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Costa Concordia, human factor to blame. Or the lack of human factor?

Talking about Costa Concordia, everybody is talking about the so-called “human factor”. What happened in fact, was an electronic factor. Liner hit the rocks apparently due to navigational error, officers or officer on bridge managed to collide with the whole island, going straight for the island’s lighthouse, in good visibility and being in sound mind. In year 2007, another cruise liner, Sea Diamond, hit the reef known to seafarers of Homer epics, and marked by all required navigational warning buoys. How could that happen? There is only one plausible explanation, something which is worrying experts for already a number of years, the excess of electronic navigational systems and instruments, and growing gap between physical and virtual realities. Navigators are estranged from the direct management of the vessel and developing situation by too heavy reliance on electronics, they lost the physical feeling of the sea and navigational dangers.

Leaving alone GPS and AIS, in times when vessels were equipped with radars only, it was already a problem, quite a number of catastrophic collisions was caused by reliance on radar picture and radar estimations, some of those collisions could be easily avoided just by leaving radar tube and taking a look around. Now the situation is much worse, many young officers sometimes can’t take a bearing, either out of sheer ignorance, or because they think it to be something out of past. Literally speaking, they live in virtual computerized reality, lost for a physical one. I’m sure if all the navigational equipment on Costa Concordia bridge, with the exception of a gyrocompass, would be switched off some 20 minutes before the grounding, no tragedy would happen then, as the officer or officers would at last leave the computer screens, take a look around and notice the lighthouse and the island.

Frankly, I don’t see any problem at all in minimizing a human factor in navigational accidents with regards to cruise liners. To minimize human factor, we must simply increase it, i.e. return navigators to physical reality from a virtual one. I’ve had an experience of working as an able seaman on board of the biggest passenger vessel of the USSR, the “Soviet Union” liner. The watch consisted of two officers and three able seamen, two of the seamen on bridge wings (one to be placed on the forecastle in case of bad visibility), no autopilot, radars were assisting, not dominating. Why shouldn’t we return then, to an old practice of physical navigation and control of the ship? No autopilot in waters rich with navigational dangers, like Mediterranean or Carribean, autopilot may be used only during trans-ocean runs, far from lands and shipping lanes. Navigators are to duplicate all the satellite observations, all GPS positions, by good old bearings and radar distances. Not for the sake of checking the position given by navigational systems, but for the sake of keeping the officers in touch with physical surroundings, to make visual observations and estimations compulsory. It’s hard, if possible at all, practice to apply to all the vessels, but it’s definitely possible while restricting the practice with cruise liners, we’re talking about thousands of lives, for God’s sake!

Voytenko Mikhail
Jan 16 2012

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