There are many benefits of having ECDIS onboard; but also there are risks involved with complacency and over-reliance that we cannot ignore.  The mandatory carriage of ECDIS systems for ships on international voyages is still in implementation phase until July 2018. Firstly, it is important to identify the risks that are associated with the ECDIS system and over-reliance on them, before full implementation. The following incidents showcase the risks of a paperless chart system due to the improper use of ECDIS‎ equipment.


The vessel was fitted with ECDIS at the time it was built in order to comply with the IMO and flag state requirements for tankers. The passage plan from Rotterdam to Brindisi Italy was prepared, using the ECDIS Passage Planning feature, by the vessel’s third mate who had just been promoted to second mate/ navigational officer. The Course line drawn passed directly over the Varne Bank and included a passage through the Dover straits; a confined and heavy traffic area with a number of navigational hazards. The Master failed to review and approve this passage plan prior to departure. 

• The vessel’s primary means of navigation was an electronic chart display system (ECDIS). No paper charts were carried on board as the ECDIS was backed up with a duplicate system.

• The deck officers had received generic ECDIS training and certification as well as type specific training but made two significant errors in executing the passage plan electronically:

  1. In laying the course line over the Varne Bank the third officer used a scale of Chart too small (covering too large of an area) to show the sufficient water depths and buoy marker details. The ECDIS auto select function designed to warrant correct chart selection had been disabled.
  2. When the third officer conducted the automated hazard detection or “check route function” to determine if any navigational hazards existed on the plan he created he was not able to interpret the several hazard warnings that were listed including the Varne Bank. It was later found that none of the officers onboard knew how to properly use this function.


This incident deals with the authorized charts versus the unauthorized charts. In this incident the vessel had a passage plan prepared on paper charts initially. For this voyage the Passage plan was originally prepared on paper charts which were approved by the Master. The waypoints were then transferred to the Electronic Chart System.  The tracks were later changed as a result of weather routing faced during the voyage, but never examined by the Master.  

This vessel was fitted with an approved ECDIS model but was not supplied with “official” electronic navigation charts required to meet acceptance standards for an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS).  Without installation of official charts the setup could only be considered an Electronic Chart System (ECS). While it can display nautical chart data and vessel position on a screen it does not satisfy SOLAS Chapter V requirements and may be used only as an aid to navigation.

Official Electronic Navigational Charts must be:

  1. Produced and issued by an authority of government or relevant institution or an authorized Hydrographic Offices such as NOAA, British Admiralty, Etc.
  2. Used in all acceptable ECDIS training courses

Other types of unofficial electronic charts, for example charts produced by private industry or raster charts, can only be used as a supplement for navigation and may

  • Use a different chart symbology then what is listed in IHO Special Publication No. 52 Specifications for Chart content and display aspects of ECDIS.
  • Produce less frequent or irregular chart updates, as opposed to weekly updates for official charts.
  • Have unknown or less stringent standards for digital hydrographic data transfer and production while official sources are governed by IHO to ensure accuracy and quality.


The third officer had altered the vessel’s course to starboard of the planned track to avoid another motor vessel and sailing vessel. The course alterations which were initiated too prematurely which took the vessel into shallow waters. The ECDIS anti-grounding warning ‘zone alarm’ activated on the electronic chart display, but went unnoticed by the third mate, who was not monitoring the ECDIS display. In this case the anti-grounding safety function “audible alarm” did not sound.

Some common themes in these three incidents were:

1. ECDIS was used as the primary means of navigation

The vessels had ECDIS installed as the primary means of navigation and is considered “Paperless”. The primary method for navigation may be ECDIS but a backup is required in the event of a failure. The backup can either be a secondary ECDIS (known as a dual system) connected to an independent power supply and GPS position input or the traditional paper charts.

2. The ships officers had completed generic ECDIS training

The Navigation officers had received the general IMO Mandated (or equivalent) ECDIS training however Masters and Officers are not required to be trained in accordance with the new competence standards until 1 January 2017 to meet the 2010 Manila Amendments. Generic training for vessels equipped with ECDIS (for example, the IMO model course 1.27) is suggested in the regulations.

Equipment-specific training must be carried out in accordance with the Vessels to the Safety Management System as per the International Safety Management (ISM) Code.

3. Mistakes made by the navigating officers went undetected by Master

The Vessel’s junior officers were responsible for the passage planning or navigating errors but the Vessel Masters failed to recognize the lack of proficiency in his watch officers and failed to provide adequate supervision in every situation.

ECDIS Capabilities and Limitations

ECDIS Features and Alarms: Most ECDIS’s come with safety features and warnings which may or may not trigger an audible alarm. There is also a risk of silencing more common alarms or setting depth safety parameters improperly

Accuracy of charts: While receiving official data is important hydrographic offices despite their best efforts are not always exactly replicating real life.  Navigating through an area which is poorly surveyed, or unsurveyed, regardless of what’s shown on the chart, will have considerable risk of being there in the first place. It’s important to check the chart source data diagram or Category Zones of Confidence, CATZOCs, to see just how reliable the chart, whether paper or electronic. ECDIS isn’t necessarily going to be more accurate than paper.

Training and Competency of the Navigational Officers: The IMO Model Course 1.27 on the Operational Use of Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems is regarded as a minimum requirement to receive an ECDIS certificate. Despite over 33 models of ECDIS equipment on the market, there is currently no mandatory requirement for bridge officers to receive ECDIS model or type specific training.  The Master must oversee and approve the passage plan, and must stress the importance of contacting him when the mates are in doubt.

Foreseeable trends and risks

1. Over-Reliance

The importance of keep a proper visual look out must not be overlooked. Also, it is very important to go through the company’s procedures in the event of ECDIS failure. Radar Plotting, Sights, Compass Errors will come in handy in the event of an ECDIS breakdown.

2. Improper Settings

There is a risk of setting the wrong safety parameters for Depths, Safety Contours and navigation warnings. It is extremely important that the Master himself checks these settings each time they are changed. Alarms should not be deactivated without a good reason for doing so and never just for the sake of avoiding frequent alarms.

You may reduce the risk of these errors by implementing procedures for password protecting ECDIS setting and properly documenting parameter changes or silenced alarms.

3. Alarm Deafness

When alarms start going off too frequently, the navigator could form a dangerous habit called Alarm Deafness. This leads to the watch keeper acknowledging the alarm even without checking what it was.

4. Different Manufactures

With all different types of ECDIS machines, type specific training is being required by many flag states prior to coming onboard.  It is not always easy to get all of the officer’s type-specific training especially if there is a need to embark on short notice.

Some companies have decided to select a single Equipment manufacturer to supply the company’s fleet with ECDIS equipment, which can ease the training burden of a company considerably.

5. Anomalies

As we saw in incident No.1, there may be instances where anomalies occur such as the depth markers or navigation symbols not appearing when a certain chart scale is in use.  When it comes to electronic navigation even more emphasis must be made on understanding the nuances of your ECDIS system entirely.

An emphasis on practical navigation should always be in mind. A good example is “US Naval academy reinstates celestial navigation” which concerns with cyber-attacks and GPS jamming devices and are now easily obtained in the civilian market.

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

You may view her 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.


Danielle Centeno, Asst. VP, Loss Prevention & Survey Compliance, American Club

danielle-centeno_Danielle Centeno joined the Shipowners Claims Bureau, Inc., managers of the American P&I Club in November of 2015 as Assistant Vice President of Loss Prevention & Survey Compliance. She is a certified ISM Internal Auditor and a graduated from the New York Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in 2007 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Transportation. Early in her career, she sailed as a third mate on general cargo ships for the U.S. merchant navy.  Thereafter, Danielle worked at Bouchard Transportation Company as lead internal auditor as well as safety, quality and vetting coordinator.  Following that she served as Company Security Officer and Designated Person Ashore for Sealift Inc. of Oyster Bay, New York.  She is currently a lieutenant in the United States Navy Reserve.