ECDIS Training for Pilots

Courses underway in the e-Navigation Centre

Marine navigation is currently experiencing its greatest reform since the introduction of radio communications and the development of radar – some argue even as big as the transition from sail to steam. The change is affecting everyone from deck officers to chart agents, fleet superintendents to inspecting officers and crewing managers to pilots.


In case you’ve been living underground for the last few years, I’m talking about the mandatory introduction of ECDIS to the world’s fleets. Electronic Chart Display Information Systems, to give them their full name, are a specialised form of GIS (Geographic Information System) built to meet strict performance standards laid down by the IMO, the latest version of which, MSC.232(82), was published in December 2006.

What is unique about ECDIS is that together with correctly installed official electronic charts (ENCs, or RNCs in RCDS mode) and appropriate training, it satisfies the legal carriage requirements for charts, as laid down in SOLAS Chapter V. It is important to note that ECDIS is all too frequently confused with its lesser cousin ECS (simply, Electronic Chart Systems), whom although subject to an ISO database standard (laid down in ISO 19379), do not meet the SOLAS carriage requirements and therefore cannot replace paper charts. Furthermore, readers should be aware that contrary to popular misinformation, ECDIS is in no way reliant upon a GNSS (GPS) input; it can continue to be effectively monitored in Dead Reckoning (DR) mode, with traditional visual/radar fixing methods.

As it stands, many ships say they have an ECDIS fitted, but the reality is less than 5% of the world’s fleet have correctly installed a type-approved system that satisfies all of the regulations associated with the rolling installation programme mandated by the IMO in June 2009. Furthermore, when the Manila amendments to STCW come into force on 1st January 2012, every deck officer who keeps a bridge watch is now required to have completed formal ECDIS training, both in generic principles and, in many cases (flag state dependent), the specific operation of each system he will use.

Aside from the expense and differences in flag-state regulations, the hardware and training requirements for shipping companies and their crews are actually quite clear-cut and simple; install a system and train your crews on that system.

By contrast, one group of seafaring individuals has been somewhat forgotten by this technological revolution. Pilots play an essential role in the shipping industry, by ensuring vessels complete the inherently dangerous initial and final stages of their voyage without incident. Their ability to do this, of course, relies on intricate local knowledge of an area, but almost certainly requires reference to a nautical chart, if not just to explain the situation to a ship’s master. Given that ECDIS is now becoming that very chart, a pilot needs to understand the differences he will witness.

In its role of fusing navigational information in a single display, an ECDIS screen can provide an up-to-the-second indication of the movement – and predicted movement – of the vessel. This can be of considerable reassurance to both the pilot and master, as tight turns are negotiated and the final stages of berthing are completed.

More crucially, another benefit of ECDIS is the ability to tailor the display to the navigational task at hand whether that be ocean passage by day or anchoring by night. The mariner can specify the draught of his vessel and the system will automatically delineate between safe and unsafe water with a so-called “safety contour”. He can also choose what features to display on his chart, whether that be object names, light sectors or shallow water pattern, for example. When correctly configured, the system will also alert the mariner of pending dangers; a particularly useful safety feature, if correctly employed.

The implication of this is that no two ECDIS are likely to be configured identically, so if a pilot arrives at onboard with no knowledge or understanding of what to expect from a system, how can he impart his knowledge to the bridge team? How can he ask, for example, for soundings to be displayed, if he is not aware that this option is configurable? How can he alert Port State Control to deficiencies in a ship’s navigational fit if he is does not understand the legal aspects of ECDIS installation and employment?

The author, Mike Pearsall, delivers an ECDIS course to pilots from the Port of London Authority (PLA)

Recently, there has been some debate as to how pilots should be trained in ECDIS but gradually it seems that the need to take ECDIS seriously is gaining momentum. The United Kingdom Maritime and Coastguard Agency states that to revalidate a Certificate of Competency (CoC), they “accept time spent as pilot as suitable”, but in light of the new STCW amendments, certificate holders must have completed [generic] ECDIS training. Those individuals who have failed to do so will have their CoC endorsed “Not for use on ECDIS equipped ships” upon re-validation. There is no requirement to complete equipment-specific ECDIS training.


In summary, for those pilots who require a valid CoC to work within their authority, they will need to have completed an IMO 1.27 ECDIS course in order to revalidate after 31st December 2011, when the STCW amendments come into force. However, even for those that don’t require a valid CoC to work as a pilot, Don Cockrill, Chairman of the UKMPA points out, “clearly from a professional perspective [ECDIS training] is desirable and there may be post-incident legal implications for a pilot that has not undertaken any appropriate ECDIS training”.

To date, ECDIS Ltd, global providers of flag-state approved ECDIS training, based in Southampton, UK, has trained pilots from Nigeria, Kuwait and the United Kingdom and during the course of writing this article, the author has personally delivered an IMO 1.27 generic ECDIS course to two groups of pilots from the Port of London Authority (PLA). Within the UK, the PLA has taken the lead in training their pilots in this new technology, and to assist the process, ECDIS Ltd have developed additional bespoke modules for their course. These extra modules include familiarisation with a range of different manufacturers’ systems, as well as an exercise that highlights an incorrectly and dangerously configured system that, to an untrained eye, might appear to be without fault.

John Clandillon-Baker FNI, PLA pilot and editor of The Pilot, the magazine of the United Kingdom Maritime Pilots’ Association (UKMPA), stated that he and his colleagues both “needed and wanted to undertake ECDIS training to better understand the new technology”. Realising that “without paper, ECDIS is a fundamental feature of ship’s safety”, John said they were keen to “be able to utilise certain basic functions” and to ascertain faults with a system setup.

Kevin Vallance of Europilots, summed up in his report to Trinity House following the inaugural ECDIS Revolution conference, held last November. He said, “It appears to me that the challenge for pilots is that in embracing fully the benefits to safety of navigation that ECDIS can give us, we must also be wary of any problems, wither foreseen or unforeseen, which can occur.”

By Mike Pearsall

Business Development Manager, ECDIS Ltd