Even in a digital age, nav skills and judgment matter

Not so long ago, marine navigation was an art and a science that demanded precise knowledge, practice and expertise developed over a long period of study and apprenticeship. Indeed, until recently many of the skills considered hallmarks of the traditional navigator’s art — such as piloting, the use of soundings and bathymetry, and celestial navigation — remained largely unchanged from those practiced in Capt. James Cook’s day when HMS Endeavour rolled back the boundaries of the known world.

Yet the practice of navigation has undergone a major transformation in the past decade. Electronic sensors, satellite positioning and automated functions have all but removed the sailor from the process of collecting and plotting navigation information. Indeed, the modern bridge more closely resembles the fictional starship than Endeavour’s quarterdeck.

The rise of electronic navigation poses a compelling question to maritime education institutions: Does a foundation in traditional navigation continue to have value despite the overwhelming momentum toward e-Nav? Learning traditional navigation is time-consuming and difficult for most, and many of the manual skills that students spend countless hours learning might never be used, because computers can perform most of the functions more quickly and accurately. One might spend a week teaching a student how to plot a contact on a maneuvering board and derive course, speed, closest point of approach and rules-of-the-road application, versus one hour teaching the student how to derive the same information from an automatic radar plotting aid.

However, while seemingly arduous and antiquated, traditional navigation practices remain an essential part of maritime education. E-Nav brilliantly derives and displays data — the what — but it does not provide two other critical pieces of information necessary for safe navigation: how and why. To properly use navigation information, the mariner must understand how it was derived and why it is important. Thus, it is essential to carefully delineate between training (using equipment to get information) and education (interpreting and applying the information). A maritime academy’s commitment in preparing its graduates as entry-level watch officers must always include the latter.

Education and training are distinct yet overlapping learning methodologies. Education provides the base on which lifelong learning is grounded, while training responds to a variety of learning needs in the later stages, such as refresher training and training in new equipment or techniques. We substitute training for education at our peril. It is important to understand that all phases of lifelong learning must relate to an overall assessment of the knowledge, skills and performance requirements of the profession. Each phase must be sequenced and synchronized with the others to serve that goal. Some learning will take place in accession and licensing programs, some in more focused training and simulator sessions, and some in the fleet under the watchful eyes of an experienced mentor. As navigation safety evolves from a compliance-based to a risk-based management focus, judgment, as a factor in both risk assessment and management, becomes ever more important.

Traditional navigation builds an essential conceptual understanding of navigation principles because it requires active involvement in the information collection and display process. Collection of information might involve visual bearings, celestial observations, soundings or radar ranges. Display of that information might include plotting a fix on a chart or manually plotting a surface contact on a maneuvering board. During the collection and display process, the watch officer empirically affirms the validity of the information, understands exactly how it is derived and knows that the accuracy of the information is proportional to the care with which it is collected and plotted. It also makes the watch officer scrutinize the chart at every fix interval, including verifying the ship’s position and looking ahead with dead reckoning. Remaining thus “in the loop,†the navigator maintains constant awareness of the navigation picture.

By contrast, e-Nav does not require empirical observations or manual position plotting, nor does it require the watch officer to review the chart at any particular interval. All of the information is displayed in near real-time and is no more accurate than the sensors used to produce it or the devices used to display it. Were one of the sensors to malfunction without warning, the error would go unnoticed unless the watch officer remained tuned in. Indeed, over-reliance on global positioning systems has now overtaken all other factors as the leading cause of groundings, and an examination of one case in point lends a great deal of insight into why.

The grounding of the Panamanian cruise ship Royal Majesty in 1995 illustrates the necessity of watch-standers remaining plugged in to the navigation process. Royal Majesty, using the most modern e-Nav technology then available, ran aground in clear weather off the coast of Nantucket Island with 1,500 passengers onboard. The investigation that followed discerned that the ship was approximately 17 miles from where the watch officers believed it was at the time of the grounding. The cause of the confusion was traced to a GPS cable that jarred loose, causing the electronic charting system to silently switch to dead-reckoning mode. The error went undiscovered for 34 hours leading up to the grounding.

“Innovations in technology have led to the use of advanced automated systems on modern maritime vessels,†the National Transportation Safety Board stated in its report on the accident. “However, bridge automation has also changed the role of the watch officer on the ship. The watch officer, who previously was active in obtaining information about the environment and used this information for controlling the ship, is now ‘out of the control loop.’ The watch officer is relegated to passively monitoring the status and performance of the automated systems. As a result of passive monitoring, the crewmembers of the Royal Majesty missed numerous opportunities to recognize that the GPS was transmitting in (dead reckoning) mode and that the ship had deviated from its intended track.â€

The investigation lamented the poor watch-keeping of the master and officers, but a follow-up study by the American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that their actions were not altogether surprising. In fact, their actions reflected normal human behavior patterns, and the complacency they exhibited resulted largely from their implicit trust of their e-Nav systems and lack of stimulation caused by the automation of too many tasks.

“People who over-rely on automated systems tend to use them as shortcuts for decision making — like the crew of the Royal Majesty, they trust the computer to keep them out of danger, rather than double-check against other indicators such as a compass or visual cues,†stated the authors of an article titled “Danger of Automation — It Makes Us Complacent†in the July 1998 issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology. “(Researchers have) termed this phenomenon ‘automation bias’ and in several studies of college students and professional pilots they find that pilots tend to rely even more on automation than students, perhaps because they’ve grown to trust automation more.â€

As the APA article points out, e-Nav creates a strong human impulse to delegate many cognitive faculties to technology and implicitly believe whatever is displayed. Overcoming that instinct requires both education and training. Education equips the watch officer with an intuitive understanding of the navigation process and allows him or her to recognize information that does not make sense and surmise possible reasons for the error. Training builds good habits and instincts for recognizing instrument malfunctions quickly and overcoming them.

Ironically, e-Nav actually increases the education and judgment required by the watch officer to navigate safely and proficiently, even while decreasing the manual labor involved. Not only must the watch officer possess a solid foundation in navigation and collision-avoidance principles to correctly interpret the e-Nav picture, he or she must also understand the intricacies of the multiple supporting systems involved in presenting that picture. The watch officer must know how far to trust the information presented, how to prioritize it when it becomes overwhelming, how to tell when it may be inaccurate and how to verify it if in doubt. Using e-Nav requires constant vigilance, overcoming the human instinct to implicitly believe what one sees. E-Nav technology, while impressive in its capabilities, will remain only as useful as the knowledge and judgment of the bridge team using it. As President Reagan famously warned, “Trust, but verify.â€

The importance of imparting the knowledge and developing the judgment of future watch officers continues to compound as ships get larger, crew sizes get smaller and waterways get more congested. Consider the recently launched container vessel Emma Maersk. With a length of 1,290 feet — nearly 200 feet longer than the coming USS Gerald R. Ford class of aircraft carriers — a 182-foot beam, and a deadweight capacity of 157,000 metric tons, Emma Maersk is, for now, the world’s largest container vessel. Yet the crew of this behemoth, which cruises at 25 knots, consists of only 13 members — about two-thirds the size of the crew of a 110-foot Coast Guard patrol boat.

The miniscule crew complement is possible only because nearly all shipboard tasks are automated — reportedly, the vessel has some 8,000 sensors connected to a sophisticated system of alarms and status indicators. For the watch officer, that means managing a dizzying array of vessel-wide status inputs while also maintaining the navigation and shipping picture. The safety of the ship requires intense concentration and nearly flawless performance from the watch officer, for on a vessel that size moving that fast, with that many automated functions, there is no room for error, indecision or inattention. The level of automation and lack of watch-stander redundancy vastly increases the potential for a single point failure.

Today, just as in Cook’s day, instruments only serve the mariner. The responsibility for the navigation and safety of the ship continues to fall squarely on the shoulders of the master and crew. The vast majority of maritime casualties continue to involve human error and judgment, and technology has so far fallen short of producing an error-proof human being. Only a solid foundation in the principles of navigation can provide the essential link between human judgment and technology.

Lt. Craig Allen teaches nautical science at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the academy.

By Professional Mariner Staff