Collision course

“TomTom navigation” poses a growing risk for mariners, says a former sea captain.

The United States Navy is reportedly going back to navigational basics after a series of embarrassing collisions including incidents involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain. Basic seamanship skills in the fleet have come under intense scrutiny after both ships were involved in collisions with commercial ships that resulted in crew deaths and extensive damage, and following subsequent revelations that training certification for the ships’ crews had expired in a number of areas.

Together with ships striking an object, such as floating cargo or ice, and groundings, navigational issues represented half of all marine casualty incidents recorded by EMSA.

While the military involvement in these collisions made them particularly high profile, it is by no means a problem confined to the US Navy. There were 1352 collisions from 2011 to 2015 involving ships operating in EU waters, or under the flag of a member state, according to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Together with ships striking an object, such as floating cargo or ice, and groundings, navigational issues represented half of all marine casualty incidents recorded by EMSA.

These mistakes are proving increasingly costly and deadly as ships get bigger and more complex, says Brendan Flood, Hull Line Underwriter for Hiscox London Market. Over the five-year period monitored by EMSA, fatalities were found to most likely occur during a collision (15%), flooding or foundering (15%) – far higher fatality rates in comparison to other incidents, such as fire. 

Wrong turn

In an industry under severe economic pressure, the financial incentives to get from A to B quicker, combined with bigger ships and busier shipping lanes appear to have created a perfect recipe for more accidents on the seas, which technology has, so far, been unable to eliminate. “People often think the answer is better technology,” says former sea captain Paul Hailwood, who is now a marine safety and training consultant. “But if the officers on board the ship can’t use that equipment properly then there is no advantage. Technology can make a good navigator better but it will make a bad navigator worse as they come to rely on it more and more.”

The problem is further compounded says Hailwood by a more fundamental lack of situational awareness. “Mariners need to continually ask themselves: 'Do I know where I am, do I know where I’m going, and does everyone else on the bridge agree with me?' Anything you can do to improve that situational awareness will reduce the risk of collisions.” In the US Navy's official report investigating the collision involving the USS Fitzgerald, one of the conclusions explicitly references this as a failing, stating: "The remainder of the watch on the bridge failed to provide situational awareness and input to the Officer of the Deck regarding the situation."

"Technology can make a good navigator better but it will make a bad navigator worse as they come to rely on it more and more.”

Think ahead

Good awareness is a skill that Hailwood believe is being lost amongst many mariners. “We tend to get ‘TomTom’ awareness. People think: 'I know where I am now', but don’t project ahead and think: 'This is a big ship and what will happen in six minutes' time when we go to starboard?' That is the skill which is being lost at sea.”

One solution, argues Hailwood, is in making the technology more intuitive to use while also improving mariners’ training. “It’s important for crewmembers to regularly refresh their skills, even if it is a weekly session where a ship's bridge team gets together to discuss a particular aspect of maritime navigation.” Evidence of effective training like this is a key factor insurers look for when assessing a ship’s risk, says Hiscox’s Flood. “If we see a trend of collisions or navigational errors developing for a particular ship owner then that will obviously set off alarm bells and we will ask what remedial action is being taken to retrain crews and to mitigate the future risk.”

“We tend to get ‘TomTom’ awareness. People think, 'I know where I am now', but don’t project ahead and think this is a big ship and what will happen in six minutes' time when we go to starboard. That is the skill which is being lost at sea.”

Switch to automatic pilot?

Is the ultimate solution to remove the human factor altogether? The world’s first fully autonomous cargo ship is already being built and is expected to be in operation in 2020. Although the Yara Birkeland will only be permitted to ply a route along the Norwegian coast, the United Nation’s International Maritime Organisation has opened discussions that might eventually result in the use of unmanned ships sailing the world’s oceans. Other manufacturers have already moved ahead with plans for autonomous ships, with Rolls Royce recently demonstrating the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel.

The world’s first fully autonomous cargo ship is already being built and is expected to be in operation in 2020.

Despite the progress, there is still a long way to go before we see the end of manned ships. “The technology has a lot to do to prove itself,” says Flood. “The most likely outcome is we will see less people on ships, but there will still be a human presence onboard for some years ahead.” Hailwood agrees: “I think we’re a long way off pilotless ships because the variables are so great. The solution to the risk of collisions and other navigational errors is not technology working in its own, it’s humans working better with technology.”  

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