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Watchkeeper: How to avoid costly distractions

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Some years ago, there was a notable incident which occurred when a supply ship Master conning his ship out of harbour in thick fog, was so distracted by two separate telephone calls which he was trying to deal with simultaneously that he failed to pick up a third, rather more vital message from the port VTS, that was telling him he was heading straight for a concrete breakwater. And there was the famous case of the cruise ship collision which occurred when her watchkeeping officer subordinated his lookout duties to complete the garbage form which needed to be ready at the next port of arrival. Another memorable case involving bureaucratic procedures was that of the port arrival checklist on a ferry, the final few items left blank as by then, the ferry had crashed into the quay.

There have been a number of strandings which have been contributed to by the inattention of the watchkeeper who was on a mobile telephone at the crucial moment. Communications and brilliant technology can sometimes be a serious distraction to people, who in a less technological age would have been keeping a good visual lookout, with less risk of their attention being diverted.
The London P&I Club clearly feels that such distractions have become a potential menace and has, in its latest StopLoss Bulletin, drawn attention to the way in which such distractions can lead to very expensive casualties. A number of “accidents of our time” are cited, one example being that of a VDR playback after a pollution incident which revealed that the watchkeeper listening to a news bulletin on a laptop computer through Skype, missing both the vital radar target and a VHF warning call.
Another case saw so much information overlaid onto a radar screen that the one target which was going to cause trouble, was missed. The club notes in its advice: “It is worth giving careful thought to how such equipment can best be used without risking information overload.”

It is certainly something worth thinking about, and not just in the context of bridge watchkeeping. A report recently told of the huge numbers of people that were crowded into a VLCC’s cargo control room; port officials, surveyors, inspectors and the like that the Master had to throw them all out so that the Chief Officer could concentrate on getting the discharge under way.
Arguably, everyone needs rules and guidance on the use of personal communication devices on the bridge, while people ashore need to know that there are times when they should not attempt to communicate with the Master or Pilot. In these days when communication is so easy, and there are so many distractions from personal devices, from iPods to Blackberries, it needs to be made clear what is acceptable, and what the real priorities are.

The issue of information overload, as the London Club points out, is one that needs to be taken seriously, and is yet another area for attention as the “e-navigation” era is developed. “Multi-tasking” is seen as something that is almost desirable these days, but fierce concentration on safe navigation should make it essential that other distractions are ignored.
It should be a matter of priority, with nothing allowed to get in the way of operational safety.
Articles written by the Watchkeeper and other outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.

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