The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has released an incident report covering a tanker, Ovit, which ran aground on the Varne Bank in the Dover Strait. The vessel remained aground for just under 3 hours, there were no injuries or pollution and damage to the vessel was superficial. The investigation, however throws up some serious concerns with the watchkeeper on duty and his reliance on electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS).

Ovit’s primary means of navigation was an ECDIS and analysis of this system, its installation, training and operation form the backbone of the MAIB report. Key safety factors identified were:

•    The passage plan was unsafe as it passed directly over the Varne Bank. It had been prepared in ECDIS by an inexperienced and unsupervised junior officer and was not checked by the master before departure.
•    The OOW followed the track shown on the ECDIS display but had such poor situational awareness that it took him 19 minutes to realise the vessel was aground.
•    ECDIS safety settings were not appropriate to the local conditions and the audible alarm was disabled; after the accident, the historical track could not be recovered from the system.

In a foreword to the report, Steve Clinch, chief inspector of marine accidents, comments on the terrible regularity of incidents such as this. “This is the third grounding investigated by the MAIB where watchkeepers’ failure to use an ECDIS properly has been identified as one of the casual factors,” he remarks. “As this report is published, there are over 30 manufacturers of ECDIS equipment, each with their own designs of user interface, and little evidence that a common approach is developing. Generic ECDIS training is mandated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), but it is left to Flag States and owners to decide whether or not type-specific training is essential, though some are resorting to computer-based training once the watchkeeper is on board. In this accident, however, despite dedicated training ashore on the system they were to use, the operators’ knowledge of the ECDIS and ability to navigate their vessel safely using the system were wholly inadequate.

“Unfortunately, the current generation of ECDIS systems, though certified as complying with regulatory requirements, can be operated at a very low level of functionality and with key safety features disabled or circumvented. Training and company culture may mitigate these shortcomings to some extent, but can only go so far. While systems allow individuals to operate them in a sub standard manner, there are those who will do so: such is human nature. For all shipping companies navigation is a safety-critical function and failure to navigate effectively can and does result every year in pollution, loss of vessels, and loss of life. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the next generation of ECDIS will embody features making them less vulnerable to the vagaries of human performance to achieve a better level of assurance that safe navigation is being consistently achieved.”

"While systems allow individuals to operate them in a sub standard manner, there are those who will do so: such is human nature."

Speaking to Adrian McCourt, managing director of Watkins Superyachts, who circulated the report amongst the Watkins fleet, he agrees with Clinch’s sentiments. “It is hoped that the chief inspector’s strongly worded opening remarks will taken on board by ECDIS manufacturers who have had far too much say in the development of electronic chart displays and information systems,” McCourt says. “The current generation of ECDIS systems can be fully compliant yet simultaneously misused with key safety features disabled. Manufacturers must accept that human nature is a factor and not simply refer the end user to onerous, costly or inadequate training.”

With regards to the action of the crew on board the grounded vessel, McCourt also identifies unsatisfactory procedures. “In this case, total reliance was placed on ECDIS to the exclusion of common sense,” he adds. “Inadequate supervision or signing off the passage plan were just two features of an almost total lack of bridge team management, culminating in a grounding without warning from an inoperative audible alarm to alert an oblivious watchkeeper. For the OOW to take nineteen minutes to appreciate that the ship was aground  - even with prompting from the coastguard after fifteen – shows a spectacular lack of situational awareness.”

By circulating this report, McCourt advises captains of Watkins managed yachts to ensure that watchkeepers are competent in the correct use of ECDIS systems and that defects are reported and addressed.

The full MAIB report can be read here.