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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

e-Navigation and the Human Element - a report

Speaker after speaker at the Nautical Institute seminar on "E-Navigation and the Human Element" (New Delhi, 6th December 2011) waxed eloquent and more on the wonders of technology available onboard and more in the near future. Nobody, least of all your correspondent, denies the simple fact that new technology has to be introduced on ships to if nothing else, keep up with the real world out there. As a simple matter of fact, up until the '70s and even '80s, it was a given fact that merchant shipping along with civil aviation was ahead of the curve globally, as far as being early adopters of technology was concerned.

To just cite a few examples - merchant ships had facsimile machines using heat resistant paper, echo sounders using sonar, radars which moved on from valves and thence to double as well as multi sided PCBs, economisers later on known as turbo chargers ashore and environmental adherences well before these wonderful concepts came ashore in the '70s. The first computer many of us saw outside of IITs in India were on ships in the '70s and '80s. We had technology aboard to make pure water, serve us with clean electricity and provide us with brilliantly filtered air whether we were in the middle of the ocean or in the heavily polluted waters in some parts of the then developed world.

And then, somewhere down the line, technology on ships simply slipped behind the curve when compared with the rest of the world, as owners and the even more ruthless "ship-managers" along with compliant state authorities went along as accomplices bent on cutting costs on almost everything in the name of cost savings. Leave alone reducing head count, vicious chops were made not just as far as quality of life was concerned onboard, but also in keeping up with change and technological growth ashore - why, after all, was something needed if it was not legislated was the approach. It was almost like the attitude of truck owners - why improve matters for drivers, if all they have to do is deliver the goods to the other side - and if you make them suffer, they will work better.

For those of us lucky enough to sail with some ownership companies which thought otherwise, it was wonderful - as early as 1978, some of us who had sailed with Arya Lines, Blue Star or WorldWide, had worked on computers onboard, used situation display radars with television type colour monitors and were adhering to environmental norms ahead of what the ports demanded in those days. But then, it suddenly went bust, as the lowest common denominator fundamentals caught up with shipping globally, and from a career of choice, seafaring deteriorated to one of last resort.

One major reason for this drop-back as far as technology was concerned, ofcourse, was the advent of the internet globally around early 1990 and widely in India by 1995 - most Indian flag and FOC ships still don't have broadband on board, and the global figure for broadband onboard is below 7% of all merchant cargo ships. Even villages in totally backward countries have better penetration, never mind middle class homes in India, urban or rural. Likewise, the world of environmental compliances and adherences raced ahead ashore, while at sea it became a conspiracy of magic pipes and get the work done - never mind the pollution - even by hoodwinking everybody and by filling up more and more forms and reisters. Sad, but true.

The other reason, was simpler - the big recession in shipping in the mid-'80s brought forth a generation of seafarers who were simply not willing to rock the boat. Some of those same people form the backbone of senior seafarers onboard today, and they know the truths - the administration and unions will not back them, PSC in many countries are in the pockets of the owners and managers, and when it comes to a job, the typical seafarer is concerned only with what his wages will be like. And add to that the absolute backwardness of the training and certification system - the less said about that, the better. And on top of everything else, the famous "blacklist" now does better and goes global and even receives official patronage from the Government offices in shipping in India.

Ever wondered why there is no blacklist of owners and ship-managers? Simple - where else would the government babus go after they retire?

In the midst of all this, we now have a scenario where electorate generated noise and static in many countries is pushing administrations to the wall, and there is only so much mileage that can be achieved by criminalising the seafarer on board. The spotlight - and oh yes, shipowners, secretive creatures at the best of times hate the spotlight - is now looking for fresh victims, and after the recent episode of the RENA going aground off Taurongo in New Zealand, it is brilliantly clear to all that something is very wrong if ships have navigating bridges which resemble a hotch-potch of add-ons and ship-owners consider seafarers to be certificates acquired by any means who eat food.

A ship's bridge today is the best example of rampant confusion caused by a total lack of standarisation of design. Keep adding more stuff, keep deleting more people, and 100+ hours a week are standard. To that, add the simple fact that in many cases, the first exposure a seafarer has to a totally strange and new environment called his workplace and home, is often at the end of a long trans-continental flight, in the back of the plane known as cattle class, and thence straight to the airport without even a break. And then expected, often, to run a takeover as well as the regular business of work, right away. But this is all old hat, we seafarers know that this is our lot, and we do manage.

What is new here is that the "human element", which is the new name for seafarers, is now to hopefully be given due recognition by the maritime community ashore, at least up on the bridge, by something called "e-Navigation". Here's the IMO definition, and like everything from IMO, it goes into prose that is not just prolix but also confusing.

"The aim is to develop a strategic vision for e-navigation, to integrate existing and new navigational tools, in particular electronic tools, in an all-embracing system that will contribute to enhanced navigational safety (with all the positive repercussions this will have on maritime safety overall and environmental protection) while simultaneously reducing the burden on the navigator. As the basic technology for such an innovative step is already available, the challenge lies in ensuring the availability of all the other components of the system, including electronic navigational charts, and in using it effectively in order to simplify, to the benefit of the mariner, the display of the occasional local navigational environment. E-navigation would thus incorporate new technologies in a structured way and ensure that their use is compliant with the various navigational communication technologies and services that are already available, providing an overarching, accurate, secure and cost-effective system with the potential to provide global coverage for ships of all sizes."

The seminar on e-Navigation and the Human Element organised by the Nautical Association's Delhi Chapter, held on the 6th of December, tried to delve further into the subject. The complete seminar has been video - recorded and the organisers have promised to put it up on the internet as well as web-stream it live next time in keeping with the theme - please wait for the information, till then you can check out the photos at as well as chronologically in reverse order on photostream counted from here:-

It would take a thick book, and defeat the purpose of e-Navigation onboard, to try and do justice to the various schools of thought propagated so well by people who had prepared very diligently to provide us with their views as well as those from the audience who actively gave theirs in what was an eminently inter-active experience - far removed from the usual "talk down to the audience" type of seminars that are usually the rule. As a matter of fact, if you were a seafarer and in or around Delhi, then you missed a great event by not being there - hats off to the organisers for that.

Those who spoke at the function, were:-

Capt. I.V. Solanki, who gave a welcome address, and outlined the proceedings.
Capt. M.M. Saggi, Nautical Advisor to the Indian government, who gave an overview of the present scenario on technology upgrading in all aspects of shipping in and around India.
A keynote address by Mr. John Erik Hagen, who is the Director NCA at IMO and Chairman of the committee on e-Navigation, and spoke about the IMO role therein.
A short speech by Ms. Kirsti Stotsvik, Director General of the Norwegian Coastal Administration, outlining a view from Scandinavia of the situation as they see it.
A very interesting point to point kind of talk by Capt. David Patraiko, Director of Projects of the Nautical Institute along with some basic ideas on the concept of e-Navigation as seen from a future bridge.
An extremely lively delivery by Capt. Rod Short of GlobalMET, straight shooter and now the seminar was finally heading toward the human element part of things.
A valid presentation on the new-generation seafarer by Ms. Naomi Rewari of ARI, which brought out some straight talking on the difference between fact and perceptions on young people at sea.
And then, the first of two open sessions, where the debate shifted from technology towards the human element, and back and forth.

All this, very cleanly moderated by Capt. Rakesh Saxena and Capt. I. Kharbanda, and with answers to some tough questions well fielded by those on the dais.


After a sumptuous lunch, the gathering reconvened, and this was unlike at other seminars where people tend to drop off. The organisers, in another brilliant master stroke, brought two seafarers from the modern generation "Y", Sumit Puri (ASM candidate) and T.P. Shivaramakrishnan (Chief Officer) to speak on the subject. They chose to deliver their valid views, followed by Capt. S Butalia's excellent presentation on the Ship Manager's perspective.

This was followed by another interactive session co-ordinated by Capt. S. Verma of Ocean's XV - lively and educational.

But, and this is how it is at all such seminars, the one main topic of discussion and clarification which pertains to fatigue as well as quality of life on board was carefully skirted. Every attempt to stir the pot a bit by yours truly as well as the effervescent Capt. Rod Short from GlobalMET, was sweetly snooked by wellmeaning friends ashore.

Thus ended on a warm and friendly note the Delhi seminar on e-Navigation and the Human Element.

If you have any views, comments, suggestions on the subject, please write in to the author or directly to the Nautical Institute, IMO or your employers.


  1. I'm sure 'lunch' must've been the most interesting part since cannot figure as to how 'non-sailing' people can talk about enavigation-
    the need of the hour is to actually take (teach) the 'gen-next' of seafarers through practical aspect of real time scenarios rather than 'video-games' lessons- we need to learn something from the IAF where each trainee pilot is actually flown alongside for 'sorties' until fully confident!

  2. How is the Civil Aviation industry across the globe has adopted to simulator aided training.
    IAF Pilots are expected to engage enemies in a war, whereas Merchant Navy sailors are expected to make SAFE NAVIGATION of a ship from point A to B to C and D,,.with all types of cargoes,.with all types, ages, sizes of ships manned by multi nationality crew.
    No substitute to "the on board - On the Job Training". "Each Master should put his CREW into TEAM training & drills", thus he builds a team when he is in command of a ship, the entire CREW works in harmony and in sync with what is expected of them,.Yes, there are more external factors governing the CREW.
    Training model -FIT FOR THE PURPOSE is sufficient.
    The need is - willingness to change for the better, change with the time, appreciate the technology driven initiatives,.
    Flaws may be faced in every system of training, then it is finally HUMAN ELEMENT to make correct judgement,.in the event of any contingency,.
    When everything is OK, who bothers about anything,.
    And there is no end to training,.

  3. well done.and so the beat goes on

  4. Just a thought- even in Indian (DIRTY) politics, one has to prove a mandate every 4~5 years however in the shipping industry (especially shore based) I have seen ship managers survive 10 ~ 15 years despite many 'screw-ups'- I have yet to see a single ship manager &/or shore based inspector/surveyor etc accept responsibility or for that matter step down from the post- It would be interesting to make these guys more accountable- anyone there listening????

  5. Being a seasoned actively sailing Master Mariner- My biggest fear is that the private maritime institutes especially the ones boasting of technology must realize that the e-navigation screens are not like video games (or 'i-phones') which most youngsters tend to feel- A real time scenario has to be blend in to ensure perfect harmony of technology and basics- As the saying goes, best integrated navigation system in the world is the EBS (Eyeball navigation system) wherein there is no substitute for visual focus on conning- unfortunately, this difficult task is left to the ship master who is already over burdened with undue clerical jobs- How about some of the teachers coming to sea and teaching all of us basics along with technology in the real time navigation scenario

  6. Thank you all for your comments.

    Heading for the "human element", fact remains, maritime decisions are heavily influenced by ex-seafarers who have been ashore for a while and wish to keep their nests feathered, while not having the faintest clue of life onboard anymore.

    My direct question to the august gathering on how this came about, on why training and certification was carried out by people who had been ashore for decades, was simply evaded.

    I took the trouble to try to go back to sea after a gap of 29 years, and ran from the ship because it was so full of misery and miserable conditions onboard.

    Correctives will only, as always, come when society protests more about why their beaches are being polluted.

  7. Most reputed (& recognized) private maritime & training institutes have conveniently joined hands in partnership with candidates resulting in a 'win-win' situation for both the teachers & students- Pay the fees & obtain the necessary certification- also ship managers have joined hands to fulfil the flag/port state/oil major/etc requirement- All in all, everyone wins except for the learning process which is completely gotten LOST somewhere...Also certification feedback forms are filled in to ensure 'all iz well' to keep up the institute reputation/certification- Amazing tactics-