Navigation in a digital age: ECDIS training for maritime pilots



Mike Pearsall, Business Development Manager, ECDIS Ltd., Fareham, UK


As ECDIS mandation looms, ECDIS training for port pilots is becoming increasingly important

Marine navigation is currently experiencing its greatest reform since the introduction of radio communications and the development of radar – some argue even as big as the transition from sail to steam. The change is affecting everyone from deck officers to chart agents, fleet superintendents to inspecting officers and crewing managers to pilots.

In case you’ve been living underground for the last few years, I’m talking about the mandatory introduction of ECDIS to the world’s fleets. Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems, to give them their full name, are a specialized form of Geographic Information System (GIS) built to meet strict performance standards laid down by the IMO, the latest version of which, MSC.232 (82), was adopted in December 2006.

Common misconceptions about ECDIS

What is unique about ECDIS is that, together with correctly installed official electronic charts (ENCs, or RNCs in RCDS mode) and appropriate training, it satisfies the legal carriage requirements for charts, as laid down in SOLAS Chapter V. It is important to note that ECDIS is all too frequently confused with its lesser cousin ECS (simply, Electronic Chart Systems), which although subject to an ISO database standard (laid down in ISO 19379), does not meet the SOLAS carriage requirements  and therefore cannot replace paper charts. Furthermore, readers should be aware that contrary to popular misinformation, ECDIS is in no way reliant upon a GNSS (GPS) input; it can continue to be effectively monitored in Dead Reckoning (DR) mode, with traditional visual, radar and sometimes other (manufacturer dependent) fixing methods.

As it stands, many ships say they have an ECDIS fitted, but the reality is less than 5% of the world’s fleet have installed a typeapproved system that satisfies all of the regulations associated with the rolling installation program mandated by the IMO in June 2009. Furthermore, when the Manila amendments to STCW come into force on 1st January 2012, every deck officer who keeps a bridge watch is now required to have completed formal ECDIS training, both in generic principles and, in many cases (flag state dependent), the specific operation of each system he will use.

Aside from the expense and differences in flag-state regulations, the hardware and training requirements for shipping companie and their crews are actually quite clear-cut and simple; install a system and train your crews on that system.

Specialist ECDIS training for pilots

In contrast, one group of seafaring individuals has been somewhat forgotten by this technological revolution. Pilots play an essential role in the shipping industry, by ensuring vessels complete the inherently dangerous initial and final stages of their voyage without incident. Their ability to do this, of course, relies on intricate local knowledge of an area, but almost certainly requires reference to a nautical chart, if not just to explain the situation and plan to a ship’s master. Given that ECDIS is now becoming that very chart, a pilot needs to understand it and differences they will witness. In its role of fusing navigational information in a single display, an ECDIS screen can provide an up-to-the-second indication of the movement – and predicted movement – of the vessel. This can be of considerable reassurance to both the pilot and master, as tight turns are negotiated and the final stages of berthing or unberthing are completed.

More crucially, another benefit of ECDIS is the ability to tailor the display to the navigational task at hand whether that be ocean passage by day or anchoring by night. The mariner can specify the draught of his vessel and the system will automatically delineate between safe and unsafe water with a so-called ‘safety contour’. He can also choose what features to display on his chart, whether that be object names, light sectors or shallow water pattern, for example. When correctly configured, the system will also alert the mariner of pending dangers – a particularly useful safety feature, if correctly employed.


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