Examining ECDIS education

Built on the advent of modern electronics, ECDIS is bringing in a whole new level of performance by transferring all chart work elements onto an electronic display screen. This allows the seamless integration of Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC), GPS position fixing and other navigational tools, including radar, echo sounder, AIS and NAVTEX. Multiple functions are made available with just one click on the computer keyboard, a tap on an icon or the use of a mouse. Suddenly, the supporting tools needed to operate paper charts are history.


The additional capabilities of ECDIS are endless, from having reference materials like weather charts and tidal data readily available, to the ability to set pre-warning alarms for navigational hazards and incorporating record-keeping. The system is set to totally change the way navigation is carried out at sea, while making the whole process easier, safer and far more effective.

At the same time, any process which can be carried out on a paper chart can also be done on ECDIS. Introduction of new technology does not mean that old skills are irrelevant!

A New Set of Challenges

This major navigational change has brought about two extreme reactions from mariners. Some are reluctant to accept it, while others embrace it as infallible. Neither of these approaches is completely correct. Recent years have seen several ECDIS-assisted navigational accidents and near misses. Analysis of these accidents suggests the causes are not system design failures, but are more likely to be due to operational failures, such as:

  • Improper voyage planning, not using or incorrectly setting safety depth, safety contour or watch vector alarms or wrong inputs of vessels’ data, such as draught
  • Using inappropriate scale or display mode
  • Not using the automatic route check facility
  • Not carrying out visual checks or lookout
  • Using ECDIS as an anti-collision tool; it is not meant for this purpose
  • Not ensuring that ENCs are up-todate, due to navigators not being clear on the automatic and/or manual updating procedures
  • Improper use of radar and/or AIS overlay
  • Inability to plot visual and/or radar fixes, (LOPs)
  • Improper use of source data check on ENCs (CATZOC)
  • Not being aware of contingency procedures for hardware and/or software failures
  • Not being aware of back-up procedure when operating in areas where ENC coverage is unavailable.

Training Requirements

These issues have been addressed by IMO, which has not only set minimum performance standards for ECDIS, but has also formulated guidelines on training. The current version is the 40-hour IMO Model course 1.27 of 2012. These courses are generic by design, and individual administrations should apply them in conjunction with local needs. However, it is important that students demonstrate all the competencies that are listed during the course, rather than just learning about them.

Completing the IMO Model course is only the first step. It must be followed by a structured, ship-specific ECDIS familiarisation for each shipboard ECDIS system on which navigating officers are expected to serve. In this context, it’s important to note that some flag states require this familiarisation to be completed before joining a vessel. It may also be
expected best practice for organisations, such as OCIMF and, at times, a company’s own SMS. Any onboard familiarisation must be completed before an OOW keeps their first independent watch. This is why many organisations prefer OOWs to complete familiarisation before joining the vessel.

A Three-Stage Process

Mastering ECDIS is a three-stage process:

  • The IMO Model Course, which should take a minimum of 40 hours and involve a demonstration of all the competencies covered in the model course
  • Ship-specific equipment familiarisation
  • Constant practice – just like any other form of training

The familiarisation stage is especially important, since different manufacturers have different designs and many incorporate features far in excess of those required by IMO standards.

Using ECDIS Safely

Any new system brings with it a new set of challenges. Using ECDIS can easily lull operators into a false sense of security. Too much automation in ECDIS can lead to over-reliance and complacency. Safe navigation is a dynamic activity requiring  active situational awareness. According to STCW, “Officers of the navigational watch are responsible for navigating the ship safely during their periods of duty, when they will be particularly concerned with avoiding collision and stranding.” These requirements should always be borne in mind when using ECDIS, along with any other requirements in the company’s SMS.

Finally, integrated information on an ECDIS must always be cross-checked with both the individual equipment, and the time-tested requirement from rule 5 of the COLREGS: “Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper lookout by sight and hearing, as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions, so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.”

This article is taken from ‘The Navigator’, a free publication from The Nautical Institute.