Why We Need the Human Factor in Modern Shipping


Published Jun 7, 2016 12:45 PM by Captain J. Timothy Bordelon

By Captain J. Timothy Bordelon

I have sailed for thirty years as master of deep sea cargo ships. When I started my career in 1978, manual methods of maritime navigation were the norm. Communication consisted of conventional mail and landline phone calls in port. Once the ship sailed over the horizon, telex was the only means of communication between office management and the ship. 

Modern technology and communication have progressed to the point where robot ships are now discussed as a feasible probability. Is it possible to completely take out the human factor in modern shipping? Is more automation the answer to more efficiency and profitability in the maritime industry? I believe a better integration of human resources, standardized technology and documentation would better enhance profitability and efficiency. 

Before Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) radars, GPS systems and Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), sextant and reduction tables were used to calculate the ship’s position. Targets were once plotted manually onto radar screens with grease pencils. Manual radar plotting was time consuming, less than accurate, and it was very difficult to track multiple targets. Modern ARPA radars plot targets accurately and almost instantaneously provide a target's course, speed and the closest point of approach as well as maneuvering solutions. 

Does this mean the ARPA radars have made it unnecessary to have trained officers on a ship who can plot targets manually?  

The older radars were notoriously unreliable and often broke down. Modern ARPA radars are generally more reliable but are heat sensitive and often fail in extremely hot climates such as the Middle East. It is more prudent to have qualified officers on the ship who can perform rudimentary repairs and basic navigation. Most repairs to modern complex navigation equipment usually require technical skills that can only be addressed when the ship is in port. How would a robot be able to navigate the ship blindly if the GPS or radars broke down or there is a loss of communication? The ship would dangerously drift as a derelict until someone could come aboard. 

GPS systems can also lose signal due to satellite interference and deliberate hacking. Deliberate hacking is a very real modern security issue. Once a robot ship is hacked, modern pirates or rogue nations would then be able to co-opt the ship. Rogue nations would also be able to seize robot ships carrying defense cargo or oil. 

Has advanced technology made visual bearings in crowded shipping lanes and ports unnecessary?  

Another downside to electronic navigation is that there is a real trend among mariners to simply fail to look out the window.  I have personally experienced situations when the radar and electronic charts did not fully illustrate the actual situation. In the very busy Singapore Straits or congested pilot stations in China and Japan, it was not unusual to have a large ship or unexpected small vessel too close to my ship to even be a blip on my radars. Visual bearings are still needed to avoid perilous traffic situations developing around the ship. Experienced mariners are still needed to assess quickly and maneuver safely through developing situations that are not seen by electronics. 

There are too many different types of GPS, radars and ECDIS systems. Each system, developed by different companies, uses its own set of symbols and methodology of usage. Standardize the functions and controls of all bridge navigation equipment. Then it would be possible to go on to every ship’s bridge and know how to use the available technology. Standardization of the equipment would cut training time for all bridge personnel. 

All of the different systems also have an inherent safety issue. Frequently, the mates and captain change out just as a ship is scheduled to leave port. It is often not possible for the officers to become familiar with the equipment due to the short time span between arriving at the ship and the ship leaving port. 

The greatest safety improvement in my career was the development of bridge team management. At one time, no one would approach or challenge a captain on the bridge. The concept of the mates supplying relevant information to the captain so he could make informed navigation and maneuvering decisions is a great example of how to best integrate human resources. 

Over time, bridge team management has expanded so that everyone on the bridge works together and is encouraged to point out dangers, errors and freely provide information to the captain. Bridge team management training has rightly become an IMO and U.S. Coast Guard requirement. 

Just as an orchestra conductor gets each musician to play their instrument with perfection, so must captains get the best performance from everyone on board their ship. Every seaman and officer is important. The best captains listen and lead by making informed decisions. A robot vessel would make single “minded” decisions based upon preprogrammed software which would be inflexible to multiple and ever changing conditions.

Satellite communication has made it possible for ships and shore side management to be in constant contact. Captains, at one time, had autonomy on how the ship was managed. No longer so. Often shoreside management, who in many companies have no shipboard experience, are micro-managing the ship from their computers. Shipboard personnel must follow ISM procedures which are written by lawyers and shoreside quality safety management (QSM) personnel rather than experienced mariners. There needs to be more integration between shore side management and the officers of the ship. 

Instead of being a “blue screen” to shore side management, there needs to be better understanding and consideration of the human life factors onboard ship. Shoreside management do not live with their fellow employees 24/7, suffer constant time zone changes or the effects of “cost effective” scheduling of port entry, docking, loading, unloading and transit between ports.

Shore personnel generally work the usual office hours of nine to five and go home to a good night’s sleep. There are no time zone changes except for Daylight Savings Time twice a year. It is not unusual for ship crews to experience time zone changes totaling twelve to fourteen hours in a typical ocean crossing.

“Cost effective” management of the ship does not take into account the human beings who actually navigate and manage the ship and their physical limitations. It is not unusual for shoreside management to schedule twelve ports in fourteen days. In the Persian Gulf, where ports are closer together, ten ports in seven days is a normal schedule. Although it looks good on an Excel budget sheet to schedule transits between ports and time docked with the bare minimum of time, fatigue related accidents are a serious safety issue. 

MLC 2006 has been implemented in an attempt to give decent living standards for seamen. After ten years, the rest requirements are still not achievable due to the scheduling “presented” by shoreside management. 

No wonder, shoreside management, who usually adhere to the MBA management model, are looking forward to robot ships that are remotely controlled! Robots could probably do more ports in fewer days, as they are machines that do not require sleep or food. Even though this sounds attractive to save money, robots or robot programmed ships would not be able to safely integrate port entry, docking, discharging, loading and transits between ports due to all the variables of those events.  

A better understanding between the physical realities of shipboard life and the expectations of management would be a better methodology to efficiently manage ships. Bridge team management improved navigational safety. An integration between captains and shoreside management would lesson fatigue related accidents and give everyone a chance to work as a team. Too often, the relationship between the shoreside management and shipboard is adversarial.

Globalization of an industry that was already worldwide has brought some changes to the maritime industry which have become onerous for both shoreside and shipboard personnel. 

Globalization has demanded more accountability for security, immigration control, health requirements, environmental protection and all international customs as essential components of commerce. These regulatory requirements have produced an explosion of mandated paperwork. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no standardization of the paperwork required. In fact, most countries and regulatory agencies insist on their own forms being used. 

Crews have been greatly reduced by advanced technology. Shoreside management has been greatly reduced by the reliance on the MBA business model and computers. All maritime personnel are putting in more hours to meet the goals set by top management. Although it seems possible to achieve more when you approach a situation in a vacuum of spreadsheets, a common problem on board ships and in shoreside offices is that the paperwork requirements have become impossible to manage. 

Most of the international requirements are the same but there is no standardized way of maintaining and/or sharing these documents. It would be a major boost to time and cost savings for everyone to utilize a standardized “online” data base of required documentation. 

An IMO standardized central international data base should be developed for all of the required information from ships, rather than each flag state, each regulatory agency, each company and individual ships having different reporting requirements and forms. All nations, companies, agents, regulatory agencies and vessels would have access and input into maintaining accurate documentation of certificates and international requirements. Thus, at any point in a voyage, especially before entering port, a vessel could be cleared in advance. 

A standardized data base streamlines the entire process for the shipboard and shoreside personnel. One single data base reduces the redundancy of ship and shore paperwork. A standardized documentation would also reduce the crushing burden of accountability when audits and inspections are conducted. 

A standardized documentation data base and technology would modernize the maritime industry and make international commerce more efficient and profitable. As for the human factor on operating and maintaining the ship, there does not appear to be room for further reduction of crew. What looks “possible” from a blue screen is often not possible in reality. More integration and understanding between shoreside management and the ship personnel would also improve efficiency and profitability.

Shoreside and top management cannot be replaced by robots. Ships also cannot be safely operated and maintained by robots.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.