It Matters How a Mariner Learns Navigation

When the workload is too high for the junior officer the principles of BRM should be used. However in moderately difficult situations instead of the captain taking the conn let the junior officer keep the conn.

The senior officer can keep an eye on the ECDIS/Radar/AIS to ensure nothing is missed and to provide some guidance by passing information and advice verbally.

If the situation is too difficult for the junior officer to solve visually then this approach likely will not be effective.

1 Like

A simple example.

Ship is in traffic with multiple vessels but only one of immediate concern on the stbd bow. The new third mate calls the captain who comes to the bridge.

Captain could take the conn, maneuver the ship as required and then leave. Or the captain could observe while the new third mate bounces back and forth between ECIDS and Radar seeking a solution.

In my experience however the fastest way to get an inexperienced mate up to speed is for the captain to keep an eye on the overall situation while the new mate finds a solution visually.

The mate might tell the captain something like" I plan to come right and pass astern of the ship to starboard. Then we can come left and get back on track, that will keep us clear of the fishing vessels further ahead".

If that solution looks good the captain can give his OK and then observe and advise during the maneuver.


This comment is not aimed at any poster in particular. It’s meant to pleasantly inform fellow navigators who have, perhaps, done just a single maritime trade in their careers:

Do we all realize that a tug/tow can operate in very narrow waters, surrounded by granite, buffeted by tide gates with as much as ten knots of current, surrounded by kayaks and cruise ships traveling at close quarters, all watch long, day after day after day?

In those type waters, deep-sea vessels have a captain, a mate, a pilot and three ABs on watch. On a tug, or a fish tender, you have the mate or captain, and a single AB lookout who likely can’t tell the lights of a fishing boat from a Ford Fairlane at night. That’s the “bridge team”.

I’ve sailed deep-sea, all around the world, and I’ve sailed the IP most of my life. I can tell you the navigational changes of the IP would make most deep-sea mates lose their mud. I know this because I’ve gone through the Straits of Malacca, with fellow mates who confided in me they were about to lose their mud because of the perceived navigational difficulties, and the Straits of Malacca aren’t a pimple on the ass of the Jeannette Islands route of the IP. I’ve stood watch through the English Channel (had a pilot). Been through the Straits of Gibraltar in heavy traffic (yawn).

So imagine it’s 0400 on the IP, and you’re the mate on a tug, or a fish tender, and your "bridge team” is an AB who knows more about brain surgery than navigation, and you have a 1/2 mile to granite on your port side, and a 1/4 mile to granite on your starboard side, four knots of current, a passenger ship a mile ahead of you closing at 20 knots, and gillnets around you, and you lose the plotter. The half-asleep captain is on his way to the wheelhouse. What’s the plan to successfully avoid disaster in three minutes? Read a manual? Try to remember some steps? Rely on the sage advice of the AB? Open cabinets to flip breakers? Power up the spare whatever?

Or maybe, just maybe, in the three minutes you have to avert disaster, you can read a radar (hopefully parallel- indexed already), confirm your position in the channel by referring to the navlight ashore, look out the damned windows and actually pilot the damn boat. Is that too hard to fathom?

I think it is, for a lot of “navigators”. If all they’ve done in a career sailing deep-sea is handle their piece of the nav puzzle with five people in the wheelhouse every time they enter a harbor, maybe, just maybe they’re not qualified to judge what’s needed for the same degree of navigation done day-after-day by a “bridge team” of one.

Everybody says they can do that kind of navigation. I put them in a simulator and force them to do it. Then I find out some navigators struggle with it. And I don’t want my people struggling with simple piloting when the shit hits the fan. So we teach them more, and we put them in the simulator and make them do it again–harder this time. Until piloting with nothing but a radar and a light ashore is second nature to them. Then we yank the radar.

Navigation Rules They Never Teach in a MMA:

  1. No navigator ever said they were crappy at their job. And yet ships run aground all the time.
  2. When an officer runs a vessel aground, they get fired. Then they just get a job somewhere else. ( I had a captain run a vessel aground once. I fired him. He got another job as captain of a cruise ship. It ran aground. He got fired. He got a job at another cruise company as captain. He ran that ship hard aground on a sandbar…)
    3)It’s the port captain who as to pick up the pieces with the USCG, the CCG, and the insurance companies. It’s the port captain who has to figure out how to stop the foolishness before it starts. You want to find out why boats aground? Ask the types who have to pick up the pieces. Not the types who go back out there are do it again.

No navigator every said he was crappy at his job… :slight_smile:


You seem dead set against it but powering up a spare laptop that’s air gapped with it’s own GPS antenna and plotting software is the most reliable solution. AIS and GPS positioning has made navigation much safer. Nostalgia isn’t going to help you when there’s a cruise ship blocking one navlight and a BC ferry blocking the other, especially in the narrow channel you’re describing where you may only have one light visible, sometimes none.

The sort of piloting you are describing relies on the radar almost exclusively, both for position confirmation and collision avoidance. Two things there, for one realistic scenarios where you lose GPS functionality often include loss of a radar as well. One of the first things I do when I come aboard any vessel is use the thermal camera on my phone to scan for loose and dangerous electrical connections under the dash. The radar power supplies and wiring are often run with the plotter/GPS, and a fire would take out both. Do you have your nav equipment power connections scanned with thermal camera on a schedule? Using the radar as a primary positional tool is going to take away from your collision avoidance situational awareness on a one man bridge team, it cannot do otherwise.

Your company is in a unique position to conduct this sort of training and has a unique company culture that encourages it. That’s awesome, but you might want to consider that there are new tools and techniques available, and a prudent navigator will use the best tools he has at his disposal. Being able to pilot by sight and radar is a great tool and a reliable one, but I have been in too many situations where they were inadequate for the task at hand to believe I am too good of a navigator to need a plotter, GPS and AIS.

Have you considered turning the plotter off (with someone supervising on another plotter) and having your mates run from say Sand Point to King Cove by sight/radar? Or are they too busy working cargo? Simulators are great but nothing beats the real thing.

And you seem dead set on believing the spare laptop will work when you open it. :slight_smile:

We have spare laptops with their own GPS units. We also have Ipads with nav software and Bad Elf GPS units. All set to go, as checked off on the voyage departure checklist. The captains usually bring their own laptops and GPS units. Where have I said that these wouldn’t be resorted to if the primary plotter fails? I haven’t.

A similar situation: The autopilot connected to the satellite compass always work. Until it doesn’t. Then we switch to the autopilot running off the magnetic compass. Until that doesn’t work. Then we steer by hand. Who steers? If I didn’t make a rule saying that ABs had to steer a few hours a day crossing the Gulf to practice every voyage, they wouldn’t know how to steer at all. It’s a nostalgic thing to hand steer.

But once every ten years or so a boat loses both autopilots for some time. And once I was told by a captain that that OOWs had to hand steer on their watches by themselves, while piloting down the Inside, because the ABs didn’t know how to steer. How is that safe? All because of faulty planning for the eventuality of systems failure.

To quote a great American boxing philosopher, Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face.

We train navigators to pilot with radar, compass, and eye, in case we have to. Why is that baffling? How is that nostalgic? It seems to me we train to a higher standard of coastal piloting than some companies do (not all companies, by any means). Why is that controversial? If other companies don’t want to to do it, fine.

But this is a company whose culture inclines towards preparing for the worst. We have our own firefighting simulator, one of the biggest on the West Coast. Crews go through it annually. Now, in the case of an actual engine room fire, my personal inclination is to not have a crew make a hose or extinguisher attack on it. My inclination is to simply close the doors and activate the fixed system. The system is checked very year. Can be activated twice. No muss, no fuss.

And yet every year we send our crews through some of hardest marine firefighting training there is, making direct attacks on nasty fires. No different than hand steering. No different than piloting by eye, compass, and radar. It’s a skill that might be needed when all else fails, but one that needs periodic practice to maintain proficiency…

I spoke with one of our captains about this. He said he loses a plotter, for some period of time, every year or so. He says he’s never been without a functioning radar. His experience. Others will differ.

We use our own training boat to practice piloting, up and down the Salish Sea, particularly for pilotage waiver training, for five to ten days at a time.

Interesting idea. I’ll talk to our nav electronics guy about it.


The days of three ABs on watch are long gone. Just have one. For most pilot passages of any length it will be three, Pilot, Mate and AB.


Well, yes. I test it regularly and it has a lot of battle scars. It could fail. It’s still the best way to get the most information to me the quickest.

Sure but there’s diminishing returns on planning for unlikely failures. I have a plan for dealing with a hull breach that’s flooding a freezer hold, modern version of a fothering sail. I have a plan for frames progressively cracking along the keel, modern version of warping a hawser around the ship to hold her together. I actually locate materials and drill for the first one, because even though it’s unlikely it’s far more likely than the second one.

That’s sort of my point. If you’re losing a plotter once a year you’re either making a poor choice in equipment (usually buying an off the shelf monitor instead of one designed for vibratory environments) or the equipment is mounted/installed wrong. It seems like solving that issue would take precedent over planning for it’s failure.
This is less applicable to your operation because you guys seem to plan and prepare for everything. I’m surprised your boats don’t have meteor shields. But it is something I see come up often. Using a thermal camera to scan for potential fire risks is a good example. Especially in freezer hold wiring. Everyone has fire drills. Very few operations have proper fire prevention programs.

1 Like

Hmm, let me think about that . I’m sure George Broom & Sons Rigging could come up with something… :thinking:

1 Like

Well, I never said I was a crappy Navigator! I haven’t even admitted here that I made mistakes until now! You make a good point about not admitting to being crappy. I have noticed when either applying for nearly any job or trying to justify being already in a position to the new super or Captain that no one seems to want to hear of the mistakes that you may have made and what you learned from them! I made two real boners as a Navy Navigator. First one after a Pacific transit to find Da Nang framed by the kingposts! This was my first deep water trip as the Nav and out of the engine room. The boo-boo was appraching the pier I got concerned that the soundings were getting very close to our known draft. The only one who seemed concerned in the Nav team was me! Just about the time I was about to yell something we came to a stop along the pier and the heaving lines were tossed over. As my blood pressure and respiration returned to normal it dawned that that fathometer number was beneath the KEEL where the transducer was! Greenhorn mistake? Yes. Should I have said something if I truly thought we were about to run aground? Yes. The Captain thought so when I told him of my error after the fact. The second boner was when we were in formation with the flagship westerly heading south of Pratus Reef. The flagship was to starboard about two miles as I recall and when I transferred the sight from plotting sheet to nav chart it held the flagship standing into shoal water in about an hour. Told the skipper and he said talk to your counterpart on secure voice which I did. Well, to shorten this I had to admit to everyone including my counterpart that I finally discovered my error of 10 minutes of latitude when transferring to the chart! Basic? You bet. Embarrassing? Roger that. Correct? Better to wipe egg off face than regret saying nothing. Did I include these sea stories when I trained midshipmen from the US and Australia? Yes and more.

The learning curve can be very steep when you get thown in the deep end. The lessons learned in the deep end are indelible unlike the fading images of the classroom. The modern day simulators should be capable to bring out the sweat on the trainee or they are a waste.

1 Like

The simulators today are much more realistic than the cartoons of 20+ years ago. Flight Safety had some decent ones in Newport ,R. I. as did KP. but no depth perception. I went slow as fuck docking because could not grasp the lack of footage/perspective. After I retired was asked to attend a few seminars in Norfolk Va to help the mariners doing simulations at the particular site. I told them it is not realistic and no way to gauge a persons competence with the platform provided. I hear they are a lot better now regarding graphics. Doesn’t matter to me now, but may to an upcoming third mate that thinks this shit is real. Make them sweat in the classroom. Will pay off later when they have the actual stick in their hand. Sleep well my friends.

1 Like

BRM principles must always be followed, no matter who keep the conn. All the rest is derived from it.

In Malacca and Singapore Straits if the 3 cm radar is being used for ARPA when an intense rain squall strikes and fills the entire 3cm display with rain clutter; all targets on the ARPA will be lost and it will require shifting to the 10 cm and reacquiring the targets.

Things can go wrong in any of those places if you make enough transits.

1 Like

OJT has always been the best trainer. Stand behind/beside the guy/gal with the stick. Cartoons do not impress me. Do they help, perhaps. Get your hands dirty and pucker up.

Not talking about learning, talking about teaching. For new third mates sailing deep-sea the obvious approach to learning is the wrong one.

That works until you run aground or kill a family out in their disabled sailboat. Like was mentioned previously, if you do that on the IP now the Canadians pull your pilotage waiver and you have to run outside. That can add weeks to a transit in wintertime.

Has nothing to do with standing by with a green mate trying to get his chops. OJT is real.

That’s what I do, train mates while they are on the job. I crew change in the U.S., sail around the world then another crew change in the U.S. Start again with a new mate.

Interestingly enough:
About 25 years ago we had a boat run aground in the Jeanette Islands area. This was before we had plotters, and proves the usefulness of plotters. The very same thing you describe happened while the mate was on watch: rain squalls came in and filled the screen with spurious little islands, in a patch of ocean filled with islets and rocks. Couldn’t tell one from the other on screen.

It was the mate’s first voyage with the company. He was supposedly experienced. I found out later he was fired by another company for practicing "insufficient navigation”, but the vetting I did before hiring him never turned up that nugget. He was poor at manual plotting/radar fixing, and t-boned an islet marked by a red light!

If he had a plotter it likely never would have happened. A ten year old can navigate with a plotter. Which shows the usefulness of plotters. Few brains needed. But then, I only say “likely”. The most disastrous grounding on the IP in recent history was the Queen of the North, a large ferry. Two people killed. She had every conventional electronic navigation aid known to man in the wheelhouse, as well as three capable, experienced mariners. And they still managed to miss a turn and plow into an island, not far from a big blinking light. Reason: nothing more or less than distraction. Talking to each other. The story gets more lurid that that, but really, it was just a heated discussion. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it, missing a turn like that at night…

So if you’re a port captain, trying to figure out how to prevent groundings on the IP, you have to consider that distraction is a big danger. Arguably bigger than fatigue, because no one on the IP has ever died from fatigue, that I know of. Redundant electronics didn’t help the Queen of the North. Like a lot of groundings and collisions nowadays, looking out the window would have.

How do you fight distraction?

1 Like

Always found “Looking out the window” to be helpful in solving potential problems. KC, I feel your pain. Those green guys need a mentor. Remember when you started out? Good for you sir, they will thank you later.

You may be forgetting small fishing boats such as gillnetter and trawler crews falling asleep at the wheel traveling between openings and crashing into rocks and islands. I remember it happening once or twice every fishing season. Distraction wasn’t much of an issue when navigating by radar and eyeball was all we had as much as fatigue due to lack of sleep.