Training navigators in the safe use of ECDIS remains a critical challenge ahead of the rolling compliance deadlines beginning in 2012. And though the effects of the amendments to the SOLAS Convention won’t be felt strongly for a few years yet, the issues for shipowners and managers encompass not just the scale and cost of compliance, but quality too.
It’s something Nautical Institute technical manager Harry Gale recently discovered for himself when he completed a Generic ECDIS training course with a private provider ECDIS Ltd.
Gale’s return to learning began when the company asked The Nautical Institute to accredit its Type Specific ECDIS course, which familiarises officers with the specific makes of hardware installed onboard ship.
“I went down there to check out the Type Specific course; how they present, what the facilities are and we were happy to accredit them. The follow-up to that was I asked if I could do the five-day Generic Course to see how that worked,” he says.
He duly found himself back in the classroom as well as working on simulators, with tests to track his progress and a very clear way to demonstrate his accomplishments.
“At the end of the course we made a passage plan which the tutor put onto the ECDIS simulator. He ran it, checking the bearings, ranges, plots and all the rest of it to see what you’d learnt,” he adds.
“I also learned something very important which is it’s wrong to say if you lose GPS input you lose ECDIS. You can still use the ECDIS like a chart. You’ve already taken bearings and plotted them and the ECDIS will update your estimated position from your inserts, so you still know here you are and where you are going.”
The course was something new for Gale who had done a three-day ECDIS syllabus on joining the Nautical Institute and the experience demonstrated vividly an issue which the NI takes very seriously: the difference between qualification and competence.
“After that three-day course I was supposedly qualified to go onboard a ship and navigate on ECDIS, but there was no way in the world I could have done that. After this five day course I do have a lot more knowledge, I feel more confident but I would still need Type Specific training,” he says.
With this in mind, the NI has established a Task Group which will monitor and advise on the need to demonstrate competence in ECDIS training. As Gale points out, there are many training options available and even completing a high quality course over five days does not guarantee that every candidate is ready for real-life operations at the end of it.
The NI would like to see competence demonstrated and there is a commercial aspect to this too, since Port State Control inspectors will be asking for the same when front of bridge ECDIS installation becomes commonplace. Failure to so could mean delays to sailing or even detention of the ship.
The NI is also trying to get ahead of the cycle with an ECDIS forum on its website and a shipboard postcard campaign which asks officers some basic questions about ECDIS and invites them to share their concerns. Questions and answers will be posted on the NI website to be followed by further updates and publications. But there is still more to do, some of which concerns the terminology as much as the hardware.
“One of the things we are trying to do is move away from the terms Generic and Type Specific training towards terms like General and Familiarisation,” says Gale. “Generic sounds pretty low level whereas the updated IMO standards for that [in the revised STCW convention] are more prescriptive and more comprehensive. ECDIS is not like radar, which is only ever an aid to navigation – this is a fundamental change in primary navigation and the training has to reflect that.”
Admiralty recently announced a series of ‘Digital Navigation Insights’ for 2012. These initiatives aim to help the maritime community prepare for the challenges of ECDIS compliance and include a training module which focuses on the practical use of ENCs. The module will help mariners develop ENC skills essential to safe day-to-day operations, which at the moment, many courses only cover briefly.
By Neville Smith