Nautical Institute Hong Kong Branch
Friday, 23rd October 2015
“Competencies of a Future Mariner”
Seafarers, Members of the Nautical Institute, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. I am very
grateful to the Committee of the Hong Kong branch of the Nautical Institute for entrusting me
with this keynote and for giving me the opportunity to speak on a subject very close to my
heart. It is my job to ‘set the scene’ for the presentations that will follow. During the day, you
will hear from speakers much more expert than me, and I will not attempt to step into their
areas of expertise. What I will do, however, is to give my slightly philosophical overview of the
issues you will discuss today, in an attempt to challenge and encourage the discussion that will
inevitably follow, what I am sure will be, the excellent presentations.
I am especially grateful to our Director of Marine for her description of what the Government
and industry have been doing to recruit, educate and train our next generation in Hong Kong.
As you may know, this is an area to which my Association attaches great importance, and we
are grateful to the Government, and the Marine Department in particular, for their support.
The title of this seminar is interesting to dissect. Competency – the ability to ‘do’ something
successfully and efficiently. To carry out a task. A concept that goes beyond ‘qualification’.
STCW has been a great step forward, but despite being called a ‘competency based regime’, I
have been told by those on the front line that it is more about qualification, not competence.
Which is why we have newly qualified Class 1 certificate holders demanding a job as master of a
ship. There is much more that we can do to assess and be assured of competency in our
seafarers; one thought is to have a mandatory period of experience before promotion that is in
excess of that required for qualification, but that would not be sufficient to solve the problem.
Time on the job, unfortunately, does not always add up to competence. Competence needs on
the job training and assessment, and not by overworked senior officers who will sign a bit of
paper just to make the interruption go away. Pradeep is the expert in this area, and I am sure
you will hear later how Anglo-Eastern installs and assesses competency in their seafarers. A
question that should possibly be asked is whether one size fits all, whether we need different
competency standards for different types of ships? We already have different certification
requirements, or at least ‘add-on’ certification requirements for different ship types.
The future. As I am sure we have all read, there are a number of comparisons being made at
the moment between the future in 2015 predicted in the movie ‘Back to the Future’ and the
reality today. We don't yet have Marty McFly’s ‘hoverboards’ (although development is
progressing, if only to demonstrate that the movie was right) but we do have iPhones! What
this demonstrates is that we have no idea what will be developed over the next 10 years, never
mind the next 20. One of our human failings, to my mind, is that we appear to assume that we
have always had what we have today. Or is it just that we accept rapid change in technology as
if it is what we expected all along. There seems to be little appreciation of the history of the
incredible pace of technological development. What we are trying to predict when talking
about the future, in my opinion, are the ‘unknown unknowns’ that Donald Rumsfeld so aptly
described. Where will technology take us, and perhaps more to the point, where do we want
technology to take us? Because, in the end, which technology is adopted is our decision. There
are many more technological advances made than those that make it to market; we decide
which ones succeed.
When talking about the future of shipping, one frequently discussed subject is that of
Autonomous ships. These are vessels that are able to make independent decisions and are
controlled by an operator ashore. We already have automated ships, and, to a degree, a few
very small autonomous vessels. I have been informed that research in this area is being cut
back at the moment due to the slowdown in the markets, especially in oil support services.
Autonomous ships are said to be possible today, but are they acceptable today? Many airline
incidents are apparently caused by the pilot interfering with the automatic systems, but who
would fly on an airplane without a pilot? And there will have to be some major changes in
regulation to allow unmanned ships, inevitably a lengthy process.
As discussed at the recent London branch seminar, the biggest danger of autonomous ships
could well be the situation that will occur when an unmanned ship meets a manned ship. The
accidents that the Google driverless cars have had have apparently been due to the human
driver of the other car. In this respect, is there a human instinct that will not be so easily copied
into artificial intelligence? That of reacting like a human to another human’s mistakes. I believe
that humans have an in-built sense of anticipation that is not so easily replicated in software.
Anticipation that predicts what the other person is likely to do next. Autonomy could well work
on a fixed platform, such as airport shuttle trains or the MTR, but wider application for a
chaotic environment will require much more work.
The subject of unmanned ships has brought another dimension into play. One of the issues to
be discussed in the upcoming ICS/ITF meeting is the potential of loss of seafarer jobs due to
unmanned ships. A recent statement by Nautilus expresses concern that seafarers will become
screen watchers and machine minders, and other unions have expressed concern that seafarers
will no longer be required. These concerns are not something to be taken lightly, but I do recall,
when I was a Class surveyor in the North East of England, asking a welder what he would do
when the shipyard closed. He told me that he was a down-hand welder, and the Government
owed him a job as a down-hand welder. I asked him whether he would consider the
Government’s offer of further training, to upgrade his skills so that he could get work on oil
platforms or other high tech manufacturing. His response was no, that he was not going to
retrain, he was owed a job. What we will need from our seafarers, even today, is recognition
that the world is changing and a willingness, no a desire, to retrain to obtain higher skills in
order to take advantage of the various changes and challenges.
What I see as the middle stage of development, or what I would like to see, is automation being
used to assist the seafarer. I am told of equipment being fitted to ships piecemeal, to satisfy
regulation, and bridges on which a multitude of alarms are going off, distracting rather than
assisting the seafarer. Javier will tell us more about IMO’s work into e-navigation, a subject that
my Association has been interested in, but not fully engaged in, over the past many years. I am
not sure that the definition or extent of e-navigation has properly been decided despite the
reports from the IMO, and I am told that there are still disagreements between the industry
and Governments as to what e-navigation is actually meant to do. The previous IMO Secretary
General often talked about ships being physically controlled from ashore, which is something
we continue to resist for obvious reasons.
One of the facets of e-navigation is better ship/shore communication – but is sufficient being
done about cyber security? I believe that computer experts agree that the way to beat hackers
is not to plug holes after the attack has taken place, because there will always be other holes to
exploit. Much better to assume that attacks will take place, and to build the software to
accommodate the hackers, and isolate the data. Free flow of data to and from ships provides
hackers with an excellent opportunity for mischief or anarchy.
It is interesting that the US Navy is now back to teaching celestial navigation, in case GPS is
brought down by hackers – not a remote possibility. I wonder how many seafarers today can
work out a ship’s position without using any electrical equipment…
Another facet of e-navigation is the interlinking of equipment on the bridge. My graduate
thesis, submitted some 40 years ago, was on bridge ergonomics and the interlinking of bridge
equipment. This was perhaps anticipatory, bearing in mind that we navigated close to shore
using Decca Navigator and Decca charts. Much of my research was carried out on the cross
channel hovercraft operating at that time; their speed made good bridge ergonomics essential.
I must admit, however, that I would have expected this issue to have moved beyond the
discussion stage in the intervening period, but I do realize that the industry is very conservative.
If you will allow me, I will delve a little deeper into this issue. Firstly, ease of use. I take note of
the rather elderly proposal for an ‘S’ mode for bridge equipment, but as I pointed out in a
Digital Ship conference a few years ago, if Apple can make electronic equipment that doesn't
need a manual to use, then surely ship equipment manufacturers can do the same. I was told in
that conference by an irate equipment manufacturer that Apple only had 3,000 lines of code,
while he had 300,000. I'm sorry, but I don't see that as an excuse. Why do we still need manuals
and training to use bridge equipment? Why do we need to discuss an ‘S’ mode? Of course,
there has to be education in the limitations of bridge equipment and potential errors, which I
am not sure we are seeing enough of, but equipment should be immediately intuitive. At three
in the morning when something goes wrong, you don’t want to have to switch on the bridge
light to read the manual.
Secondly, ‘big data’. How are we doing in the development of algorithms that can assess the
output of the bridge equipment in order to provide the seafarer with the relevant information
at the time he needs it? Trading companies employ software engineers to produce algorithms
to dissect big data to help them spot trading opportunities, and surely the big data that bridge
equipment produces is worthy of investigation. I spoke earlier about the multitude of alarms
and the interconnection of bridge equipment – is it so hard to collect the data, analyse it and
produce an output that assists and not detracts the decision making process of the bridge
Which leads me to the future mariner. As I have discussed above, a new attitude to training is
required. We are facing changing technology, changing regulatory requirements, changing
demographics and changing desires of young people today. The changing nature of the industry
will demand a new set of skills and aptitudes, but I really hope that we develop in the right
direction so that we are not putting systems engineers and software developers on ships.
Equipment must be provided that does not require constant care, and will support the seafarer.
Seafarers must not be reduced to the role of supporting equipment. Gerry will go into better
detail about regulatory changes and Chris will tell us more about changes in training
opportunities and needs.
And perhaps, and this is without reducing the importance of the presentations of the other
speakers today, perhaps the most relevant presentation will be the final one, by Captain
Norman McNee, a serving ship master. I believe that one of the hardest things for the rest of us
is to understand what it is like at sea today! I first went to sea some 47 years ago, in a very
different environment. Although I can do my best for today’s seafarers, in the ILO and other
fora, and I make a point of listening to seafarers about their lives at sea, I have little direct
experience of what it is actually like to be at sea today.
You will be relieved to hear that I am coming to the end of my presentation, and in reflection I
wonder if the focus of this seminar is not only the Competencies but also the Challenges of the
I would like to finish with a quote that I was recently reminded of when I saw it misquoted.
Ernest Hemmingway once said “The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute
for experience, while the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence”.
Lets try to incorporate both in responding to the rapid pace of technological change that is
upon us, both for the benefit of our seafarers and the benefit of our industry.
I wish you all a very interesting, useful and active discussion today. I wish I could stay and join in
that discussion, but I'm afraid I have to leave soon – the Government calls…
23 October 2015