobile phones or the use of social networking sites when watchkeeping. But I suppose it would introduce a bit of the necessary motion as you tapped the keys, or exercised your thumb, showing that you are in the land of the living.


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