Losing the Plot - Navigation / Piloting / Collision Avoidance

So we have a new third mate, making his first trip at sea. Sharp guy, learns fast.

The ship is transiting through a short passage between reefs, maybe about four of five miles wide, daytime, good visibility. At the end of the passage there’s a turn into more open water. The ends on both sides of the passage can be easily seen visually and are marked by aids. There are a few fishing boats moving around in the vicinity.

A simple problem by eye but that’s not how the third mate does it. Instead he monitors the distance to the turn using the ECDIS and the fishing boats using ARPA. Which means instead of keeping a lookout he needs to race back and forth between the two display with an occasional glance outside.

This is just an example, almost all third mates do this and more than a few officers of higher rank and a lot more experience.

This, I think is easier said than done:

Push officers to realize that the change in a rough visual ‘bearing’, taken from a fixed point within the wheelhouse, is sometimes good enough to determine if any risk of collision is likely to exist. This beats running to the radar every few minutes and playing computer games there for each target. It also helps in keeping a good lookout.

From here. Losing the Plot

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Thus my purchase of AIS, if you aren’t on one of the TV screens you don’t exist :roll_eyes:
With flight students I had a bunch of those round suction cup soap holders to put over round instruments and switches to turn off the displays, they HAD to look outside :wink:

The officers that can juggle a lot of information in their head are the ones that take the most time and effort to teach.

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I think the answer is that you have to do everything. You must keep monitoring visual, radar and navigation and if the passage is difficult or the fishing boats numerous it would be better for someone else to be assisting. You can’t say don’t look in the radar, but you can say don’t stay there for long.

Whatever happened to the centreline pelorus from which actual bearings could determine collision risks constantly? And observe wheel over bearings for the next course from the marks at the end of the passage? We used to do this from a plan transcribed into a notebook.

That’s roughly how it’s done, I think that in each case the solution to the navigation/piloting problem lies somewhere on the spectrum between 100% visual and 100% instrument (for example in dense fog). Everything else is somewhere between those two points.

Doing it is not the issue however, the problem is getting someone else to do it.


As master, more often then not, screamed at the top of my lungs: LOOK OUT THE F’KG WINDOW, MATE!!!

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Overreliance on electronic instruments is a cultural thing, hard to overcome. Younger captains say the older generation over-relies on non-instrument piloting, and they need to get over themselves. They say, when the older navigators retire the “problem” will magically disappear.

People born after 1990 are perfectly happy viewing the world as a digital construct. In their view, any faux pas a new navigator might make in regards to not using traditional methods can just be blamed on inexperience in general, not on overreliance on this or that.

But if you want a well-rounded pilot, IMO, you have to teach them non-instrument piloting from their earliest days, to the exclusion of instrument piloting, and drill down hard. Instrument piloting takes a few days to master. Non-instrument piloting can take months to form ‘muscle memory’.

I was delivering a yacht recently, with an airline pilot as my fellow navigator. Fighter pilot turned airline pilot, and an experienced yachter. Great guy. After the first day at sea he asked me in the wheelhouse, “Why are you always getting out of the chair to look out astern? There’s nothing on the radar.” Why? Muscle memory. The itch you can’t scratch.

(You’ll never get a navigator of any age to admit they lack the muscle memory. I’ve never heard a navigator say, “Sheesh, you know, when I think about it, I’m crappy at piloting. Thank god for plotters…")

My guess, from observing academy students, is that their initial non-instrument training is shallow. I take them out for eleven days on boats doing nothing but non-instrument piloting. (Magnetic compass by day. Add a radar by night.) Night, especially, is terrifying for them. It’s apparent they are taught theory, but they are not being drilled hard. It’s not muscle memory.

Immerse academy students in the practice day-after-day, 10 hours a day, and most pick it up fast. But how to retain it? Dry out an alcoholic by locking him in a room. He’ll just goes back to the bottle when he leaves.

Where I work, we put our navigators in simulators to maintain the skill. Pilot through San Francisco Bay at night, with just a radar and compass, or through the dog-leg turns of the San Juan Islands, dodging big ferries and little kayaks.

A lot of time and effort. Better it was drilled in as muscle memory early on. But to be honest, the younger captains will say the “problem” is just lack of experience, and that if nav tech had not changed since 1980, old captains would still be grumbling about something.


Everything is a simple problem by eye until you run up on a reef or crush a fishing boat killing everyone aboard.

I think the concern about younger navigators over relying on instruments is valid, my issue is generally with the response. ‘What if you lost GPS and radar?’ is a valid question, but if your response is to pull out a paper chart you’re just nostalgic, and nostalgic for a time when men died at sea far more often.

I have zero nostalgia for doing things the old way. The “what if the GPS fails” argument is really not what it’s about, not for me at least.

From my point of view the issue is; on a ninety day trip how many hours am I going to have to spend on the bridge? Even a small improvement in the third mate’s abilities is going to greatly reduce the amount of time that a two-man bridge is required.

Improving the skill of the watch officers in general is going to reduce overall risk.


It’s not exactly over-reliance that’s what I’m thinking about. Rather it is the lack of any ability whatsoever to conn by visually means.

That old required radar plotting test, with the three contacts? One contact was DIW, one was on a reciprocal course and one was SBDR.

Passing the test required altering course to starboard and passing astern of the one SBDR contact. That or a similar test could be given to obtain a 3rds. Only done in a simulator visually.

And something like a constant radius turn around a buoy.

Ok, I think I see what you’re getting at and that makes sense.

A rough change in visual bearing can trick you though. One thing I see in older captains that younger ones seem to lack is any sort of understanding about different fishing gear types and how that vessel is likely to behave. To some of the younger guys it’s ‘a fishing boat’ whose main reason for existence is to make their watch more stressful, whereas some of the older guys can briefly watch a radar plot or AIS signal and know exactly what that boat is up to and how it’s likely to behave in that area and time of year.

I have no idea why anyone would be ‘running between’ a radar and something else. That’s just poor bridge design or lack of technical acumen on the bridge teams part.

Which IMO is because their non-instrument piloting training was shallow in the academy, which in itself is a function of time and money. Piloting/conning is down on the agenda for academy training these days. Collison avoidance is at the top.

I work with a guy who designs simulations for an academy. Nearly all simulations, he said, have a little piloting but they are really about collision avoidance. If most of your training is simulations, and most of the simulation time is spent on avoiding collisions, you’re not going to have time to train people in conning visually. Do you even get it on a training ship underway, with 40 first classmen to run through the bridge? Probably not.

New third mates are like doctors just out of medical school: it’s presumed that more experienced doctors will actually teach them their trade, on the job. Until then, it suffices that they don’t actually kill anyone.

Sure, understood, can’t expect a newly graduated third to have the same skills as an experienced officer.

What I’m saying is this:

Push officers to realize that the change in a rough visual ‘bearing’, taken from a fixed point within the wheelhouse, is sometimes good enough to determine if any risk of collision is likely to exist.

should not be a Sisyphean task.

Not even saying they need to be able to do it, at least not at first. Just need at least some exposure in school to the concept. Should be doable now that simulators are now more widely available.

EDIT: I understand that some deep-sea companies are requiring some simulator time as a condition of employment.

No matter whether your using the latest electronic tracking aid, or simple eye balling it. If that bearing never changes then the results will be the same…

Oh, I agree a 100%. But these skills are no longer the focus of piloting training. Before ECDIS and simulators, the precision wasn’t there, so eyeballing the relative motion of a target was a key skill. But the precision is available now, so the skill is shoved down the academic agenda until it’s nearly forgotten.

It’s all a function of ECDIS and simulation training. The purpose of the simulation is to get the most out of ECDIS. You’re one of 40 students vying for simulator time, to pass a course. Visual conning is an afterthought. You’re not going to lose points by not knowing it. You need to focus on the plotter display to pass the course, so that when the instructor asks you the true bearing of that target, you can snap back, “090.5 degrees, sir!” Point-five degrees!?!? It’s all about precision, to pass the course. Not to be practical at piloting. Two slightly different things.

When I show academy students how to take a visual rough bearing, their expression says, “Are you kidding me? No one will ever expect me to do that.” But they learn different after a year at sea.

Change the agenda? Push back at academy deans.

Academies are not run by sailors. They are run by the educational bureaucracy with PhDs. These are not practical people.

It’s most important to teach the kids a liberal well rounded education. They most need to know the preferred pronouns for the 0.01% of the population that is not a simple he or she. Situational awareness at sea is not as important as teaching them gender studies and how to squat to pee.

We are incredibly lucky that academy kids still manage to learn as much about piloting and collision avoidance as they do.

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what about when worse than a gps failure your position gets moved by hackers spoofing the signal?

Pushing the officers towards the visual end of the visual / instrument spectrum has the advantage of improving the odds in the case of GPS spoofing but it’s not the primary motivation behind the push.

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Didnt read all of this, but the answer as to why young mates do this is because it’s exactly what they were trained to do at our academies.

We absolutely were taught to float constantly between visual scan, radar, ecdis, fathometer, and chart, spending no undue amount of time at any one of these. Throw in a few visual bearings on the repeaters if coastwise and radio calls to local traffic. This would entail constantly marching around the bridge.

Standing on the centerline and nodding towards fishboats saying, “no problem, we won’t hit them” would absolutely have gotten a non-satisfactory score in academy BRM.

Not saying this is right but it is certainly what was taught at my academy.


Maybe it’s partly because it’s the technique they learned but I think the larger factor is new mates only learn how to evaluate traffic using the bird-eye view that radar supplies. The view from bridge level takes some practice before a new mate becomes effective.

The visual information is not used exclusively but instead as a method to screen which vessels are no threat and which ones require more attention. For example some vessels may require acquiring on the ARPA while for example small vessel far away with large bearing change can be safely monitored visually.

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