Competence: Plan ahead- navigating your way to greater competency

01 Feb 2016 The Navigator

You are a young, junior officer. You have been trained and have received a Certificate of Competency. You join a ship and are given responsibility for your own navigational watch. Are you ready? Do you know everything you need to know? If not, how do you go about learning, now you aren’t at nautical school anymore and don’t have any instructors to guide you or a task book to show you what you’re supposed to know?

The first thing you should do as a navigating officer in a brand new role is go back to what you have already learned and apply it to your current situation. All seafarers learn that in passage planning, one must Appraise – Plan – Execute – Monitor (IMO Resolution A.893(21), in order to navigate safely between two points. The same model can be used to steer a course towards becoming a competent navigator.

Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. For example, if you have just obtained your Certificate of Competency, you may have the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea (IRPCS) memorised and be able to identify any light or signal that you see or hear. On the other hand, you may not be familiar with the radar or radio equipment onboard your particular ship. Over your first few days or weeks, note down these strengths and weaknesses. Don’t become disheartened if there are a lot of things you don’t seem to know – everyone with more experience than you started in exactly the same place!

Since you may be in charge of a navigational watch, which means that the safety of the crew, cargo and ship is in your hands, it is imperative that, once you have identified your strengths and weaknesses, you make a plan to address them as quickly as possible.

Why should you address your strengths? If you know something well, but don’t practice or review it, you will experience what is known as ‘skill or knowledge fade’. In other words, you will forget. In planning, you must allow time to regularly review the things that you know well so that the knowledge doesn’t fade.

In addressing weaknesses, you need to develop a plan of attack. To start with, identify strategies that work for you. Are you good at learning something by reading about it? Do you remember better if you hear about something? Or do you need to draw pictures and diagrams? Whatever way you learn best, you will need to have a record of the things that you learn. Why is this important? Let’s take an example.Perhaps you don’t know how to carry out the trial manoeuvre on your ship’s radar. Another officer explains it to you. If you don’t make notes of what he or she tells you, it will be difficult to remember the next time you try to perform that function. You might look in the radar manual. Again, if you don’t make your own notes, you will not be able to consolidate the knowledge in your own mind. By taking notes, you are putting the information into your own words, deepening your understanding. A photo taken on a phone can aid a visual learner. Look for  manufacturers’ demonstrations on the internet, or for onboard computer based training (CBT) if you are an audio/ visual learner.

Keeping a record serves several purposes. First, it helps you to understand something better by putting it into your own words. Second, it makes it easier to recover the information – it is your record and so you know where to look for it when you need it. Third, if you are persistent in keeping a record you will soon realise how much you have learned. Lastly, it is a way of evidencing your professional development (see The Navigator, issue 9).

An important part of any plan is to set goals. Just as you set estimated times of arrival and departure for the various ports you will call at on your passage, you should set estimates for how long it will take to address the weaknesses you have identified, as well as how much time you will spend reviewing the things you know so you do not forget them. It might help to set a goal of what you want to learn by the end of the week and then break that big goal into smaller, daily chunks.

Part of your plan may be to find a mentor. Try to find someone onboard ship with whom you can speak about the questions and challenges you encounter. This may be a means of establishing a relationship that can become of great benefit to you. Never hesitate to ask a question if you don’t know something, or have any doubt, or are uncertain about what you should do.

You know what you need to learn and you have developed a plan. Now you need to carry the plan out. This will be the hardest part. Being a competent navigator is only a part of the responsibilities you will have as a deck officer. You may need to carry out safety checks, take part in drills and work cargo. Somewhere, you’d also like to find time to eat and sleep! You may be tempted not to take 15 minutes to review the IRPCS or spend the half hour it takes to read about trail manoeuvres on the radar. You’d much rather watch a movie.

Just remember, everything you learn now is up to you. You must motivate yourself. In order to execute your plan with success, you need to eat well, get as much sleep as you can and stay physically fit so you can remain mentally alert. An excellent resource for learning about these matters is The Nautical Institute’s publication, Human Performance and Limitation for Mariners.

The only way you’ll know if you are making progress is if you monitor your plan. At the end of each day, see if you have met the daily goals you set for yourself when planning. At the end of the week, see what you have accomplished. Reflect on what went well with your plan and what didn’t. Think about how you feel: are you pleased with your progress and proud that you are becoming a more competent navigator? Or do you wish you hadn’t spent the last three days watching the entire season eight of Dexter, instead of familiarising yourself with the ECDIS on your ship?

Even if your plan falls apart for a few days, don’t give up – get yourself back on track and arrive at the end of your passage a competent and experienced navigator.