A series of digital navigation articles

Following on from our article Collisions, ECDIS and "All available means", we release our second article in the series regarding "Avoiding an ECDIS Assisted Grounding". 

With appropriate training, adherence to, and use of an effective Safety Management System (SMS), "ECDIS Assisted Groundings" should become a thing of the past. In this article we consider how an Electronic Chart Display Information System (ECDIS) should be used to avoid unnecessary groundings.

The phrase "ECDIS Assisted Grounding" is not new. The phrase is usually attributed to situations where a failure to use ECDIS properly has been identified as one of the causative factors of a grounding. The deficiencies typically include poor system set-up, user inexperience and poor system knowledge, failure to comply with SMS, solely relying on ECDIS or operating the system at a very low level of functionality with key safety features disabled or circumvented.

The use of ECDIS represents a significant change to the operation of a bridge and, if operated correctly and in combination with traditional mariner skills, can provide increased situational awareness and improved navigational safety. The proper use of ECDIS is critical in terms of safety at sea and the legal implications it has for all of those involved in the maritime industry, both at sea and ashore.

Core principles remain unchanged

While the tools may have changed, the principles of safe navigation remain constant. Navigation in the digital age requires the same level of precision, intellectual rigour and skill to ensure the safe navigation and employment of a vessel. As such, the principles of Appraisal, Planning, Execution and Monitoring, as defined in IMO Resolution A.893 (21), remain critical.

Voyage Planning and ECDIS Set-Up

ECDIS incorporates many additional planning features that are not available on paper charts. However, a lack of familiarisation or training can have disastrous consequences. In our experience, recurrent themes in relation to planning include:

  1. Improper ECDIS set-up, including critical safety settings being incorrectly applied such that in-built safeguards, intended to prevent casualties of this nature, are not being activated and therefore acted upon.
  2. Display settings not optimised to clearly show all relevant dangers, particularly those vessels without IHO Presentation Library edition 4.0 (an ECDIS software update to chart content and display standards).
  3. Routes not being adequately checked for navigational hazards, including through the use of automated route scans of the Cross Track Distance (XTD) (and an assessment of the impact of all automated alarms returned) and visual checks at an appropriate scale. It is also essential that masters understand how to carry out these checks, as well as being able to use all the functions of ECDIS on board so that they can properly fulfil their obligations.
  4. Each leg not having an appropriate XTD, which should be carefully planned to provide sufficient sea room for track maintenance and to manoeuvre for collision avoidance, having regard to the proximity of navigational hazards.
  5. Insufficient training in the use of the ECDIS system on board, including generic, type specific and practical assessments (in simulators or on board) in relation to those skills.   

Execution of the Passage

The responsibilities of deck officers, when navigating with ECDIS, do not change. Safe navigation has always required, and continues to require, the continuous monitoring and cross verification of the vessel's position and other critical navigation information.

In our experience, key areas of concern in relation to the monitoring and execution of passages while using ECDIS include:

  1. Lack of familiarity with the specific ECDIS on board and knowledge regarding the availability, activation and use of critical safety functions, which can differ between ECDIS systems (there are currently over 30 type approved ECDIS systems) which can have disastrous impacts, especially when inputs fail during highly stressful and critical situations.
  2. Over-reliance on ECDIS without utilising traditional navigation techniques to monitor the integrity of the information displayed, including positional information not being verified through the use of the radar image overlay function, visual bearings, transits, radar ranges, radar parallel indices and echo sounder depths.
  3. Failing to capitalise on the gains in situational awareness afforded by ECDIS, by not using this new technology in combination with traditional navigation skills. Routinely, junior mariners need to be encouraged to take a step back from the computer, and look out of the window, to expand their situational awareness and make more informed decisions about navigational safety.
  4. Failing to interrogate ECDIS alarms. While issues associated with "alarm fatigue" have, to an extent, been remedied by IHO Presentation Library Edition 4.0, particular care needs to be taken on vessels without the update, as the alarms generated by ECDIS can be excessive.
  5. Handover between deck officers who must deal with the status and operation of ECDIS, including the configuration and safety settings currently being utilised on both the primary and back-up ECDIS. 

Another significant area of concern is the worrying trend where officers, whose vessel's primary means of navigation is paper charts, are utilising ECDIS or unofficial electronic charts, as the primary means of avoiding navigational dangers.

Overcoming through effective SMS

Routinely, where ECDIS is identified as causative of the loss, similar deficiencies are identified with the vessel's SMS (or adherence to that SMS) relating to the use and management of ECDIS. The vessel's SMS must contain guidance relating to the use of ECDIS on board, to ensure the safe navigation and utilisation of the vessel. There is significant guidance available to seafarers, owners and operators covering the appropriate procedures for the utilisation and set up of ECDIS.

Those procedures must address issues relating to training, updating, passage planning, emergency procedures, and the navigation with ECDIS, to ensure that the utilisation of ECDIS, to the extent possible, is no longer proffered as one of the causes of a grounding.


ECDIS, when used by a competent operator, in combination with their traditional mariner skills, can provide seafarers with a much clearer understanding of the navigational picture and allow them to make more informed decisions regarding navigational safety.

However, the transition from paper charts to ECDIS has been challenging for some masters and operators. Procedures need to be put in place not only for the safe operation and utilisation of ECDIS, but also in relation to the transition to ECDIS, to ensure that the phrase "ECDIS Assisted Grounding" becomes a thing of the past. There will also be a transition period, over the next few years, in which navigators will alternatively use ECDIS or paper charts on different ships, and, therefore, need to ensure that they are fully conversant with both systems.

In this, the second in a series of articles entitled "All Available Means", our Asia Pacific casualty team has partnered to provide you with an insight into some emerging issues and developing trends with ECDIS. Our team has significant command and navigation experience utilising ECDIS as the primary means of navigation, as well as instructing navigators of the Royal Australian Navy in the use of ECDIS.

In our next article, we will consider how ECDIS can be utilised in casualty investigations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.