It Matters How a Mariner Learns Navigation

This is an off-shoot of this thread - When the GPS Goes Belly Up

I realize this is heresy but with regards to the dependency on nav plots, either manual or electronic it’s worth taking a look at how the Navy / CG trains new officers.

In my experience at least when the most junior officer is given the conn they are stationed near the center-line forward and only have direct access to visual information. Any information derived from other aids such as ECDIS-type equipment or radar plots is passed verbally.

This forces the conning officer to learn how to interpret visual information without becoming dependent on nav equipment, equipment that simplifies reality.

Of course the Navy has had some high-profile accidents These failures have been attributed, among other things, to the structure of the bridge team, but the team can be seen as a network to process information. Networks can fail in other ways besides being structured incorrectly.


On the one hand, I can understand why they would do this, but on the other I’d hate to rely on someone else feeding me critical information. BRM is combining every tool available in order to make safe and prudent decisions, and if someone reads it wrong, or confusion on an already overmanned bridge sets in… you know the rest.


I think the amount and behavior of traffic where one learns plays a big part as well.

On it’s face navigating the Inside Passage in the more intricate sections seems a more difficult task than towing surveying gear in the Gulf of Mexico. The obstructions are clearly marked and well lit and the traffic is visible a long way off.

The amount and behavior of that traffic makes it more difficult. Managing 5,6, any number of contacts while some of those contacts either don’t know what red-white-red is or don’t care forces you to either learn to process a lot of information or freeze up. Even when there is a lot of traffic on the Inside Passage the traffic is better behaved and more likely to be following the RoR. I’ve never had to shoot a flare at a crossing vessel on the IP.


There’s also wading slowly into the shallow end vs getting shoved into the deep end.

In the C.G. I waded into the shallow end with only being required to keep a plot while observing what else was going on. When I took my first job as mate on coastal freighter running up the IP I got shoved into the deep end. I found the first trip from Seattle to Dutch and back to be very difficult even though I had run they before as a QM in the CG.

The captain on that freighter didn’t understand how difficult it was for me because he had waded into the shallow end having come up on the fishing boats as a deckhand and becoming slowly familiar that way so seemed nothing difficult about it to the captain.


Getting shoved into the deep end can be beneficial depending on how you handle it.

I’ve noticed some people eventually take a ‘well, can’t worry about it too much I’ll go crazy’ approach and start trusting luck and fate - you see this in heavy fog a lot. After having a heart attack the first couple times they bump a deadhead they just stop worrying about whether the next one is a couple of kids out in their dads skiff with a broken outboard - that’s when it gets dangerous.

Having to take your own watch at a young age as is customary on fishing vessels (catchers anyways) is good nav and BRM training but only if the boat has high standards. Otherwise people just slide into the ‘it’ll be fine’ trap when they stop being nervous. Never stop being nervous is something I post in the wheelhouse regularly.

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My first ship out of school, I remember the old Captain asked me before my watch started (Westbound, Strait of Gibraltar) “are you nervous?” to which I replied, “yes, sir.” Turning slowly and wandering below, I heard him mutter, “good.”


Well, sometimes. There’s reason why apprentice pilots have to get their trips in before piloting alone.

In any case that experience is why I understand the difficulty of prying new mates away from the ECIDS. They don’t have have confidence in visual piloting, they require a plotted position to feel confidant.

Once I’d seen most of the IP it was a piece of cake, in good weather at least.

The title of the thread is ambiguous: do you mean matters, as in things, or matters, as an adjective, as in importance? Both would work I guess.

In the very small world of Aleutian freighters, the old way was for ABs to ask the OOW to teach them how to navigate. On Aleutian freighters the helm is on autopilot most of the time, while the OOW pilots. There’s enough time in straight sections like Johnstone for the OOW to show an interested AB how the basics are done. A lot of good training goes on this way. The same things is done on tugs.

Most mates on Aleutian freighters start out of MMAs, as second mates. But they can’t stand a watch on the British Columbia portion of the IP, because of pilotage waiver rules. An OOW needs ten documented passages through Seymour Narrows before they can stand as OOW through it. Same thing for other passages and waterways. Very strict rules. Run aground, and a company can lose their pilotage waiver

So, companies operating under the waiver system make doubly sure any new deck officer coming into the system can navigate in any situation, as opposed to just following the plot on the electronic chart.

In my company, before we submit their name to the Pacific Pilotage Authority as part of our waiver system, a new navigator has to complete the piloting simulation course, which brings them up to speed on piloting solely by radar, and visually. Then, they have a very basic chart memorization class covering the three routes of the IP.

Next, they make two training voyages on the company’s 65’ training boat through the Salish Sea. The first voyage takes about eleven days. The trainees pilot visually. No GPS, and very little radar. Part of this training puts the trainee with other trainees and a trainer in a 17’ open boat, without engine, traveling through the IP by oar and sail. This bizarre training does a number of things. Traveling at a snail’s pace, subject to strong currents, the trainee spends six days pouring over the charts. They learn all the areas of strong currents, because they have to row to deal with these. Screw ups= physical suffering, because trainees have to row for hours-and-hours unnecessarily.

The trainer in the boat also gets to see whether the trainee is leader or not, and how that officer handles themselves in dangerous situations. Do they freeze up? Can they make a decision while physically exhausted? Are they slipshod at their work? A navigator might be part of the waiver, but they might not progress to chief mate.

Once they complete this first training voyage, passage waiver training is scheduled later on. This might be just one trainee working with one trainer on the 65’ boat, making multiple passes through key points of the IP, helping to get necessary pilotage time.

That nowadays, is how our mariners learn navigation matters.


Yeah, but I was just given the watch. You too I’d guess. When Capt Doug came up to relieve me he’d always say the same thing. “Is this all the fur you got?”

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One of the tricky things about the IP is when encountering a difficult traffic situation (multiple vessels meeting with one vessel behaving erratically in poor visibility or so on) slowing to bare steerageway to assess the situation is not possible due to current conditions. Well, it’s possible but ‘bare steerageway’ is a lot faster than desired.

Unfortunately the traffic chokepoints often coincide with current raceways. You have to learn to anticipate those situations farther in advance, and you have to have a good feel for how far you can slow the vessel before it becomes unstable.

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By way of analogy, say two people in a car navigating between two points in a city neither has been in before.

The navigator does not look out the window, only uses the GPS to guide the driver using verbal instructions. The driver does not look at the GPS, only looks out the window, guided by the verbal instructions of the navigator.

After a few trips between the same two points the driver will be able to easily navigate without the aid of the navigator but the navigator would have have difficulty shifting to driving alone as none of the landmarks out the window would be familiar.

By how the mariner learns I meant it’s path dependent.

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Same as me, yes. But back then when you ran aground the Canadians shrugged. Shipyard would cost $30K. Nobody cared about a schedule.

Nowadays shipyard costs $1 mil. Boats keep 28-day schedules to plus or minus 12 hours, even in winter. And if you run aground, the PPA yanks your waiver. No IP for you.


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I’m screenshotting this post and showing it to CTI North if they tell me my parts aren’t there yet :slight_smile:

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Yes, Doug Serwold.

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Looked up terms never seen before: ECDIS - Electronic Chart Display Information System that seems akin to that Lowrance GPS chart plotter thingy I had on our Rosborough 246 a few years back. BRM - Bridge Resources Management seems similar to the airlines Crew Coordination to replace the crusty old Captain saying, “Sit down, strap in, shut-up, do what I tell you when I tell you.” Captain, First Officer in recent times alternated “legs” of the days flight sched to keep from wearing out one guy to worthless.

I thought the ECDIS concept was a great improvement in chart navigation since it integrated the nautical chart, continuous positioning via GPS, plotting just about everything imaginable and recording everything for post-trip review. Very easy for a small yacht drawing 13 INCHES of water to avoid grounding but considering some of the places we put in during Navy nav of a ship drawing 18 FEET any improvement of “right now” nav info was great! Integrating the display to include fathometer, SOG and whatnot is genius. Still requires some kind of plan what to do if it pukes.

The key part is allowing the junior officer to keep the conn in moderately difficult situations. Conning the vessel in actual situations is the practice the junior officers need to gain confidence in finding solutions using non-electronic means.

The senior officer can keep an eye on the ECDIS and/or ARPA to check the solutions and still keep an eye on the overall situation.

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“The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on 28 April 1789. Disaffected crewmen, led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and set him and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship’s open launch. The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island. Bligh navigated more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) in the launch to reach safety, and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice.”

Yes, if I was to learn navigation, I’d like to learn it like Lieutenant Bligh did.


He actually corrected the positions of some islands that had been incorrectly charted by [quote=“Anonnymouus, post:17, topic:57470, full:true”]
“The mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on 28 April 1789. Disaffected crewmen, led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, seized control of the ship from their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh, and set him and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship’s open launch. The mutineers variously settled on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island. Bligh navigated more than 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi) in the launch to reach safety, and began the process of bringing the mutineers to justice.”

Yes, if I was to learn navigation, I’d like to learn it like Lieutenant Bligh did.

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Don’t know what happened there but I suspect a rather fat finger and the devious mindlessness of an IPad. Bligh trained under Captain Cook.

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I have heard that about sixty years ago some old captains kept a radar locked by a steel bar and a padlock with a key on their neck chain. Are you trying to do the same with ECDIS and train junior officers just as Captain Cook did with his midshipmen two centuries ago?
However, please keep in mind that proper usage of ECDIS, the same as continuous (sic) radar/ARPA watch is mandatory. Moreover, usage of ECDIS can be not only a legal requirement but also makes our life a little easier and shipping business safer and more efficient.

In relation to the original thread i.e. “When the GPS goes belly up” - I would like to say that GPS is not the only one GNSS available and “position verification” should not be mixed up with “break down ECDIS”.
Verification of ECDIS primary position is quite simple and based on standard cross-check procedures. The navigator can use traditional methods as manual visual/radar fix, PI (Parallel Indexing), DR and depth comparison or even celestial navigation. Additionally, there are also more sophisticated eNav function as RIO (Radar Image Overlay), sonar depth auto comparison or just simple secondary GNSS sensors if available.

While in the event of ECDIS failure, the bridge team just have to follow emergency procedures according to the ISM Code. Each navigator should be familiar with the bridge contingency plan and have completed appropriate training i.e. BRM, generic and also approve type-specific ECDIS course. Ship handling simulator training is also highly recommended.
Training on the FMBS (Full Mission Bridge Simulator) usually can be part of IMO standardized BRM or Ship Handling, which can also be standard training package or just ship/sailing area specific.

In fact, I do not know the details of the training mentioned by our colleague, what procedures are being followed, what kind exercises are presented and/or art simulation and Crisis Interface used. However in my opinion, such two-day simulator training limited to the visual navigation in the specific area may only be of little use as part of dedicated training for local pilots or masters applying for pilots exemption.
I am curious what kind of nautical publications are used during such training and how retraining should look like for those that are not the best or maybe just a little younger. And the last but not least how, when and under what circumstances the experience gained will be used.

In my company the situation is clear that all navigators should renew standard BRM training every five years. Additionally the SHS (Ship Handling Simulator) “ship specific” is compulsory every five years for senior officer and recommended for the rest mates.
The OCIMF just a few days ago published a new paper about ECDIS. I think it is worth reading.

P.S. It was my first post so maybe I should introduce myself.
In your terminology, I’m just a “low pay villager who doesn’t know math”. Of course, I completely disagree with such a statement and I have good reasons for it. :wink: