In the mid to late 1960’s a revolution got underway that was to change the face of shipping and shape it into what it is today. Containerization was introduced; tankers quadrupled in size; the Principal of Lateral Transfers (PLT) saw the introduction of ships such as OBOs; all ship types saw a dramatic increase in size and service capability such as Ro-Ros & PCCs and ships became considerably faster. Missing from this list are the dedicated cruise ship, the chemical tanker and the gas tanker. All revolutions, however, have one thing in common; they do not always anticipate the final outcome.

There are several types of accident that were never even considered when fundamental design changes were made. For example the big tankers blew up during tank cleaning;  big bulk carriers broke in two during loading and discharging; in another case, ships were driven too hard in heavy seas and suffered catastrophic damage. When you put chemicals in containers they display completely different characteristics than when they are in break bulk in storage.  When you stack containers high upon a ship, they fall over. If you take cargo ship out from the bottom of a ship with its cargo on deck it will capsize.

During the same time period from when changes were made until the present day there have been several very simple changes made to how operations are conducted on a ship.  These include the hand held calculator, the scientific calculator, the programmable calculator, the dedicated navigation calculator, the personal computer, the notebook computer and finally tablets. There were also significant changes in communication system on board .We went from Morse code to radio telex, to SATCOM telex, to e-mail and now we have broadband internet.

Regarding the equipment we find on the bridge, we had a slow revolution; from the introduction of GPS, ARPA, GMDSS to AIS. There were no similar accidents with this equipment but we had one ship where the cable became disconnected from the GPS which resulted in a near grounding. We also had a case where with ARPA , the full facility was not utilized and resulted in a collision in the English Channel . In the very beginning of GMDSS, when they took the radio officer off the ship, there were lots of false alerts many of which were resolved by simply fitting a plastic cover over the alert switch.  AIS has basically the problem of not being updated with the ships’ information. From these failures, we have learned lot of details about dealing with individual problems and mostly workable solutions. But I would argue that we have missed the obvious; that we must always be prepared for the unknown or for those things that we did not forecast.

ECDIS is now the big revolution. After 200 years of the paper chart we now have the electronic chart on the bridge. It is suffering this ongoing culture where we are trying to stipulate how it should be used , rather than listening to the users onboard the ships and amending instructions as we go along. Unfortunately many people are trying to apply old principles to new technology and the result is a dismal failure- the poor ship’s officer is bearing the brunt of criticism: He is not looking out of the window; he is relying too much on electronics; he is not recording the chronometer error; he is using VHF for collision avoidance.

What would a pilot of an Airbus A380 do landing his plane in fog;look out of the window or at his instruments? Do we criticize him? I don’t think so because logically on ships when we encounter restricted visibility we call an extra lookout.  Shouldn’t we reserve calling an extra lookout for when he can see something? Perhaps the term ‘calling an additional radar observer’ would be more appropriate.

Why has the IMO mandated the fitting of equipment on ship’s bridges and then a string of individuals and groups come along to tell ships’ officers not to use it? Well, AIS and VHF for collision avoidance are one element and GPS and accurate position fixing is another. In addition, we now have ECDIS.

With such equipment, we find something that I would determine as “language creep”.  For example, we start reading an official document which says “Do not place over reliance on ECDIS”, that then becomes  “Do not rely on ECDIS” and finally “Do not trust ECDIS”.  If the majority of accidents are attributable to human error, then perhaps it is time we look closely at the instructions or regulations we give ships’ masters and officers.

This is an ECDIS on a ship in Guangzhou that set up a coding to the instructions from a recognized training establishment. If we follow the training establishment’s recommendations with everything “ON” this is what we get. As we can see, it’s over cluttered.


This is a ship leaving Tokyo Bay with the ECDIS set up as per company instructions to enable them to comply with the vetting inspectors requirements. Hidden amongst that text are the dangers that this equipment is designed to avoid. This is totally inappropriate use of ECDIS.


Another problem that is not being considered is the actual use of ECDIS on board the ship.  This is a screenshot from a ship in the Singapore Strait where you will see a lot of diagonal lines which are telegraph cables. In the daytime that is ok but in the night time those lines are so bright that it shortly destroys the night vision of the ships officer

Cables & night vision – CATZOC inappropriate


A similar location is Lisbon.  Also on the screen below you will see a pink colored shading which one officer has actually marked,  what I call “no go areas” in a very clever way. So, something that was very difficult and not recommended by shading in pencil on paper has actually become a very useful tool on ECDIS. But it is possible to clean this screen up, and that’s one of my first jobs when I go onboard the ship. By removing the cables etc. and removing some of this information it makes the whole display a lot clearer.

Here is how it should be – almost; and this is contrary to what officers are being taught!!


Therefore, instead of sharing problems, we should offering solutions, sharing information and circulate it so that we can prevent some of these problems on board the ship. What we are doing is building up a negative attitude to the new electronics and systems that were designed to remove human error in navigation. Above all, we have created a culture of fear amongst practitioners of navigation to think outside the box.

Another big revolution is approaching us very fast; this is the autonomous or unmanned ships. It is a lot closer than many people believe!  And if anybody see the operating cost of any ship, it will be quite obvious why that is desirable. The people who will drive those ships are the officers and the junior officers that are onboard ships now. So, if we are not careful and resolve some of the problems and operational issues with this equipment, we will create a new red flag act. That was when a train had to have a man walking in front of it with a red flag to warn people on horses to get off and settle their horses so they will not be thrown off.


 Above text is an edited article of Mark Bull’s presentation during the 2016 SAFETY4SEA Conference & Awards

You may view his video presentation by clicking here

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.


Mark Bull, Marine Consultant, Trafalgar Navigation

mark-bull_Mr Bull commenced his career in 1970 as a cadet with P&O S.N. Co. He spent the next 27 years at sea, with a 2 year sabatical in the late 1980s when he trained, qualified and practiced as a teacher of English as a 2nd language.

After 5 years in command, he came ashore qualified as an ISM and ISO lead auditor and joined a large ship management company ending up as the QM/DPA for a large fleet and 3  offices. After a brief spell as a consultant, he then moved to London where he became the Loss Prevention Manager of an IG P&I Club.

Since 2012, he has been an independent consultant and have now started his own company Trafalgar Navigation dedicated to Navigational Audits, Assessments and Inspections.