Mentoring makes the Navigator

01 Oct 2012 The Navigator

Captain André L. Le Goubin MA FNI tackles the key subject of mentoring and explains why a savvy navigator’s experiential knowledge must never be underestimated.

I often think about whether the role of the navigator has changed over the years.
Equipment on the modern bridge of today’s merchant fleet is certainly a far cry from what existed when I first went to sea; but has the actual role changed?
Certainly, the basic principles of navigational watch keeping have not. As the Master’s representative, the navigator must keep a safe watch to ensure the safety of the crew, vessel and environment and to help get from A to B safely and efficiently.
To undertake this phenomenal task onboard today’s ship, navigators have access to a wealth of technically advanced equipment. They also have their own experience to call upon and, if necessary, that of the Master. But where does this experience come from? I want to talk about mentoring: a system as old as seafaring itself. I believe, without wisdom gained from experiential knowledge and transferred by mentoring, navigators cannot perform their task effectively; no matter how advanced their equipment.

Experiential knowledge 

Experiential knowledge is knowledge gained from experience that has been reflected upon. I sometimes describe it as where the ‘feel’ for seamanship comes from; when you do something because it feels right.
Navigational equipment cannot feel and therefore we rely on the navigator interpreting the information received, based on their experiential knowledge.
Let me give you a simple example – you are the navigator on a vessel, plotting a target approximately 40° on your starboard bow at a distance of eight miles. It is a clear night with good visibility and you can see the other vessel. The Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) says the target is going to pass ahead of you at seven cables (0.7 miles) standing orders say to keep at least a mile distance from all other ships.
The computer system has suggested a small course alteration to starboard that will give you that one mile passing. Stop for a minute and put yourself in the same navigational position – on the other ship. Now you have a ship on your port side which you are plotting. It is going to pass astern of you at a distance of 0.7 miles. Far too close, and a little bit scary! 
What would I do in this situation? I would look over my shoulder on the starboard side to ensure nothing is overtaking me (experiential knowledge!) and then alter my course to starboard, sufficient to put the other vessel on my port bow (an alteration of about 45°). I would then follow them back, passing under their stern at a distance of one mile, in accordance with my Master’s standing orders.
A simple solution. Yet I have seen accidents and near misses occurring in just those circumstances. Why? In my opinion, it is due to a lack of experiential knowledge on the part of the navigator, particularly in their ability to put themselves mentally on the other vessel to consider what the other navigator is seeing. In essence, they need to take a holistic view, rather than concentrate on the immediate solution provided by computers. This can be difficult: navigators are bombarded with ever increasing amounts of technical information, but they need to develop the ability to assimilate it all and then make a rational decision.
So how can the navigator gain experiential knowledge and from whom? When I went to sea in 1980, a cadet had to secure 24 months sea time before they could hold their first certificate of competency. A significant amount of that time had to be spent on navigational watch with a certificated watch keeper, learning the job and gaining that all-important experiential knowledge. Today, sea time requirement is much less: many nations now ask only for 12 months.

Mentoring works both ways. Junior officers often have a far better understanding of modern navigational equipment than their superiors

Working both ways

The best way for a navigator to learn is through mentoring. An experienced senior officer taking time to help junior personnel sift through the information, break it down and determine what is important before deciding what to do.
Mentoring works both ways. Junior officers often have a far better understanding of modern navigational equipment than their superiors and they can, in turn, pass their knowledge on. For example, when I am navigating, I like the radar set in relative motion, North up, range rings on and relative trails. This is an unusual setting but one I learnt from some highly experienced hovercraft navigators.
Regularly, I am faced with unfamiliar radar and must call on the navigator to show me the settings. It is usually a junior officer who knows and is invariably willing to show me. If time permits and the officer is interested, I try to take the time in return to show them how I use the relative trails to perform my job.
I love technology and am in no doubt that it has helped prevent numerous accidents. However, I also believe its use must be combined with a firm foundation of experiential knowledge. Whilst some of this originates from college, the majority must come from senior colleagues through the art of mentoring.
So, to those of you who are experienced navigators I urge you to share that experience via the traditional manner of mentoring. As navigators, we have a duty to pass on what we know to those following after us. After all, they too have every right to our invaluable experiential knowledge: something that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their navigational career.