Guest Editorials

Maritime Training Should Address Pilothouse Distractions

By Matthew Bonvento and Emil Muccin

Mariners have been plying the oceans, rivers, lakes and harbors per records for over 2,000 years. What has transpired from an electronic technology standpoint in the last 25 years has had a substantial and profound impact on vessel safety.

AIS, or Automatic Identification System, as a tool has had an ever-increasing impact on the maritime industry. Its uses are expanding daily. Virtual Aids to Navigation (ATONs) have in some cases been used in lieu of actual physical buoys when maintaining such an asset would have otherwise been impossible.

A prime example of its usage is in San Francisco, Calif., harbor where the Coast Guard has 25 electronic aids (eATONs) in place. Commonly referred to as “virtual” buoys, the eATON are being transmitted through the Coast Guard’s Nationwide AIS for display on ships’ electronic charting systems and radars.

Messaging services via AIS have allowed port authorities to easily communicate to vessels in range, as a backup, weather and navigational hazard information. Additionally, AIS is used by accident investigators to compare the information that each vessel was receiving with other tools in order to determine the root cause of an accident.

Technology has greatly enhanced the performance of mariners and reduced crew needs. However, an over-reliance on technology in lieu of crew does have significant drawbacks, especially when the remaining crew may not be thoroughly familiar with the workings, maintenance and problems involved in the automation.

In order to properly prepare future mariners, maritime attorneys, vessel operators, owners and port authorities, a thorough analysis and evaluation of the impact of crew reduction tied to vessel automation technology needs to be investigated. This review must include the complex navigational suite of equipment and job distractions created by the interaction and level of sophistication of the equipment.


One of these critical tools to the mariner and navigator is ECDIS, or Electronic Chart Display and Information System.

As per a recent investigation concerning brown waters, vessels regularly display AIS information on their ECDIS or ECS plotter. However, the question was asked whether the information that is so convincingly displayed on the ECDIS screen is really what is happening outside the front window. Much debate continues on this subject, but it is readily clear that the pre-AIS days on the VHF are mostly gone.

Mariners were always trying to get the upper hand so they could get favorable tide conditions to berth safely or pass safely in restricted waters. What is not being fully recognized today is that vessels have either a Type A or Type B transponder. Where Type A transponders broadcast every few seconds, a Type B may only broadcast every 30 seconds. This means that mariners relying on AIS overlay on their radars may not always have current information.

We asked mariners why chart plotters and ECDIS still appear to be causing navigators so many operational problems, so long after the technology was introduced. The answers are numerous, ranging beyond training and familiarization to operator interaction with hardware and software as well as the brightness of the screen on the bridge.

To avoid being swamped by information, ECDIS development needs to be managed, used and presented in a task-oriented way.

This development would probably work extremely well if there were only one or two types of ECDIS, rather than the dozens available. Trainees too often complain of lack of standardization, or that the vessel they join does not have the ECDIS they have been training for.

The Nautical Institute has for many years proposed an S-mode or “standard mode” ECDIS that would be across all manufacturers’ platforms. Users would be able to press a button and operate in the standard mode. There they would have a standard menu with a normal interface and functionality. An International Maritime Organization (IMO) subcommittee on navigation met in 2018 to consider guidelines for a uniform operating mode for bridge navigation equipment. This could pave the way for future international standards covering all types of navigation equipment, including ECDIS and AIS as well as integrated navigation bridge controls.

The first responsibility in the maritime sector is to ensure that digital technologies on board vessels do not compromise safety and security.

Distracted driving research has shown that on land, automobile drivers have had ever increasing numbers of accidents tied to cell phone voice and texting usage while operating motor vehicles.

The primary duty of the navigation officer is to ensure the safe navigation of the vessel. Having spoken to some currently sailing officers, we find that the technology can be more of a distraction than intended. One of the greatest complaints is that there are too many alarms simultaneously going off. When so many of them sound the same it can be difficult to determine which equipment is faulting. One surveyed person used the term “alarm overload,” which seems very appropriate. Another common complaint is that the excessive chatter on the VHF can be distracting. If you are in a congested waterway, the VHF is rarely silent.

Survey respondents knew that mariners do not actually spend enough time looking out the window. Rule 5 states, “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.” Technology does not alleviate watchstanders of their duties, only assists them.

Another equally important factor that was revealed is that many mariners do not fully understand or know the Rules of the Road (COLREGS) and merely interpret them based on their knowledge level. This alone can have a devastating impact when you tie it to distractions and indecisions.

Across the board, it appears that most mariners are learning how to operate new equipment from on-the-job training. While this does have its benefits, risks arise when officers who are not thoroughly familiar with equipment train others improperly. Computer-based training should be made available on board for new equipment after installation. Some companies provide formal training programs and shoreside and on-vessel assessments to ensure that their mariners are fully qualified for the equipment and the vessel they use it on.

Personal technology in the pilothouse is nothing new. I remember sailing on a vessel where we were allowed to have radios playing background music at an appropriate volume. I came on to the bridge to take over the watch one day only to hear the stereo at full volume. After turning down the music, I could hear an irate mate on the bridge of another vessel screaming at us for not responding. This has only gotten worse with the advent of cell phones.

In the tragic case of the DUKW 34 and the tug Caribbean Sea, in Philadelphia, Pa., the problems of cell phone usage in the pilothouse were highlighted. Now, although most companies have banned the practice altogether, the problem still remains, according to our respondents, as there is no method in place to enforce the no-cell phone policy. Especially when the captain has a company phone and is standing watch as we were informed during a recent survey we conducted.

Awareness training campaigns should be instituted targeted to the maritime industry with a continued emphasis on the proper protocol and procedures to be adhered to in order to have a successful and safe watch. Pilothouse distraction training should be added as an additional dimension to business relationship management training.

Time management and prioritization techniques should be an integral part of training captains. Include in this program the need for additional and specific training (developing a course to address the interaction of all these factors and how to successfully interpret the data and inputs to have a safe encounter/watch/voyage).

In conclusion, we need to have a renewed emphasis on human factors and an increased focus and investment on education and training through reinforced learning and simulation as our world through sophisticated technology gets smaller and smaller. Additionally, a larger emphasis needs to be placed on basic navigation skills, greater vigilance from pilots, fewer distractions and better levels of communications up and down the chain of command.

Due to the reduction in crew, mariners are getting more and more overworked with less rest. This has proven to have caused fatigue issues with its associated decrease in awareness and mental sharpness. Now throw in the added impact of additional bridge distractions and it could be a recipe for disaster.

This is all part of an ongoing study to determine the level of distractions on the bridge. Feedback from the industry is very welcome in order for us to better understand the needs of currently sailing mariners.

Matthew Bonvento and Emil Muccin are both licensed deck officers and professors at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.