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GMDSS A User's Handbook

By Denise Bréhaut

GMDSS A user's handbook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) provides a fast and efficient way of calling for assistance at sea, whatever the size of craft or its geographical position. Since it was first published, this book has helped explain the system for anyone using GMDSS and has been excellent pre-course reading for students.

 

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Right thinking, Wrong solution!

Being surrounded by the sea and dependent on it for trade, the United Kingdom has a strong emotional bond with its lighthouses. For generations they have symbolised the safe return of the mariner from the dangers of the deep.  Even those who never set foot on a boat of any sort have watched them on holidays to the coast, and climbed them as visitor attractions. The story of Grace Darling, the daughter of the Longstones Lighthouse keeper, who rowed out into a storm on 7th September 1838 with her father to rescue the sailors of the foundering Forfarshire is burned into our nation's mythology, and is one of the founding stories of today's Lifeboats.

But we no longer light beacons to warn of invasions or wave red flags in front of cars, delightful as these seem to the imagination.  And even the traditional 'Flare Pack' has taken a secondary place to GMDSS assisted locator beacons for leisure craft in distress.  These days, you can pick up the satellite phone and call Falmouth MRCC from almost anywhere on the planet.

So we need to be careful not to dismiss this latest move to downgrade the important of our Lighthouses as merely another 'cost cutting' exercise.   Trinity House is a hugely respected, independent organisation, and its vastly experienced elder and younger Bretheren are drawn from the most experienced sea captains, and its Master is elected from their number.

But the mind-set of Trinity House is primarily focused on commercial shipping. And a glance at the detailed proposals following the review of Aids to Navigation raises questions for commercial as well as leisure mariners.

 

For example, Start Point, a very important light on the South Coast, is to be reduced in range from its current 25 NM to 18 NM.  This is the most extreme example, with most being reduced in range by only a few miles, and their sound signals to 1 NM for local traffic. What is the point? Presumably, only cost.  And does it matter?

According to the thinking behind the proposals, these lights are now only used for coastal navigation, confirmation of position, and for 'spatial awareness'. But in plain English, 'spatial awareness' means 'knowing where you are on a dark night without instruments'.  And were they ever used for anything other than coastal navigation, if by coastal navigation you include landfall? Finally, confirmation of position is very important indeed if you have lost power.  

So yes, it does matter. 

Most ships still use paper charts as a back up for when the electricity fails. But a recent experiment by the National Physical Laboratory reportedly showed that when GPS was jammed on the bridge of a North Sea ferry, the officers were initially at a loss to know what to do when faced by a mass of flashing red warning lights.  Yachtsmen are better placed, and still overwhelmingly use paper charts as their primary navigational reference. They know that any system based on electronics is prone to failure.  

The thinking behind the proposals is undoubtedly right. AIS and GPS have become the primary means of navigation, and the major lights are used to confirm positions, rather than fix them. Most leisure yachtsmen would agree.  I certainly do, but I always, without fail, ask the watch keeper to point out and identify the lights when I relieve him or her on a night watch. They may be secondary, but they are not insignificant, and over-reliance on GPS leads to navigation from the chart table rather than the eyeball.  And that, in turn, leads to accidents.

Reducing the range of lighthouses because we use GMDSS is a little bit like saying we should use charts with only the coastal features marked on them.  It doesn't quite make sense.

To use another analogy:  you might be used to your Tom Tom for getting you from A to B, but you still need to look out of the windscreen for signposts and hazards.  Tom Tom is not infallible, and pushing HGVs through small villages is only one of the problems caused by over-reliance on electronics.  If you take away the signposts and hazard warning signs, you increase the chances of getting lost and causing an accident.

For this reason, the proposals to reduce the range of some of the lights by a few miles merely to reflect their change in status seems logical at face value, but ridiculous when you consider the practicalities, and could be mistaken for mere bean counting.  The key question is: 'will reducing the range of these lights by just a few miles make navigation safer?'  Frankly, no, it won't.  You'll still have to look up their range in the pilot book. And leaving them as they are may, just may, help prevent a 'spatial awareness failure' in a container ship or oil tanker only 18 nautical miles, or less than an hour, away from a rocky coast.

The thinking is correct.  Lighthouses are no longer the primary aids to navigation that they once were. But that doesn't mean they have to have their ranges reduced. 

If you have a view on the proposals, then let Trinity House know.  The consultation ends on 14th January 2015, and responses can be sent to: Navigation Directorate, Trinity House, Tower Hill, London EC3N 4DH

Our position is clear.  To hijack the famous Pink Floyd anthem:  'We don't need no light reduction. Hey Master, leave those lights alone!"

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