Maritime technology vs. safety

The modern yacht has more in common with the fictitious Starship Enterprise then it has with seagoing vessels of just a decade ago. This is due to the rapid and complete proliferation of computerized electronics and their networking together to provide unparalleled monitoring, control, and informational display systems. All one has to do to appreciate the extent of modern yacht technology is to consider the ever-expanding alphabet soup of system acronyms such as the following: GMDSS, IBS, ECDIS, SSAS, UAIS, VDR and PPI. We know how all this stuff makes our job in the wheelhouse easier, but how does it affect our safety?

Unlike the classic sci-fi movie, "Westworld" where technology runs amok to endanger and kill human beings, today’s reality bears out that it is the human side of the man/machine equation that so often screws up to cause mishaps and disaster. This fact can easily be bourn out by referencing the various marine casualty reports; I was surprised with what I found. Out of 17 examples studied for this article, only seven casualties were due to mechanical malfunctions with the remaining 10 due to human error. It should be pointed out that ultimately even the mechanical malfunctions could be attributed to human error due to poor design, manufacturing, or maintenance practices, but that's another story. The human errors on board the various vessels involved the following three types of factors:

Knowledge Factors
Unfamiliarity with equipment
Forgotten automation procedures
Bypass procedures not known
Emergency procedures not known
Inadequate training

Procedural Factors
Not using safety equipment
Not using proper procedures
Improper maintenance practices
Over-reliance on certain equipment
Under-reliance on certain vital equipment
Not using cross-checks during navigation
Improper starting point used during navigation
Misadjusted autopilot commands
Improper setup or lineup of machinery/equipment

Physiological factors
Loss of sleep/inadequate sleep
Falling asleep on watch
Loss of situational awareness
Information overload

We live in a world of rapidly changing technology and this is especially true in the yacht industry. Because of all this new high-technology equipment and systems, it is even more important than ever to know proper procedures and to have the bigger picture as well. Like they say about today’s Navy, “this isn’t your father’s Navy” — and the modern yacht isn’t your father’s yacht!

In addition to constant study, modern yachtsmen must pay a lot closer attention to details because with integration of systems comes multiple interactions and multiple effects. This brings up the importance of constant cross-checking in order to keep from relying too heavily on a single piece of equipment that could be malfunctioning and giving false information. A prime example of the danger of relying on a malfunctioning piece of navigational equipment is the almost universal reliance on and faith in GPS readings. The grounding of a modern cruise ship was caused by the integrated bridge system navigation equipment defaulting to the dead-reckoning mode due to a bad GPS antenna connection, and no alert was given to warn the crew. This particular oversight was caused by a software anomaly introduced by the system integrator, however the faulty readings could have been caught in time to save the ship from disaster had the bridge crew been using simple navigational cross-checks.

In closing, keep in mind that although we have lots of modern technology that can make our navigation and cruising much easier and help protect us, it is still the human factor that makes the difference between a safe voyage and a potential disaster. Therefore it is always important to keep learning, study and go by the appropriate checklists, take good care of your body by eating right and getting plenty of sleep and, finally, make damn sure that you are thoroughly familiar with all operational procedures — maybe then we won’t be reading about your vessel in some future mishap report!

The next Marine Electronics exclusive will cover “High Frequency Single Sideband Radio.”

By Ocean Navigator