The importance of ECDIS training

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

12 May 2017

Switching from working with paper charts to using ECDIS involves a complete change of mindset for navigators. Not only is the format very different – compare a full size paper chart with the display on a 19-inch monitor – the ability to interact with an ENC is something that needs to be learned and learned thoroughly if the ECDIS is to work properly.

Although there may be plenty of similarities in working with paper or electronic charts it is a fact that the electronic option offers both many benefits and not a few pitfalls as well. In at least three cases, UK MAIB investigators have identified a watchkeepers’ failure to use an ECDIS properly as one of the causal factors.


Under the new STCW Code, crew operating ECDIS will need to be competent in its use, certified to have undergone training (unless the flag state has given a temporary waiver) and be able to demonstrate their ability to Port state Control, other authorities, ISM auditors and in some cases also to charterers.

ECDIS training is mandated by the IMO but it is left to Flag States and owners to decide whether or not type-specific training is necessary and, if so, how it should be delivered. As experience of ECDIS systems improves, evidence indicates that many owners are concluding that type-specific training is essential, though some are resorting to computer-based training once the watchkeeper is on board. In at least one accident investigated by MAIB however, despite dedicated training ashore on the system they were to use, the operators’ knowledge of the ECDIS and ability to navigate their vessel safely using the system were said to be ‘wholly inadequate’.

Most would argue that under ISM it is an owner’s obligation to ensure that all users of ECDIS on a ship are trained and competent with the actual system on board. However, many authorities and others both inside and outside the shipping industry have an outdated view of how crewing of ships is done these days and do not realise that this obligation can present quite an obstacle.

Some owners — particularly those considered ‘premier league’ — do indeed have a crewing policy that ensures senior officers, navigators and most crew are directly employed on long-term contracts. However, further down the table things gradually change with agency staff and short-term contracts becoming the norm. Under such circumstances it is first for the crewing agencies and in some cases for the seafarers themselves to arrange appropriate training.

Without knowing what ships they may be serving on and what equipment is installed, it becomes almost impossible to undergo type specific training except by sheer chance. More to the point agency staff are more likely to change vessels on a regular basis and will quite likely be faced with new equipment on each new contract.

As well as understanding new working techniques related to interactive ENCs, navigators training on ECDIS will also need to learn a whole new set of symbols in addition to those used on paper charts. ECDIS contains different ‘palettes’ of colours which may be used in different ambient lighting conditions such as day, dusk and night. The colours used in ECDIS display are standardised and all ECDIS should be colour calibrated prior to actual use.

Obviously that is not something that occurs with paper charts. The UKHO has three publications that would be of use to ECDIS trainees. NP231 the Admiralty Guide to the Practical Use of ENCs — an illustrated hardback publication with screenshots, top tips and hints on getting the most from ENCs, NP5012 The Admiralty Guide to ENC Symbols used in ECDIS — which identifies the differences between traditional paper symbols and the new digital versions and NP5011 Symbols and Abbreviations Used on Admiralty Charts – which covers the notations and symbols on traditional paper charts from the UKHO and foreign hydrographic offices.

What training is required?

The official requirement for training is usually for a navigator to have completed generic ECDIS training based upon the IMO’s model 1.27 ECDIS course but as ECDIS manufacturers add more and more value added features, it is becoming clear that type specific training is needed and this is being insisted upon in some cases.

Most within the industry training courses based upon the 1.27 model should be of at least 40 hours duration. However, individual flag states may make their own decisions on this point when issuing competence certificates.

The usual 40-hour generic training courses take place in nautical colleges and training establishments around the globe. Some of these will be equipped with a wide choice of ECDIS models but many will be far more limited.

The extent of training that ECDIS makers offer will vary. At the lowest level it may be no more than a few hours of familiarisation but others make much greater efforts. Transas for example has established a worldwide network of training establishments and courses under its GET-net programme. As well as offering 5-day courses based around the IMO 1.27 model, the company also has 2-day ‘hands on’ courses where the extra features of its products can be covered in more detail. Some training takes place in Transas’ own facilities but most is undertaken by approved training centres.

Other makers, particularly those that make a full range of navigating and bridge equipment, frequently have dedicated training centres where generic and type specific training courses are run and where their ECDIS can be integrated with other equipment they produce. Leading manufacturers have also had to commit to specialist ‘Training the trainers’ programmes in order that independent training providers can become sufficiently conversant with the unique features to pass that knowledge on to others.

Will the manufacturer offer better training?

One big attraction of manufacturer provided training, especially if the generic 1.27 course is included, is that it can be provided as part of a package that covers cost of equipment, installation, servicing and training. Usually this will result in a lower overall cost compared to purchasing each element separately.

Seafarers are no strangers to continuous training over the course of their careers but the acknowledged shortage of seafarers generally makes any absence expensive. Losing a man for what could be two weeks taking into account travelling, is therefore something that some owners will seek to avoid. Similarly, for an agency seafarer obliged to arrange and pay for their own training, the loss is double when the cost of the course is added to the time removed from his wage earning capacity.

Fortunately, modern methods of communication have been able to make this less of a problem, and have the added advantage of incorporating type specific and generic training into one programme. Computer-based online courses are now being offered by a growing number of training providers in conjunction with ECDIS manufacturers. Companies leading this new field include the likes of Safebridge, a German company that partners with another MSG providing shore-based ECDIS training, Seagull from Norway and KVH subsidiary, Videotel based in the UK.

A number of manufacturers also have their own online training services. The costs for online training can vary but as an example, the Safebridge website currently (May 2016) shows a figure of €188 for type specific ECDIS training on 12 different makers’ systems but this can reduce by between 3% and 10% if an owner is willing to bulk buy courses for between 50 and 150 navigators. Bulk purchased courses can be allocated to individuals as required. There are variations in the way the training is structured but typically an online CBT course is delivered to navigators while serving on vessels at sea or prior to joining a vessel.

The training is usually based closely upon the model 1.27 course and is delivered by making use of PC-based simulation software that allows exercises to be done on a virtual machine of the type chosen. At the end of the course the student will be required to undergo an exam before being given a certificate confirming the course has been completed. Security measures
are taken by the course providers to ensure that the person taking the exam is indeed the candidate.

That may be done by using webcams and means of identification or by the candidate taking the exam at a location where his identity can be independently verified. It could be possible to take the exam on board a vessel with the master attesting to the candidate’s identity providing a ship’s communications were able to cope with the data transferred.

Typically these courses have a three week window for the candidate to complete the exercises and take the exam. If the candidate fails the exam they will be advised of the reason and given advice on further learning. The exam can be retaken with different questions during the validity of the course window. Exactly what type of training is recognised by flag states can vary so it is important for anyone seeking to arrange training for staff or for themselves to ascertain the exact requirements.

Unlike the IMO 1.27 generic course, there is no standard for type specific training. Some training programmes have been approved by class societies or other appropriate organisations as meeting standards established by them but some courses may not even have the recognition of the system maker.

One factor that should figure in every course and which should be the subject of regular training exercises and drills is how to cope in the event of an ECDIS failure. In terms of passage planning there can be a reversion to paper charts but if the failure is during navigation under ECDIS control and even perhaps the loss of the GPS feed, then reliance on traditional position fixing skills and abilities will be needed. Constant monitoring of the accuracy of the ECDIS should also be encouraged and required under the safety management system.