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A Few Tips on Bridge Watchkeeping

In a very interesting study done in respect of a group of passenger ships, it was found that most of the accidents had occurred due to human negligence. The other point emphasized was that the starting point of human error was; bridge of ship in 76% of the cases; engine room in 17% of the accidents; other parts of ship in 7% of the cases. It was also concluded that properly made and implemented standing orders from Master can control and minimize the accidents to a large extent.

Even in many other studies done in respect of accidents, it was found that human factor played a major role. In a slightly different kind of assessment, in a in a Dutch study of 100 marine casualties, it was found that the number of causes per accident ranged from 7 to 58, with an average of 23. Minor things go wrong or little mistakes are made, which individually,  themselves, may seem innocuous. However, when these seemingly minor events converged, the result was a casualty. In the same study, human error was found to contribute to 96 of the 100 accidents. In 93 of the accidents, multiple human errors were made, usually, by two or more people, each of whom made about two errors approx. But interestingly, every human error that was made, was determined to be a necessary condition for the accident. That means that if just one of those human errors had not occurred, the chain of events would have been broken and the accident would not have happened. Therefore, if we can find ways to prevent some of these human errors, or at least increase the probability that such errors are noticed and corrected, we can achieve greater marine safety and fewer casualties. Thus, a Master’s role becomes very important in ensuring that the watch-keeping team onboard observes as much safety as possible. Thus, ruling out of the factors such as; fatigue, short staff, ignorance about knowledge, non compliance to ROR, etc. are done, as much as possible.

Fatigue can be defined as a temporary loss of strength and energy resulting from hard physical or mental work. There are several factors that cause fatigue to navigation officer. Fatigue is associated with improper sleep, negative environmental factors, high job demands and high stress. Fatigue and short staffed situation can give rise to intention assisted problems. Thus, in study of 652 cases of collisions or groundings, one third of all groundings involved a fatigued officer alone on the bridge at night. Two thirds of all vessels involved in collision were not keeping a proper lookout. One third of the accidents that occurred at night involved a sole watchkeeper. In 8 of the 9 fatigue related accidents, the vessel was carrying only 2 watchkeeping officers. In each case, no look out had been posted. In most collisions, the auto pilot was engaged and the watchkeeper had fallen asleep.

The OOD is a Master’s representative on bridge and is primarily responsible for complying with the required duties. It is the responsibility of the duty officer that he reads and understands the Master’s Standing Orders well and complies with the instructions given therein.

The safety of the ship and its personnel must always be the prime consideration. It can always take precedence over any other thing. Nothing justifies taking any risk, which may place the ship in danger. Following is a set of standard instructions. Lessons learnt from accidents might reflect in most of these instructions. If the objectives of such instructions are duly met, many of the human errors will probably not occur. Duty officer must read, understand and sign it before assuming his watch.

1. The Watchkeeping Officer must never leave the Navigation Bridge unattended when the vessel is underway unless properly relieved by the Master or another certified deck officer. Even the anchor watch must be duly kept. Can there ever be any work so important that not even one person is spared to do the required duty on bridge?

2. The officer taking over the watch must be sober and fully alert. In a navigation watch, the WKO shall thoroughly familiarize him with the situation, understanding the items stated in appropriate logbook for the present situation.

3. It is a good practice that only after getting satisfied with these points and having read the valid Master’s Night Orders, the responsibility of taking over the watch must be accepted. The officer being relieved should be permitted to leave the bridge, only after the taking over procedures is completed. A take over period may be decided upon and the relieving officer may be required to reach the wheelhouse that many minutes before his watch is started. This may be specified for sea and harbour watches.

4. The change of Watch is to be logged in appropriate logbook by both officers, duly signed. The incoming officer may not be signing at start of his watch but there is no harm if he does so. Masters may instruct accordingly, thus, leaving  no scope for any ambiguity. The Watch must not be changed during crucial navigation such as in the middle of a tricky maneuver.

5. The position of the vessel when underway shall be frequently verified, when in sight of land by shore bearings and if not, by other means. During Coastal Navigation, the positions shall be cross checked using the navigational aids at a frequency that is appropriate. A thumb rule is that the interval should be half the time in which ship can run in to danger for a coastal stretch. For open sea and river / canal the rule may vary.

6. Whenever the position of the vessel is fixed, the data relevant to the position determination shall be entered in the appropriate Logbook and the position recorded on the charts being used. Any discrepancy in the vessel’s position or speed between position determinations shall be brought to the immediate attention of the Master.

7. A continuous navigational watch should be maintained at anchor. While the vessel is at anchor, the WKO should ensure compliance with relevant safety literature / procedures etc.

8. The courses to steer will normally be given as a gyro course, unless otherwise stated. A close check is kept on the corresponding course by standard compass. The gyro steering repeater shall be checked against the Master gyro at the commencement of each Watch. The remaining gyro repeaters will then be checked against the gyro steering repeater.

9. A close check at frequent intervals throughout the Watch must be made between the standard compass and gyro steering repeater. The ‘off-course alarm and ‘magnetic compass off-course alarm’ must be functional & in use when the vessel is underway.

10. The errors of both the compasses shall be ascertained during each Watch whenever conditions permit. If more than one course is steered, then an error for each course shall be determined and logged in appropriate logbook.

In an interesting case, a ship where gyro was not functional was steered on magnetic compass. She was heading for Durban but reached Richard’s Bay. It was found that the navigating officers allowed the compass error wrong way and this was the root cause of the blunder.

11. Operational tests of shipboard navigational equipment should be carried out at sea as frequently as practicable and then duly recorded.

12. A watch keeper must keep a track of current navigational warnings.

13. An updated and corrected chart / ECDIS being used, must be ensured by each watchkeeper before using it.

14. The WKO must observe the course and speed, which has been approved by the Master. This should not prevent the WKO from taking the most effective action, which, in his judgment, may be necessary to avoid casualty to the vessel or its personnel. The Master is to be notified as soon as possible of the circumstances and the action taken.

15. The course steered shall be adjusted as specified by the Master for set and leeway to make good the course laid down. Full use is to be made of the course recorder for checking the course steered and the settings on the auto pilot steering control.

16. It is particularly important to document in the Deck Log Book any significant departures from the vessel’s course as set by the Master, and/or course changes made in reduced visibility to avoid other vessels, or when faced with emergency conditions.

17. If fog or other conditions of reduced visibility less than 3 miles are suspected ahead or close to the vessel on either side, the radars / ARPA must be switched on and immediate steps taken to proceed at a safe speed. Checks required for the particular situation should be immediately carried out and recorded in appropriate logbook. The Master shall be advised immediately and his instructions covering the situation followed.

In the 652 cases referred to earlier, the common factors were poor lookout and poor use of radar. Of all the vessels involved in collision, 26 contravened rule 5. In most cases, there was over reliance on radar and ARPA. In 73% of the cases, 7B and 7C was contravened. It is the Master’s duty to ensure that watchkeepig arrangements are adequate to maintain a safe watch at all times.

18. Despite the requirement to notify the Master immediately in the foregoing circumstances, the WKO should in addition not hesitate to take immediate action for the safety of the ship, where circumstances so require.

19. The Master is to be advised immediately of all equipment failures that may be relevant to the safety of personnel, vessel, or cargo such as steering gear, engine room, auto pilot, course recorder, gyro, radar, echo sounder, navigational aids, whistles, etc.

20. At those times when the Master takes over the command of the vessel, he shall clearly indicate this fact to the WKO and record the facts in the Deck Logbook. Until he does so, the WKO must carry out his responsibilities as if the Master was not present. The WKO is to   be familiar with his duties and responsibilities when the Master assumes the command.

21. The presence of a Pilot on the bridge in an advisory capacity in no way reduces the responsibilities of the WKO to continue navigating.

22. The use of the bridge radio-telephones (VHF) should be confined to the safe navigation of the vessel, port facilities, company official business and emergencies.

23. Persons not directly concerned with the immediate navigation   of the vessel shall not be permitted on the bridge without permission of the Master.

24. Nothing in these standing orders shall be construed as relieving the Master or any officer or crew member of his responsibility, as defined by law or governmental regulations, or from the exercise of sound judgment. The prime consideration in the minds of all must always be the safety.  

A Master thus, through his various tools of administration must cause a safety environment onboard ship. These tools, supplemented with appropriate indicators and check tools will ensure an effective control and accident free atmosphere.

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