The professionalism and competence of watchkeepersAs someone whose deep sea career spanned the 1960s and into the early 1970s before a move into ferries, bridges on the cargo liners I sailed on were relatively spartan and unsophisticated affairs in comparison to those of today.
We did have a fairly rudimentary radar, gyro compass and autopilot, but in terms of fixing the ship’s position on our long sea voyages when out of sight of land the sextant reigned supreme. Dawn, noon and dusk sights were – weather conditions permitting – very much a vital part of our daily routine. When in sight or range of land we took visual or radar bearings frequently to fix our position.
From my point of view, the technology now available to aid the navigator of today is impressive and astonishing, but sadly casualties and near misses from navigational errors are still happening and too often human factor is cited as a cause. The Nautical Institute, in alliance with the industry, is rightly concerned and with the support of the International Foundation for Aids to Navigation is seeking to place its free publication The Navigator onboard every SOLAS vessel in an effort to encourage the professionalism of watchkeepers (see Sea Breezes October 2014).
Assuming adequate training of watchkeepers keeps pace with the evolution of technology (and also deals with its limitations), the key question is whether this array of aids to the navigator somehow, in some watchkeepers, breeds a dangerous over-confidence or total reliance on the systems – to the exclusion of some of the old basics such as keeping a good look-out and executing early & bold alterations to course when risk of collision exists in accordance with the Regulations to Avoid Collision at Sea etc.
However impressive cutting-edge technology might be, it is not flawless: it cannot, for example, take into account a watchkeeper who may be overly fatigued or indeed just plain careless or inadequately trained. I am not for one moment suggesting we develop Luddite tendencies to advances in technology which can aid navigation, but perhaps in all of this a continuing knowledge of and use of some of the old basics of bridge watchkeeping can still sit happily alongside the technology of today.HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR