Coast Guard should allow e-logbooks on U.S.-flagged ships

The young second mate had joined the chemical tanker I was working on only a few days earlier. We had just passed Galveston Island, Texas, and were bound for Cristobal, Panama. After I relieved him and assumed the bridge watch, the second mate told me that he needed to take the deck logbook back to the chartroom for a few minutes. Evidently he’d put in the wrong cargo finish times and made some other mistakes in the deck log after we completed loading benzene in Houston early that morning, and had been ordered by the captain to make the appropriate corrections. Ten minutes later he re-emerged with the logbook in hand, set it on the chart table and then headed down below. Later during my watch, I went over to put some entries in and was shocked to see a big, ugly black splotch that covered all the writing on about 15 lines of the logbook. Nothing written underneath what he blacked out could be seen, and he had pressed so hard with his pen that it made grooves in the logbook sheets. When the captain came up later and saw the logbook he turned a deep red. Shaking his head, he said, “Obviously, no one has ever taught this young man the proper way to make a correction in a logbook.”

Most deck and engine officers learn early on the importance of making truthful, concise, readable logbook entries — and appropriate corrections when necessary. Traditionally when a logbook mistake is made, it is struck through with a single line of a black ballpoint pen, and then initialed by the vessel officer making the correction. The big ugly black splotch was a breach of logbook etiquette that was almost unthinkable to me. The captain must have taken the second mate aside later and instructed him on the proper way to fill out a logbook, because for the rest of the trip he definitely made all his entries/corrections in the accepted manner. 

Filling out logbooks is part of everyday life at sea. The deck logbook, engine logbook, bell book, compass observation logbook, garbage log, global maritime distress and safety system (GMDSS) radio log, medical log and the master’s official logbook are just some of those found on board applicable seagoing vessels. Considered official chronological records, information contained in shipboard logbooks is used for everything from ensuring compliance with Coast Guard regulations and company requirements, to providing evidence in maritime court cases. 

Keeping up with the many logbook entries required each day is just part of the administrative burden placed on a ship’s officers. Now, with the additional paperwork required by the International Safety Management Code and International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, plus the new Manila Amendments of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, the administrative workload placed on mariners is growing at an alarming rate. A recent Danish study found that vessel officers spend about 20 percent of each day on paperwork. Some vessel masters have reported that up to 80 percent of their time is spent on administrative duties. Many mariners have expressed concern that spending so much of each workday on clerical tasks is taking away from the time needed to actually operate the vessel. 

Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V, Regulation 28, permits the use of electronic means to store vital ship’s navigational information normally found in a traditional logbook. Only a few short weeks ago, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) announced a new global initiative to reduce the administrative burden on ship officers. The IMO has stated that it will officially move forward with the goal of digitalizing shipboard logbooks, official paperwork and required reports on board applicable vessels at sea. Soon, every ship plying the oceans worldwide could be using electronic logbooks, called e-logbooks.

An e-logbook is essentially computer software configured to interface with a global positioning system receiver and other shipboard instruments, and allows both automatic and manual inputs of relevant information. For a deck e-log, automatic entries may include a periodic record of the ship’s speed, course and position. Manual entries put in by vessel officers are also required, and would include things such as arrival and departure times, the names of assist tugs alongside and emergency drills. E-logs for deck operations, radio communications, the engine room, cargo operations and oil transfer records are already commercially available. 

Just from the standpoint of saving paper and reducing waste, eliminating the need to store stacks of old paper logbooks, and of course all the time involved in filling out paperwork by pen, I think that the use of e-logs is a good idea. There would be no concern about losing valuable logbook documentation due to fire, flood or other shipboard emergency. The information in an e-logbook would be saved to a computer file on board and at the same time could immediately be sent to company officials and authorities ashore, then safely stored for future reference. 

Although not currently approved by the Coast Guard for U.S.-flag vessels, nearly 50 percent of the world’s merchant ships have flag states that do approve the use of electronic logbooks and digital official documents — including those registered in the Marshall Islands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Panama. Provided that the e-logs and other computer systems used are USCG-approved, the shipboard instruments are properly maintained and give correct readouts, and the vessel officers receive their own personal copies of all relevant electronic logbook entries, the advantages of using e-logs on board are well worth the change. It’s time to allow their use on American ships and boats.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff