What navigation and ship handling skills (without instruments) should junior officer have?

There’s a large range of opinions as to what level of skills ship’s officers should have.

I’d say a ship’s officer should be able to do the following by eye alone without any instruments such as radar or GNSS/GPS

  1. Approach and enter a buoyed channel from an angle. Say a channel 3 or 4 miles wide at an angle of 30 or 40 degrees.

  2. Get and stay more or less in the middle of that channel after entering. Within a mile of the center.

  3. Avoid an floating object dead ahead by first turning either way then shifting rudder.

  4. Avoid a ship crossing ahead CBDR starboard to port by coming right passing astern then turning back onto the original course. 1 mile CPA, not closer then 1/4 mile, not over 3 miles.


I would hope so!

Your list resembles the requirements for the simulator assessments being done by the unions and certain companies right now. Maybe not exactly, but definitely in general.

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Just to add a few -

check bearing drift looking out the window
find natural ranges at anchor to check anchor position


The old radar renewal problem might be a good one. Three ships, one DIW, one same course and the third closing on a steady bearing would be a good test. That’s a useful skill when the watch officer just wants to drink a cup of coffee and watch instead of having their head stuck in the ARPA. But it might be too difficult for a new officer.

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an aside - we were at simulator training with some big shots from the office watching - they would continue to ramp up the problems unitl they had you in trouble - so at one point i was full over and full ahead seeing if I could make it through something - at that point i left the “window” and started to walk around a bit - one of the office folks asked me what I was looking for - I said the coffee pot - he said something like don’t you have a lot going on - my answer was " I am full ahead and hard over, in about 3 minutes we will know if it works, but for the next 3 minutes i have nothing else I can do - though i would get a cup of coffee"


The old “it’s in gods hands now” approach. I approve. :smile:


This is a direct violation of Rules 2, 7 and 19 depending and visibility. This is a fine exercise for a simulator, but in reality I would imagine the Captains, lawyers, and insurance folks would much rather an inexperienced mate increase the bridge watch condition if the Radar and GPS were not an option.


“Sorry about running you over, but I turned off all my screens” isn’t a good defense in court, but that doesn’t mean you should HAVE to have them on a clear day to get anywhere. I am not sure the OP was suggesting doing that.

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If you work for the government, some ships don’t require any ship handling skills at all !!

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At CTI we have two programs learn/maintain these skills:

1)We put deck officers in Seattle Maritime Academy’s simulator. The simulation is developed/run by our captains. No collision avoidance per se. It is all what we call ‘piloting’: navigation by eye, radar, sounder, and paper charts. No GPS or plotter.

The simulation is of places like San Francisco Bay at night. Areas complex enough to prove a challenge but small enough you can cross large parts of it in a couple of hours. Ideally, areas where shore lights interfere with navaid lights, adding to the difficulty.

Much of the first day of training is planning the passage. Then the trainees make a transit of the bay. Something easy, to dial them in. The second day a captain and a mate will team up as OOW and lookout and make a two hour transit of the bay/waterways. Later in the day they rotate their positions.

The officers who began sailing prior to about 2000 have no problem. They were raised on navigating that way, in a tough part of the world. Newly minted officers often fail at first, get lost, run aground, etc… But they learn quickly. The question of course is how long they retain the skill.

  1. We have a separate program for newly minted mates, using our 65’ training boat, Curlew. We pair an experienced captain with the new mate. Over about five days they will pilot the Curlew on the Salish Sea as far south as Olympia and as far north as the San Juan Islands. They use just magnetic compass, sounder, and paper charts. This forces the trainee to get used to looking out the window, and increases their mental concentration by about 500% over using a plotter. As the days go on the captain takes them out for night navigation by adding the radar, but again, no GPS/plotter allowed.

The best training ground is the maze of the San Juan Islands. Lots of twisty channels. Lots of currents. Lots of ferries jumping out at you from different passages. Which the trainees have to maneuver on using just their eyes and the rules of the road. All very stressful for the first few days. Then they rapidly improve. Usually.


In fact it does. The COLREGS do not stutter when:

  • the rules apply to all vessels
  • steering and sailing rules apply in any condition of Visibility
  • a vessel SHALL use all available means to determine risk of collision
  • a vessel equiped with radar SHALL use it.

I would also go as far to say it would be against the principals of good seamanship.

As important as it is to understand the concepts of CBDR and navigating by eye, we no longer sail on vessels without RADAR, ARPA, or ECDIS.


Whatever happened to hand steering a steady course by compass only?

Not sure what you’re saying here. Certainly having the skill doesn’t violate any rules. Practicing the skill without breaking the rules is costly, though. For a good look on how (not) to do it, read into the Helge Ingstad accident.

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Our brains have evolved to process visual / spatial information in real-time. Using visual navigation leverages that ability.

It would be beneficial if deck officers would receive some formal training in this before joining in addition to the ECDIS and ARPA training. An officer that is unable to use visual information might as well be navigating in zero visibility.

One method in heavy traffic / restricted waters is to allow the watch officer to keep the conn while the captain uses the ARPA/ECDIS while also keeping an eye on things. Standard BRM stuff.

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Passing port ti port… Lou Vest on Instagram: "Passing port to port. Galveston Bay."

This is my experience as well. Once an officer “gets it” their stress level drops and improvement in performance is very rapid, a matter of a few days.

The officers depending entirely on ARPA in traffic are inadvertently adding cognitive steps which can quickly overload working memory. It’s as if they are working in zero visibility.

It only takes a few seconds to acquire and select targets on ARPA and it only takes a quick glance to confirm what is being seen visually. The more appropriate split timewise in clear weather is more like 95% visual / 5% ARPA. This approach uses a person’s inherent ability to process visual-spatial information.

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I agree 100%. Everyone should understand navigating by eye. But outside the controlled environment of a simulator, not using the appropriate tools when navigating available is negligent. You should be able to maintain controll of your car when you sneeze, you should not practice this skill by driving with your eyes closed.

According to Bowditch, kennebec’s senario calles for 3 minute fixes if we were on paper charts for some reason, and in that case I dont think prudence would dictate leaving an inexperienced mate up there by them selves.

If you read farwells, it already makes me feel like a very bad mariner who deserves to go to prision for not sounding maneuvering signals every time I met a ship, the ghost Farwell himself would come for your licnese if youre trying to get 1 nm CPA by eye in a buoyed channel. I dont understand why youd be asking a new mate to “eyeball it” when it would take about 30 seconds to set up a PI line, aquire the target, and put a 1 mile VRM so you can see visualy what your CPA Is with a relative vector at a glance. If youre “burried” in the ARPA trying to work out CPA, your Radar is set up wrong.


Not asking anyone to do it. Check the title of this thread. Saying that it’s a skill they should possess. It’s a benchmark.

Deck officers should know how to use a sextant and know celestial. That’s not to say they should use it . exclusively


might add - under supervision to that -

As a young mate i had a few Masters that would make us stand watch on the wing with bioculars and a hand held radio. Usually in a bit of traffic. They stayed on the bridge, had some coffee, did some paper work, and kept an eye out.

Always thought it was good training.


Probably no better training for a young Mariner than racing small sailboats . Has it all, right of way rules, converging & opening angles, route planing, wind, tide and more. I don’t know if the academy’s have sailing programs these days. Of if they are elective or required.

Things I learned racing and running work skiffs as a teenager paid off latter. Were I really learned formal navigation was working on a 65’ Corps of Engineers Hydrographic survey boat, waiting for my slot CG basic training to open. Very sophisticated electronic position and sounding equipment. Bouy’s set with transits from shore or a sextant held sideways from the boat some spots when it was a short job & precise not required… Tide gauges all set with levels off C&G survey benchmarks. Was fortunate two of the crew were Ex CG & took a lot of time teaching.

Later in the CG, Boatswains mate, used to watch the Quartermasters plot positions & understood how it worked from the survey boat experience. Yearof 5 days a week had a whole lot more exposure to plotting positions than most of the younger Quartermasters. Hear CG has done away with the QM rate, Boatswain mates do it now