Ship command & control

Updated 11 Oct 2019


Command and the navigation of a ship have been linked operations for millennia and this is still true today even if modern electronics technology can allow a ship to be navigated from any place on board or even – as has been demonstrated on several occasions in the last few years – remotely from a shore centre.

Remote operation of ships is something that is much discussed but which, apart from a few demonstrations of the possibility, is not something that most observers expect to become commonplace in the immediate future. For the time being, the bridge will remain the place from which the ship is commanded and navigated under the control of the Officer of the Watch (OOW).

A navigational watch can involve any number of personnel from a single individual to many under normal circumstances; it would be normal procedure for a single crewmember to call for assistance in times of need. When there are more personnel on the bridge some form of organisational management is needed to ensure that tasks are not duplicated or overlooked.

Bridge Team Management – or rather lack of it – is often cited as being at the root of many marine casualties and the concept is being strengthened through training courses and changes to the STCW Code which sets out minimum standards for seafarers of all ranks.

Today, most of the regulations concerned with navigation on board vessels are found almost entirely within the texts of STCW and SOLAS but there are both flag and port state elements that will also need to be investigated.

There are very few chapters of SOLAS that do not mention the bridge in one way or another even if it is just to require that an alarm or status indicator for a piece of equipment is to be provided. For the majority of systems and equipment, as well as for standards for bridge layout, it is Chapters IV and V that are the main source of regulation. Chapter IV of SOLAS covers radio communications and equipment and it is here that the requirements for GMDSS equipment are to be found.

Navigation as a subject is not covered by SOLAS until Chapter V and then most of the regulations are concerned with matters such as weather information, ice patrols, bridge layout, navigation warnings, hydrographic services, life-saving signals and ancillary equipment.

In the past, most regulation of bridge equipment was prescriptive – laying down performance standards – but recently goal-based standards have become more common. The exact requirements for individual ships will vary depending upon ship type, size and age. In the case of the communications equipment that must be carried under the Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS), the area in which the ship operates is also a deciding factor.

The advent of GMDSS has meant some changes to bridge procedures, notably the disappearance of the dedicated radio officer and the translocation of communications equipment from the radio room to the main area of the bridge.

In addition to the international requirements, flag states are always at liberty to impose additional requirements for vessels on their registries. Such rules should be communicated to ships by the appropriate government department, usually by way of Merchant Shipping Notices. Ships joining a flag will normally be subjected to some form of inspection and any deficiencies should be picked up by the surveyor and advised to the operator for immediate rectification.

The Merchant Shipping Notices of most flag states are relatively easy to locate but while some countries issue very few, others seem to legislate and advise on a vast number of topics. In the latter case, rules change and notices are superseded regularly and keeping up to date requires careful attention to detail. SOLAS changes are more easily followed but care needs to be taken to ensure that alternatives allowed in SOLAS are also accepted by flag states.

Carriage requirements for the key navigation systems such as radar, compasses and tracking systems do not appear until Regulation 19 where they are laid out in a way that deals firstly with all ships and then lists the additional requirements that come with increased ship size, as measured by gross tonnage.

The divisions of ship type and size according to Chapter V Regulation 19 paragraph 2 are:

  • 2.1 All ships, irrespective of size;
  • 2.2 All ships of 150 gross tonnage and upwards and passenger ships irrespective of size;
  • 2.3 All ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards and passenger ships irrespective of size;
  • 2.4 All ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards engaged on international voyages and cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards not engaged on international voyages and passenger ships irrespective of size. This section only covers AIS;
  • 2.5 All ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards (2.6 details some duplication requirements) 2.7 All ships of 3,000 gross tonnage and upwards;
  • 2.8 All ships of 10,000 gross tonnage and upwards;
  • 2.9 All ships of 50,000 gross tonnage and upwards.

In some instances alternative ‘other means’ are permitted for certain requirements. When ‘other means’ are permitted under this regulation, they must be approved by the administration (flag state) in accordance with Regulation 18.

The navigational equipment and systems referred to in Regulation 19 shall be so installed, tested and maintained as to minimise malfunction. Regulation 19 2.10 covers the Electronic Chart Display & Information Systems (ECDIS) carriage requirements and details the various dates of the rollout programme.

Under the SOLAS regulations, navigational equipment and systems offering alternative modes of operation shall indicate the actual mode of use. Integrated bridge systems shall be so arranged that failure of one subsystem is brought to the immediate attention of the officer in charge of the navigational watch by audible and visual alarms and does not cause failure to any other sub-system. In case of failure in one part of an integrated navigational system, it shall be possible to operate each other individual item of equipment or part of the system separately.

Performance standards for the various systems are laid out in numerous IMO documents and are subject to changes from time to time. When the performance standards do change, it is not normally necessary to replace equipment fitted prior to the change of date but in some cases, ECDIS is a good example, a change in the performance standards may necessitate an adaption to the equipment fitted. When a new system or piece of equipment is added to the mandatory carriage requirements because of new IMO regulations, there is often a rollout programme which will see different ship types and sizes affected over a period of time.

E-navigation is a new concept that has been permitted by modern technology. Although details are still being worked, it could be said that it may result in something akin to an air traffic control network. In the IMO’s own words its work is “to develop a strategic vision for e-navigation, to integrate existing and new navigational tools, in particular electronic tools, in an all-embracing system that will contribute to enhanced navigational safety (with all the positive repercussions this will have on maritime safety overall and environmental protection) while simultaneously reducing the burden on the navigator.”

The IMO says that, as the basic technology for such an innovative step is already available, the challenge lies in ensuring the availability of all the other components of the system, including electronic navigational charts (which is now in progress with the mandatory carriage of ECDIS) and in using it effectively in order to simplify, to the benefit of the mariner, the display of the occasional local navigational environment.

E-navigation would thus incorporate new technologies in a structured way and ensure that their use is compliant with the various navigational communication technologies and services that are already available, providing an overarching, accurate, secure and cost-effective system with the potential to provide global coverage for ships of all sizes. What the IMO and other proponents of e-navigation appear to have overlooked is that the ECDIS regulations apply only to passenger ships over 500gt and cargo vessels above 3,000gt.

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