Navigation Assessments – The First 15 Years

In 2000, following a couple of serious navigational incidents, Leedham Marine was approached by a major ship operator to devise a system, and carry out external navigation audits on their vessels. Although the operator had comprehensive navigational procedures, it was apparent that their officers were not following them. Internal audits had not indicated any problems in this area so we were tasked with finding out why and recommending appropriate remedial action.

From the outset, it was apparent to us that an effective navigational audit cannot be done without actually sailing on the vessel. In port, only the paperwork side can be checked, and that was generally in excellent order; hence the vessels had always passed muster during the company’s internal audits.

We therefore stipulated that we should attend on board during a suitable coastal voyage of at least three – and ideally around five – days. Where possible, the voyage should also contain a mix of pilotage, coastal and offshore passages. The minimum of three days turned out to be fully justified; ships staff were invariably able to maintain a credible front of compliance and efficiency for a day or so under audit. The cracks began to appear in day two, as they slipped into old habits, and became more relaxed in our presence. By the end of day three, the cracks were wide open; all pretence had been dropped, and indeed ship’s staff were themselves raising issues and highlighting where and how they felt that practices and procedures were impractical or of no value. We were therefore not only able to see exactly what was happening, but why.

Obviously, this did not occur without the assessor building up a sympathetic rapport with the officer. From the outset, our consultants – all experienced Master Mariners – worked to establish good professional relationships with each officer, based on the common bonds and shared experiences of navigators, the world over.

From the very beginning, we identified that our audits should be against ‘best practice’, rather than the operator’s bridge procedures; this would allow us to bring the operator’s procedures under the scope of our scrutiny, and would free us from the difficulty of attempting to justify or support inadequate or improper procedures.

Common areas of weakness and non-compliance were quickly identified. The root causes pointed more towards complexity in the operator’s navigational procedures, training standards and/or motivation, rather than any shortcomings in the personnel themselves; indeed, most were keen and displayed a desire to do the job well – they were just not sure how to go about it.

Based on our findings, we were then able to implement remedial actions. This included review and development of new navigational procedures, in a compact, simpler and more coherent form, referenced directly to the ICS Bridge Procedures Guide. At the same time, we introduced remedial training / mentoring on board to address specific deficiencies or weakness.

Our consultants rose to this new challenge; mentoring was provided on a one-to-one basis, and more formal training sessions delivered to officers in group sessions. Training materials were also developed to cover common problem areas.

The impact of this subtle shift in emphasis was huge. Our Consultants were no longer received on board as auditors, with suspicion and reticence. As word of our mentoring activities spread, and we began to start seeing some of the same faces, and were now welcomed on board. Officers were keen to improve and acquire navigational knowledge and skills and there were no longer barriers to be broken down. The knowledge that they had left the vessel significantly safer and better than they had found it was also highly satisfying to our Consultants.

By this time, word of our work had spread, firstly, to the sister company, and then to the wider market, worldwide. As more and more new clients came on stream, and similar findings were being reported back; this confirmed that many of the problems we had found were industry-wide.

Up to this point, we had been using the term ‘Navigational Audit’ to describe our work; in part, this simply mirrored the terminology of clients’ work orders and industry references, such as TMSA, but the fact that we were not specifically measuring against the operator’s procedures, plus the increasing inclusion of the training and mentoring element meant that we were increasingly diverging from the conventional concept of audit. Moreover, clients were increasingly asking us to minimise the audit side in order to give more emphasis and time to mentoring and training. A new term was needed and so, in 2004, we decided to re-brand the work as “Navigation Assessments”, and where possible removing references to audit.

To further distance ourselves from the audit domain, our report format was entirely descriptive text; any attempt at putting numbers on or scoring was avoided. Personal anonymity was preserved in the report, especially where on-board mentoring appeared to have been successful. Where it was identified that an individual needed particular on-going support or additional training, a supplementary confidential report would be submitted, relating to that individual.

With increasing experience, attention was increasingly focussed on the elements where we perceived the major improvements were necessary: watchkeeping, collision avoidance, position monitoring, passage planning and bridge teamwork – the five pillars of navigational safety.

Formal presentations on these areas are always well received, and often stimulate interesting discussions. Knowledge of the ColRegs; use of the trial manoeuvre to avoid or handle complex traffic situations; importance of terrestrial position verification and parallel indexing; advanced passage planning, including pilotage techniques; use of ECDIS; analysis of ECDIS-related incidents; integration of the pilot into the bridge team are all subjects which inspire lively discussion. And it has been gratifying to see how well officers, in the main, have adopted these ideas and practices into their watchkeeping.

Items such as the completion of checklists, logbooks and the maintenance of charts and publications are obviously also covered. In practice, these paper systems are much more easily measured – indeed, they are the only ones which can be effectively assessed on an in-port audit. But even collectively, their importance to the navigational safety of the vessel is less than any of the five pillars, considered alone. This, together with officers’ in-port workload and hours of rest, is why we will not carry out in-port assessments.

In an ideal world, ISM systems, company procedures, vetting inspections and audits would guide and assist the Bridge officer in carrying out his duties. In practice, we see that the actual effect of these has instead resulted in information overload and work overload, both of which can be significant impediments to safe navigation, particularly where inexperienced officers are concerned. This is sometimes compounded by interference from authoritative and quasi-authoritative bodies – often taken as gospel – which is sometimes at odds with actual best practice.

Inadequate or inappropriate training, poorly managed advances in technology and constant changes in legislation, under an umbrella of paperwork overload leave the modern mariner often unable to see the wood for the trees. The attention to minute detail and all-encompassing nature of today’s ISM systems can result in a paper behemoth, within which the inexperienced or poorly trained officer cannot distinguish the important things from the sea of trivia. The sense of proportion has been lost.

Those of us who were privileged to have received our nautical education in the ‘60s and ‘70s generally served on board well-run ships with mature systems, and where practically everything we did had a functional or practical purpose, were fortunate. Our practical world on board ship was very closely in-sync with the shore-side training, certificate syllabus and marine legislation of those times; that is not the case for the today’s officer, whose world has unfortunately become increasingly divergent in all these areas.

Today’s mariner deserves a better deal, and Navigational Assessments are one – albeit small – way of delivering it; at all costs, let’s try to keep it real.