Compelling electronic displays may have contributed to collision

Over-reliance on an electronically integrated navigation system by an inadequately trained operator may have played a significant role in a collision between Atlantic Huron and the Canadian Coast Guard buoy tender Griffon in September 2000, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has concluded.

The collision occurred on western Lake Erie at night in good visibility. The Coast Guard vessel was anchored next to the Pelee Passage light, an 80-foot-high offshore aid to navigation. Even though Griffon was well illuminated, the second officer of Atlantic Huron, a bulk carrier, did not realize Griffon was anchored near the navigation light until moments before the collision.

The second officer had not received any formal training in the use of the ship’s electronic chart systems (ECS) and may not have had the system properly adjusted, the TSB said.

Atlantic Huron’s bridge was equipped with a navigation system that integrated its automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) and ECS. The second officer relied primarily on that integrated system as he prepared for a port-to-port meeting with a third vessel, Lady Sandals, approaching from the east.

Even though the second officer had detected lights in the vicinity of the light tower, the integrated radar and chart system did not seem to indicate the presence of a ship there. Concentrating on Lady Sandals and apparently unaware of the ship anchored next to the light tower, the second officer steered Atlantic Huron into Griffon.

The TSB report explained that the situation conveyed by an integrated electronic navigation system can seem more real than what the mariner sees with his own eyes:

“The compelling nature of systems such as ECDIS (electronic chart display and information system) and ECS is a serious drawback which has been identified in research on automation,” the report said. “Because of the very high fidelity representations of the world associated with an ECDIS or ECS system, operators may selectively use the apparently precise information, placing less emphasis on other real-world cues, such as visual cues. In this occurrence, while the (officer of the watch) had noticed some lights in the vicinity of the light structure, the presence of the Griffon was not evident on the radar overlay. Given the immediate goal of passing the Lady Sandals, the (officer of the watch) focussed on the apparently precise representation of the area provided by the ECS system, and did not appreciate the variance between its representation and the visual cues.”

Paul Van Den Berg, TSB senior investigator, observed that new technology can pose risks when used by inexperienced or untrained operators, “When operators place less emphasis on real-world cues or place heavy reliance on incomplete information, they can become confused and overwhelmed as a situation unfolds,” he said.

On the night of the collision, the 735-foot Atlantic Huron was headed east at 12 knots with the second officer and a wheelman on the bridge. Monitoring the VHF radio, the second officer heard the vessel Reserve issue a securité call indicating its position to other traffic in the area as a safety precaution because of her large size. “As the second officer attempted to determine when he would encounter Reserve, he detected Lady Sandals ahead of Reserve. Using the ECS, the second officer tracked Lady Sandals.

When the two vessels were about 1.4 nm apart, the second officer called Lady Sandals to request a port-to-port meeting. Both vessels made course alterations to starboard, but according to the ECS display, there seemed little room for safe passage.

Through the bridge window, the second officer saw Lady Sandals and yet another vessel off his starboard bow. This new target had not been observed on the ECS, and he was unsure from the display if it was at anchor or underway. Atlantic Huron continued to make way for Lady Sandals by altering course to starboard.

Because of its weight, Atlantic Huron was slow to respond to the helm, so the second officer ordered the ship hard to starboard. Once he determined the two vessels would pass safely, he ordered the helm midships.

At this point, the second officer became aware of the presence of Griffon. Atlantic Huron continued to move to starboard and toward the anchored Griffon. At the last moment, the second officer realized that he was on a collision course and ordered the helm hard to port, but it was too late.

Griffon’s proximity to the large light may have masked its radar target. The Pelee Passage light is equipped with a racon (radar beacon). This signal shows relative direction to a vessel when it detects the vessel’s radar pulse. If a vessel’s position coincides with the plume of the light’s racon signal, the radar return of a vessel can be masked.

Four crewmembers of Griffon sustained minor injuries in the incident. The injuries ranged from head trauma to contact injuries. Two of the individuals sought medical attention. Griffon’s port bow was damaged above the ice belt, and Atlantic Huron’s starboard bow was damaged, along with a fracture in the shell plating above the spar deck.

Beyond the operator’s inexperience and lack of training with ECDIS and ECS, the TSB cited a number of other contributing factors to the accident:

The warning alarms on the ECS system had been shut off. Unless these systems are properly adjusted, they are known to produce “nuisance” alarms. The warning alarms onboard Atlantic Huron had been deactivated because of the number of nuisance warnings they produced.

€. Griffon failed to issue a notship message to inform other vessels of its location.

€. The VHF was not used to advantage by either Atlantic Huron, to obtain information from the approaching vessel, or by Griffon, to broadcast a securité message as a safety warning to other vessels in the area that she was at anchor near the light.

While numerous factors contributed to the accident, the reliance on the integrated electronic navigation system seems to have played the central role.

According to Fred Bronaugh, director of Marine Safety International’s training center in Newport, R.I., “The key issue is that no matter what kind of system is being used, eternal vigilance is necessary. ECDIS is no substitute for adherence to watch-keeping standards.”

In its training, Marine Safety International stresses that mariners using ECDIS/ECS must “trust, but verify by other means,” and, above all, “keep looking out the window.”

By Professional Mariner Staff