The Very Model of a Modern Marine Navigator

01 Oct 2012 The Navigator

Steven Gosling MNI, Training and Quality Manager at The Nautical Institute reflects on his experiences at sea and explains why the modern navigator's role is pivotal to the smooth running of a vessel.

With recent media coverage of the Costa Concordia tragedy and renewed interest in the Titanic disaster earlier this year, I have been contemplating how my performance as a former Deck Officer might have been influenced by the adverse circumstances that besieged these mighty ships. I am constantly reminded of the colossal responsibility placed on the ship’s navigator – an unseen, unsung hero, tirelessly working to move goods and passengers between ports and terminals in the most valued assets of our industry – our merchant ships.
For hundreds of years the marine navigator has played a pivotal role in promoting economic development and the wealth of nations. Today the men and women of the merchant navy are instrumental in the running of a lean, highly efficient multimodal transport network, in charge of some of the most valuable cargoes in the world.
They command the largest moving structures ever built by man in not one, but two dynamic fluid  environments. Many of the comforts and conveniences of post-modern living, from the technology in our pockets to the parts in our cars, have reached our shores thanks to the skill and professionalism of a marine navigator.

Cruise control 
At the ripe age of 29, equipped with a crisp Masters’ ticket and an aspiration for fresh milk on the table, I decided to swap my seafaring shirt and stripes for a suit and tie ashore in London: the maritime capital of the world. Having accrued 10 years’ experience deep sea in the cruise sector, the lure of carrying business cards over passengers took hold and in March 2011, I joined the secretariat of The Nautical Institute, the world’s international representative body for maritime professionals.
As the ‘honeymoon period’ of my new role slowly begins to fade, I find myself recalling the purpose, pride and privilege I felt not so long ago as a watch officer on a 113,000 grt cruise ship, fully laden with all the trimmings needed for a two-week voyage. Deck Officers in any trade will be well versed in navigating a ship,  passage planning, watch-keeping, mooring and anchoring, ballasting, storing and bunkering.
For the cruise ship navigator this means:

  • considerable forward planning – courtesy of known future itineraries
  • comprehensive operating procedures – to enhance safe practice and assure quality
  • continuous refresher training – to update knowledge and competence
  • extensive drills onboard – for incident and emergency preparedness
  • a strong shipboard safety culture – to reduce exposure to hazards and danger
  • a smart personal appearance – to respect the cruise ‘product’ that is being paid for.

And so, beneath the pressed uniform and neatly aligned name badge of a cruise ship Deck Officer stands a  specialist navigator, same as any other in the merchant navy; qualified to complement the bridge team of any ship, of any tonnage, anywhere in the world. This is no small responsibility and I was frequently reminded of this when meeting passengers at sea who would take great pleasure in talking to or being photographed with one of the navigators. This was not an admiration for the uniform but the position one filled in wearing it.

The navigator as a tactician
Shipping boasts a long, rich history in which profound, sometimes perilous change has challenged the navigator to master new skills, acquire new knowledge and engage new practices at sea. The transition from sail to steam, from paddlewheel to propeller and from paper to electronic charts are all examples of the slow evolutionary change that has taken place in an industry dependent on bright, professional  mariners called upon to literally ‘drive it forward’.
Modern day navigators skilfully traverse the globe in all weathers to move commodities and goods from areas of supply to areas of demand. In doing so, they bring opportunity, prosperity, convenience and comfort to millions of people who, unlike cruise ship passengers, are unable to acknowledge, recognise or praise them for their efforts. Notwithstanding, their work is equally as worthy and their positions as highly regarded.
For hundreds of years, shipping has been fiercely competitive. Costs are heavily scrutinised and commercial pressure readily applied. No longer is the navigator insensitive to the wishes of the charterer, and no longer is the charterer out of touch with the Master once the ship sails. The navigator is thus something of a tactician, juggling commercial risk with the obligations of primacy, that is, to get the ship from A to B safely, efficiently and securely with minimal impact to the marine environment.
Today’s bridges would make navigators of the last century quiver. Complex technologies, legal frameworks, evolving practices and service provisions demand that today’s navigators are consummate professionals, savvy of the business they serve and attuned to the need to keep up, both on and off ship.
Modern integrated bridge systems have placed a new emphasis on the monitoring role of the navigator, who spends much of the watch facing flat-panel displays exhibiting every conceivable piece of information with staggering degrees of accuracy. Technical skills are as important as non-technical and the technology  that supports the navigator as vital as more traditional practices of seamanship, perhaps most prominent in the Titanic era.
As a young boy at school, I remember one teacher decreeing: “You’ll get nowhere in life looking out of the window”. Some 20 years later I find myself serving an organisation that exists to support and promote the standing of professional navigators; people who spend their careers at sea doing just that!