There was a time, not so long ago, when navigators were used to paper charts. Suddenly, there was a huge change on our bridges with the introduction of electronic navigation charts. Training was conducted, certificates awarded, and officers were sent on board ships to navigate with the new technology.
This change was a big one for many of the older, experienced officers habituated to paper charts and their own set of techniques. These were, and still are, being taught in colleges across the world at the operational and management levels. Some of these include ‘three-point bearing’, ‘four-point bearing’, and ‘running fix’. Although these methods were easy to use on a paper chart, it is not so easy to practise them on electronic charts, if at all.
We were used to ‘fair weather practices’, such as obtaining sextant altitudes and calculating the position lines, the meridian passage, the position line again at meridian passage, and a position fix, plus plotting the dead reckoning, drawing the azimuth and position line. Transferring the position line to the estimated position of the meridian passages was a cake-walk with paper charts. Do we do them now? Can the position lines be properly plotted on an electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS)? Even if they can, it is not as simple as plotting them on a paper chart.
Besides all these techniques, we miss one more thing: on a paper chart we could see a larger area and a way ahead. The electronic version and its limited screen space mean it is not possible to match up with huge paper charts.
Competency training courses now exist on ECDIS, however, these courses are often no longer than five days. This is much shorter than courses for chart work or terrestrial navigation techniques. These old techniques are being taught throughout the duration of competency courses and then crew must take exams. Despite that, we rarely use these traditional techniques on board.
It is time the authorities around the world took note of this situation. We need to make training more realistic. The training imparted to an aspiring navigational watchkeeper should focus principally on what technology and techniques are being used in today’s shipping industry. Practical navigation techniques should incorporate not only old techniques, but also new and hands-on techniques used around the world.