Navigational Question in the Digital Age
By Christian Hempstead
Asking the Navigational Question: What do I need to know? What am I looking at? What are my options?
The practices of marine navigation in the digital age may be trending away from navigation. Not so much by replacing manual skills with automated systems, although this is certainly a reality. Opportunities for hands-on practice are still present in most forms of seafaring. The real issue is how to hold fast to the ever-evolving Navigational Question. There is no single question. This is a concept or attitude that points us to the endless stream of questioning that enables the identification of our moment-by-moment circumstances.
Most of the time, the Navigational Question seems to involve asking ‘What.’ ‘What’ questions involve asking how things work, how systems work together, and why things are or are not as they appear. Asking ‘when’ is particularly elusive, partly because marking elapsed time is subconscious, and is highly vulnerable to distraction. Longer term ‘When’ questions, for purposes of noting trends and updates, require some form of record keeping, such as memory aids. Accordingly, training is particularly challenged by developing the feel of the internal clock, the physicality of speed, the meaning of real-time, and the awareness of the age of data.
Time questions are generally embedded in ‘What’ questions. Consider the visual bearing, the running fix, the intermittent radar blip, the aspect of running lights, the hand-made fix on a chart (electronic or paper), the depth under the keel, the state of tide, and/or set and drift. All of these are highly temporary, and all require continuous updating. Thus the sequence of questioning flows naturally in active watchstanding, whether in solo mode, or in a team of two or more.
Impact of Automation
There is a consequence to automating this updating process in a two-dimensional array of graphical and data displays. The watchstanding routine shifts to a form of inspection for updates. This form of perception and analysis is at once tedious, open to mistaken assumptions, and easily formulated in software logic. Counting and inspection are soon automated into TCPA, Safety Depth, Cross Track Distance, minimum depth, position offset, etc. Alarm functionality, on the path to meaninglessness, multiplies swiftly to the point of profound expectation. Vendors do not intend this, yet naval architects and designers remain unaware of the inevitable operator capitulation to automation. Training schemes, with rare exceptions, overlook what has elsewhere been referred to as automation awareness.
The active watchstander, within a fixed budget of cognitive resources, must convert real-time internalizing of external cues into abstract awareness of alarm parameters and appropriately configured graphical displays. The Navigational Question must accommodate the health, idiosyncrasies, and criticality of systems. This inevitably comes at the sacrifice of time spent physically dwelling in the midst of external cues.
Looking Back, Planning Ahead
Coaching a trainee in methods of well-defined questioning is actually quite familiar. When radar was new, a freshly observed blip was marked, and then the junior watchstander was instructed to immediately raise the binoculars to see what, if anything, was on the horizon, or closer, and to consider: What risk, if any was developing? Likewise, a visual contact on the edge of visibility was crossed-checked for range on radar as a significant factor in asking many questions: Is our present speed safe? What Rules of the Road now apply? Are the conditions changing? What is the proximity of other hazards?, What are my options and their risks? When will the unfolding workload exceed my capacity? When is the time to augment the watch?
At present, there are multiple tracking devices, and still we have the visual prerogative, most of the time. It only requires a subtle shift in emphasis to use the tracking information to crosscheck internal estimates. In the 1970’s when ARPA was new, Future Shock (Alvin Toffler 1928-2016) considered a technological world we humans would be compelled to want to operate, or else suffer a deep collective anxiety. Now in that future, we are in the midst of discovering a deeper impulse: To be glad to go off watch, not unlike the all-too-common event of a ship’s bridge team relieved to hand over full navigational control to the just-embarked pilot. Controlling the ship is not overly complex, until the contexts of confined and dynamic waters no matter how familiar raises the risks to levels nearly unmanageable by humans.
Letting go is a reasonable response to anxiety, just as narrower safety margins are the inevitable outcome of control by highly technical and complex systems of sensors, logic, parameters, and redundant power sources. But letting go operationally also seems to include the rapid decay of asking the Navigational Question. Maintaining responsibility requires participation.
Managing Automation, Keeping Watch
How should mariners practice participation in navigational systems that both exclude them and yet require their attention? To begin with, they must keep asking the Navigational Question: What am I looking at? What does this mean? Is this information ambiguous? How are the conditions changing? What risks are developing? What is the consequence of this trend? What are my options for action? Two basic streams feed into this constant querying. One is un-teachable: Just being curious. The other can be developed with guidance: Just keep moving about in your navigational environment, physically and mentally. If you are rooted in a sophisticated cockpit, then your physical motion is confined. This makes your full perception far more deliberate. For that we have techniques of scanning the visual scene, the graphics and data readouts.
Numerous shipboard navigational functions, some exceptionally complex, and often designed into the very purpose of the vessel, enable the commercial contract, or may be critical to a military mission. Consider DP dive support, shuttle tanker operations at an FPSO, ultra-deepwater drill ship position keeping, multi-vessel offshore towing, cruise ship maneuvering, “footer” laker transits based on real-time water levels, vessel fuel economy dependent on track control, high-speed transits dependent on reliable sensors, underway vessel stabilization, ice navigation, environmental forecasting, chart survey data quality, not to mention the navigational impact on cargo care in general, integrity of the ship’s structure, and the well-being of crew and passengers.
We have come to expect that automation means less human involvement in the operation of the technology-based system, certainly during routine periods. However reasonable that sentiment may be, we must also guard against losing interest in what makes things work, or in the responsibility for necessary skills and understanding. What is routine in maritime work inevitably gives way to the unimaginable.
A noteworthy trend is the diminishing value of navigation’s very foundation; namely, the timely exercise of good judgment. The shallow view generally taken is that navigators are prone to making mistakes. To be sure, there are efforts within IMO and some professional maritime groups to support the so-called Human Element. Nonetheless, the context for human seafarers is changing undeniably, and at a pervasive pace, aided by vendor applications of remarkable complexity. These systems, designed for the broadest possible market, are used only in partial ways. That quickly brings on the problem of partial use, because the less one uses a system, the less one knows and understands it, until the most prudent approach is not to use it all.
Back to Basics
Of course, what makes our profession so fascinating is that alongside the fleets of vessels wired for digital automation, there are vessels and operations that are entirely hands-on and permanently analog. Young and retired river pilots alike recount their enjoyment of fleeting barges and flanking massive tows around bends in the Western rivers. Skillful towboaters work remote uncharted waters of Alaska serving dependent communities. Ice navigation still demands exceptionally alert perception whatever real-time updates come online. The skillful adaptation of trawler fishing technologies has had undeniable consequence, while globally, uncountable fishers remain remarkably unenhanced.
An extreme example of non-instrument navigation is the traditional wayfinding knowledge and techniques of Pacific Islanders in open-ocean voyages. This wayfinding uses no positioning, no compass or clock. A revival of wayfinding was championed by master navigator Mau Piailug aboard Hokule’a in the mid 1970’s, and carried on by his mentee Nainoa Thompson in the 1980’s, who is presently training new Pacific island navigators. In addition to a well-informed course strategy that considers expected winds, currents, celestial movements, and the destination, the method is an extended exercise in internalized deduced reckoning and proximity to the reference course. There may not be language to describe the spiritual powers, as real as the elements, embodied in the voyaging canoes.
Mike Cunningham, crewmember and captain in the Polynesian Voyaging Society, states “Guided exclusively by the stars and ocean swells (without charts, sextant, radio or even a wrist watch), these modern voyagers [have] proven that this nearly extinct navigational skill could be used to guide the first explorers to the Hawaiian Island chain.” In May 2014, Hokule’a embarked on a four-year world-wide voyage, and is presently visiting the U.S. East Coast. While Hokule’a illustrates the embodiment, and humanness, of living and breathing the Navigational Question, there is another recent navigation story to relate.
As counterpoint to the deep reach of networked technologies in the maritime world, author George Foy examines the neuroscience of navigation while unfolding a personal sea story. In his book, Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human, published this past Spring, Foy focuses on the quintessential navigational question of ‘Where am I?’ as a blend of philosophy, cognitive psychology, microbiology, literary symbolism, and affirmation of personal identity. Yet his context all the while is the immensely practical problem of actually finding position on a voyage of his own in homage to his ancestral seafarers. In the tussling, Foy confronts a collective loss of non-instrument skills and identity. The process of moving and navigating is ongoing, and life affirming, through the enlivenment of memory and ultimately of personal identity. To Foy, the risk of losing our navigational abilities through substitution by technology equates directly as a risk to human identity.
Incorporating Technology in Successful Navigation
The inclusion of technology in navigation can be invigorating, so long as it enables hands-on navigational practice. What we perceive by eye as a bearing, by ear as a change in wind, by feel as a vibration in the shallows, can all be confirmed by vital navigational instruments. Predicting set and drift over time can be confirmed by position fixes. Computing the math for celestial lines of position (LOP’s) permits more practice of the hard part, collecting many LOP’s instead of a few. Plotting LOP’s helps create a physical understanding of GPS error and satellite constellations. Confirming gyro or magnetic compass error over a passage is a lesson in gyro oscillation, and geomagnetism. Radar target tracking overlaid with AIS tracking offers insight into visual aspect, vector lag and relative motion. The electronic chart, as a collecting point for all kinds of data, should routinely send us back to confirm the health of our source sensors. But first comes asking questions of curiosity, one a time, in a useful priority.
Our seafaring identities are tightly bound to our tools and innovations, no matter what age we are living in. There is no back to go back to. Just because so much automation confronts us in our present age does not directly threaten to erase our memories, or deprive us of our navigating brain. The instruments are not that powerful. Keeping our wits as mariners is our own choice. Our uniquely human advantage is in asking questions as a response to learning the answer(s) to the prior questions, and so on.
Real Navigation Skill: Use it or Lose it
The irreplaceable skill is the judgment we apply to anticipate what will likely be happening soon and eventually. Sound judgment can be lost without constant practice. But blaming technology is akin to drilling holes in the bottom of your own boat. Better to approach it all with the practice of curiosity. If we become surprised at how a long look out of the windows can contradict easy assumptions derived from digital displays, we should feel encouraged to return to the practice of questioning, as well as to teach that practice to others.
It is ambiguity that we are on the lookout for. Intending safe navigation and avoiding navigational surprises is the goal. We should fear the loss of questioning, not the onslaught of instrumentation. While on watch we should resist capitulating in the face of flawed software and hardware, and devilish installations. Habitually asking the ‘Navigational Question’ can soothe the anxiety, reinsert us into the spatial context, and open up our internal clocks.
Christian Hempstead, Master Mariner, shipped for 19 years on US flag tankers as senior deck officer, experiencing the transition to GPS and ECDIS navigation. During that time, he completed an MA in literature. Following a calling to teach, he came ashore in 2000 as professional instructor and eventually full professor at USMMA. He contributed ECDIS training requirements to STCW-2010, and developed the 2012 revision to the IMO ECDIS Model Course 1.27, based on in depth experience in navigation and training. Since 2013 he has run Hempstead Maritime Training full time, focusing on ECDIS navigation and simulation trainer training.