A Navigator’s guide to accidents

01 Oct 2019 The Navigator

Lucy Budd, Editor of Seaways, The Nautical Institute’s main membership publication, looks at how learning from experience – both your own and that of other people – really can make all the difference when it comes to accident prevention and safety best practice

It sometimes seems unusual to hear good news about shipping. All too often, the media concentrate on difficulties and disasters. So, here’s some good news for a change. Last year, the number of ships that were lost at sea dropped by 50%. That’s a total of 46 vessels, down significantly from 98 in 2017 and 207 in 2000, according to research carried out for the Allianz Safety and Shipping Review.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean seafarers can relax. Despite this encouraging news, the number of incidents remains as high as ever, and navigation errors and collisions are a frequent cause. Human error remains a major concern.

At The Nautical Institute, we are always concerned to see that our books on what to do after an accident sell much faster than the books which offer advice on safe seamanship and navigation. In other words, the books that offer advice on how to prevent the accidents happening in the first place! Perhaps the best way to prevent an accident is to be aware right from the start of the risk that it might happen, and to understand what you can do to mitigate that risk.

Learning from others
Learning from experience is often the most effective tutor – but when it comes to accidents, it is always better to learn from other people’s experience, rather than your own. It can be useful to look at what happened in an accident and why, and what changes were made afterwards. Some companies and P&I Clubs put out safety bulletins highlighting incidents which occurred in their own fleets, so that other crews can learn from them in their own safety meetings. Even if your company doesn’t do this, you can find resources online from MARS and CHIRP, as well as from the international accident investigation authorities (see page eight for more details). The aim is not to discuss who was at fault, but to identify what went wrong and to see if any of it is a potential risk in the way that you operate.

When you study an accident report, it can be very easy to think, ‘Whatan idiot! I would never do that!’ or, ‘They should have seen that one coming...’ That’s not necessarily a helpful reaction. Nobody intends to have an accident, and it’s likely that those involved thought they had good reason for their actions. It’s worth looking at why they might have thought and behaved the way they did, as well as what they should have done instead. Maybe there is something there that could apply to your own behaviour.

If, on the other hand, your reaction is, ‘That could have been me!’ … you’ve already got an idea of which areas you should be looking at.

Responding to errors
You can, and should, also take the opportunity to learn from your own experiences and near misses. In an article which appeared in Seaways earlier this year, safety expert Nippin Anand reflected on his own experience as a young third officer, when he was very nearly involved in an accident himself (you can read the entire article online at www.nautinst.org/ seawaysarticles):

'Arriving in port or negotiating heavy traffic had never been a concern for me, I was in my third year as an independent watch officer. I had never missed arrival time in port, nor shown hesitation in a difficult situation. But things changed from here. … I started to lose confidence. In every manoeuvre I performed, my watchman could sense my anxiety no matter how hard I tried to maintain calm.’

Since then, he says, ‘I have changed my approach to failings and chosen to respond to failures in a more positive way.’ … ‘Acknowledging failures and sharing our experiences is not a sign of weakness. It is a commitment to learning and development and moreover, an immense source of inner resilience.’

Risk management for life
Preventing and avoiding accidents is a task that is never done. This issue of The Navigator is an alerting exercise, not a solving exercise. We can’t tell you everything you need to know to avoid accidents in just twelve pages – but we can show you the most frequent causes of accidents, and highlight where you can find information about particularly tricky areas.

For example, a large proportion of groundings take place when ships drag while at anchor, so it might be worth checking anchorage procedures and safety precautions when you know that the passage plan includes anchoring.

Be aware of the other factors that may increase the obvious risk. If you know that you are entering an area with a high risk of collision, how will you maintain situational awareness? What other factors – like fatigue, or potentially distracting bridge alarms – could cause a problem?

To some extent, you are also managing other people’s risk, particularly in busy waters. You might be thoroughly familiar with Colregs, the draft restrictions, the weather forecast, the passage plan – but are the other vessels you will encounter? It pays to be ready for the unexpected.

Despite all the equipment onboard today, the safety of the ship still comes down to the people on the bridge and in the engine room. We still need training, mentoring, knowledge, skills, attentiveness and management to ensure that our knowledge and skills are used to the maximum benefit. The role of the navigator has never been more important.