A Paper Tiger?
ECDIS Implementation(s) and the death of paper charts are passing like ships in the night. This makes me just a little uneasy.
NOAA’s recent announcement that the federal government would no longer print traditional paper nautical charts got a fair bit of attention, but to say that this was not altogether unexpected would, I think, fairly describe the event. I’m sure it didn’t even get a rise out of the Third Mate on the 350,000 ton crude oil tanker “NEVERSAIL,” as he scrolled through the daily news on his mini iPad in the officer’s saloon. For old timers like me, NOAA’s intentions mean so much more. It certainly got me to thinking. And, I’m not convinced we are altogether ready for the move.
As the young Second Mate on a 40-year old chemical tanker, plying the East and Gulf Coast Jones Act trades in the mid-1980’s, I certainly remember the tedious, monotonous (but very important) task of correcting the paper charts in our ship’s folio. I had my own little template trace and a special magenta pen for the purpose and, I suppose, I took extra pride in making sure that nun buoy looked just right when I superimposed its new position onto our paper chart. The weekly Notice to Mariners publications would arrive each time we arrived into Beaumont, Texas, typically two at a time as we would take about 2.5 weeks to make a round trip to the East Coast and back.
It took a while to get through all the corrections, especially if things were happening offshore in the US Gulf. And, while the oil & gas situation was pretty miserable in 1985, that didn’t mean folks weren’t jacking with this, taking that down and/or putting up something else out there in deep water. They were. And you had to note every single change. Failure to do so could be expensive and deadly. The 1980 Texaco North Dakota allision with an oil structure in the U.S. Gulf comes immediately to mind. It’s a good idea to keep current on your chart corrections, apparently. And nothing would irritate me more than signing on board a ship after a 75 day vacation to find out that the guy I was relieving had the Notice to Mariners uncracked, sitting in a stack in the chart room.
Paper charts had their utility, although some the things we used them for probably weren’t STCW-approved or being taught at the maritime academies. On board my chemical tanker, for example, I sailed under a Master who insisted upon having the vessel sail as close to the Florida Keys as was possible during the return ballast leg. This, in his mind, kept us out of the strongest part of the Gulf Stream, provided extra speed and fuel economy and made him – of course – look good back in the home office. His course line was just one mile off the beach. The first time I had to deal with this made me quite nervous.
In any event, and on my first watch under these conditions, the Chief Mate wandered up at about 0350 hours to relieve me, glanced at the chart briefly before coming in to take a gander at the radars. As he did so, he immediately came up for air from under the hood (younger mates, ask an older Captain about the ‘hood’) and gasped, “What the (insert colorful adjective here) are you doing?” I replied, “Um, standing a watch?” He quickly assumed the watch and instructed the helmsman, “Left TEN!” A couple of minutes later, we were about 1.5 miles out and he ordered the helmsman to resume base course. And then, he chewed me out.
It turned out that no one listened to the Old Man. Everyone else kept the vessel at a minimum of 1.5 miles out and marked the chart to indicate a much closer position. When the Master came up at 0730 AM – or whenever – he rarely looked in the radars. Typically he just sat in the corner with his coffee and polluted the wheelhouse with just enough cigarette smoke to set off the detectors. Today, I’m sure the minimum distance for all deep draft traffic is mandated at a much greater distance and anyone stupid enough to get closer is probably being watched via AIS signature and risks some sort of giant fine.
On the same ship, we ran virtually the same route(s) for more than three years. It was always the same, with minor variations: a 36-hour loading of as many as 22 products and chemicals and then across the Gulf to Port Everglades, Savannah, Wilmington, Carteret, NJ, Providence, RI and back to Philadelphia to strip out the last dribbles before returning south for the ballast leg. Sometimes, we went to Tampa, threading our way through all those fishing boats around Tortugas.
The base courses across the U.S. Gulf were 111 outbound and 291 returning. And, as Second Mate, I was instructed to draw that course – in magenta pen – from Tortugas to the first clusters of oil platforms to the south of the Sabine River entrances. We then covered that course line with a flat, matte Scotch tape because of the abuse that this area of the chart would take from dividers, positions and erasures. I was once called out for it by a Coast Guard inspector during the annual COI inspection. I smiled brightly and told him simply, “Hey, it’s our course line!” He was not amused.
It turned out that those course lines could get you into other trouble, too. For example, and on my first trip across the U.S. Gulf with my new company, I assumed the watch at 1200 hours and immediately changed course because we were at least ten miles to the south of the course line when I arrived at the bridge. Sure enough, the old man (I really liked him, you know?) soon thereafter arrived on the bridge, trailing a cloud of cigarette smoke and slopping coffee everywhere. He glanced at the Gyro (I was now steering 106 True) and then, HE chewed me out. I was really popular. It turned out that we didn’t care how much the vessel deviated from the course line, coming in either direction. We just let the ship do her thing and then we’d firm up about 12 hours out on either end. Didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but what did I know?
We didn’t have ECDIS back then. If you were really creative and liked to have fun on watch, you could set “nav lines” on the RAYCAS collision avoidance system, acquire the lighthouses like targets, and then set alarm parameters to let you know if you were drifting too close. I did it often. I was also often bored on watch, especially when there were no more charts to correct. Yeah, people did that on watch, too. Sure: you could come off watch and get it done, but that entailed an hour or two trying to keep out the way of the ornery Chief Mate. No, thank you.
Fast forward to 2012: I took my first STCW Bridge Resource Management course, where I was introduced to the wonders of ECDIS. After overcoming the usual hesitation that comes from unfamiliarity with any new technology, I embraced it quickly. During that week, we navigated with it, used the overlays and simulated AIS signatures to dock and undock vessels and a whole bunch other procedures. It’s wonderful. Having experienced it once, I don’t think I would ever go to sea again without it. And, that’s the problem for a lot of people.
I firmly believe that too many mates are coming up – and maybe this metric extends to the engineroom, too – with a firm grasp of how to manipulate a trackball (do they even use those anymore?) and integrate e-solutions to the problem at hand, but not enough of the underlying knowledge that this method of operation emanates from. How many of them are retaining the base skills to support those tasks in the event that the superb technology on board suddenly fails them? Celestial navigation is a skill that immediately comes to mind.
I’m hoping that every single vessel that sails the seven seas still carries a standard sextant with a star scope, but somehow I doubt it. Back in the day when we had Decca, Omega and Loran receivers all lined up on the chart table, there were times when one or all failed at once. And, even when that wasn’t the case, I liked to practice sun and star lines of position on watch. Okay, I was bored and looking for something to do. Got yelled at for doing that; too.
Most mates today will never touch a sextant again the day after they depart whatever training academy that they earn their credentials from. And some believe that, under the weight of other more “important” STCW training burdens, that the requirement to provide celestial navigation training should be done away with. That’s a skill that will go the way of repairing an eight-strand mooring hawser. And when the e-suite goes down at sea; what then?
Recently, ECDIS and maritime training expert (Captain) Christian Hempstead said, “Traditional maritime training focuses on the physical skills like chart plotting, including searching through notices to mariners and plotting chart corrections. The slow voyage toward all digital navigation will likely be complete before a full recognition of what information gathering and internalizing by the navigator is lost in the process. It is possible that digital navigation (entirely without paper) can produce highly informed navigators, considering the extent of detail and depth of data which the digital elements contain. But as any successful mariner will confirm, this comes about through persistent earth-science curiosity, tinkering with accessible instruments, analytic thinking, a sticky memory, and a desire to make decisions, not to mention an uncanny ability to stay alert.”
I’m also told that the only conditions that will permit the purging of the chart drawers is when there are at least two properly installed ECDIS units (networked, certain sensors, UPS, etc.) and those must both be operating with up-to-date ENC data (official electronic charts) and the local and federal policy must give your vessel permission to sail in the specified waters without the paper charts. The so-called e-systems are not an automatic replacement. Hence, what is being required is the installation of an ECDIS, not a requirement to dump paper charts. But, I wonder how many shipping companies, faced with that razor thin bottom line, will continue to opt to pay for paper charts that will do nothing but increase in price as time marches on. And if your vessel operates on the spot market, tramping the seven seas to wherever the winds of the charter market take you, then that very extensive chart portfolio could come with a very prohibitive price.
Since 1862, lithographic nautical charts have been printed by the U.S. government and sold to the public. According to NOAA, the decision to stop production is based on several factors, including the declining demand for lithographic charts, the increasing use of digital and electronic charts, and federal budget realities. NOAA will continue to create and maintain other forms of nautical charts, including the increasingly popular Print on Demand (POD) charts, updated paper charts available from NOAA-certified printers.
The advent of ECDIS deadlines certainly played a part in NOAA’s decision to do away with printing traditional paper charts. And not every size or class of vessel and those in certain routes will have to comply, or even choose to go the e-route. Eventually, I believe that the paper charts will go away for everyone. Long before then, we’ll know whether complete reliance on e-navigation skills is the most prudent choice. And, I fear that it won’t be a happy accident when we do.
Most important in all of this, I think, is making sure – by competence assessments – is that mariners everywhere retain the basic skills upon which all e-navigation is also based. Is ECDIS and e-navigation all it’s cracked up to be? Or, is it a Paper Tiger? I honestly do not know. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.