Correspondence received – Bridge / Engine Room communications


A detailed report giving some feedback to the article published in Maritime Feedback issue number 52.

What the Reporter told us:

I was a master on a ferry approaching a berth – head in, with control on the starboard wing. Difficulties were experienced in reducing the ahead movement of the vessel, and with a strong wind off the berth, the vessel was blown away from the berth towards a breakwater.

Communication between the engine room and bridge was by phone – one phone number for the centre console, a second number for the bridge wing positions. As a result of both the weather and the bow thruster, noise in the wheelhouse was loud. At the time, the manning consisted of the Master and Chief Officer, both of whom were on the starboard bridge wing.

Changing control to the port bridge wing, the Chief Officer heard the centre phone ringing and ran in to answer it. The Chief Officer was told that the port engine had de-clutched and to put the pitch on that engine to zero. The engine was then clutched in. The vessel subsequently berthed without problem (apart from raised pulse rates on the bridge).

This incident highlighted the problem of Bridge / Engine Room communication on this vessel. Shortly afterwards, a dedicated talk back system was installed by ship’s staff with one microphone and speaker in the engine control room and three on the bridge (centre position and both bridge wings). All verbal communication subsequently used this system which allowed instant communication and encouraged feedback from both ends. I am amazed that such a simple system, which encourages inter-departmental communication, has not been adopted more widely. Even the person conning the ship could just press the button and say “Control Room we have a problem / delay, etc” without the need to pick up the phone. Many times afterwards, using the talk back system, technical problems were reported and heard by the entire bridge team. Had the talk back failed, then the phones were still available.

I have always felt that the incident  published in MAIB Report 18-2012 would have been less likely with  a talk back system like the one we installed.

Physiologically, the act of pressing a button and speaking near a stalk microphone is far more effective, and far quicker, than passing your order to someone else to phone through, or hearing a message repeated by whoever answered the phone, especially at times of maximum concentration. The added bonus is that all the bridge (or control room) team can hear what is said, and are instantly briefed, so the chance of a misunderstanding is reduced. As with bow and stern door indicator lights it was, in my experience, a low-cost addition with immense potential benefit, and helped to “bridge the gap” between deck and engine. I served on the vessel until it left the area, and that one installation made for a far more cohesive team and allowed us to deal with problems more effectively.

As background to this incident, the vessel was a new build, deep sea ro-ro, converted to a ferry with a limited passenger capacity. She operated at a lighter draft than the original design, resulting in reduced astern power. A second factor was that the bridge wings (totally enclosed bridge), did not extend over the ship’s side. When berthing, the master leaned out of the bridge wing window whilst reaching inwards to operate the two engine combinators and bow thruster.

The normal port arrival procedure was for the seaman on the wheel to leave once the master had taken over the con. The master and chief officer were then the only two people left on the bridge.

At the time of the incident the ship was approaching the berth starboard side to with a strong off the berth wind. The con was on the starboard side, master’s head out of the window, port engine astern, starboard engine ahead. When it became apparent that speed was not reducing, both engines were put astern. However, this caused the stern to move downwind. When the starboard engine was put ahead to check the movement the sternway increased. Given the likelihood that the ship would end up on the nearby breakwater, control was changed to the port bridge wing (the danger side) which is when communication with the control room was established. Once the situation was resolved, the berthing was completed.


CHIRP Comment:

It is agreed entirely that instant communication through a talkback system or similar is far more effective and allows for both closed loop reporting and understanding, rather than the possibility of miscommunication though a third party – even more important these days with multinational crews. The loss of control at a critical part of an operation could have extremely serious repercussions, thus instant communication is very much a necessity. It is important to note that we are still discussing the same communications issues today that we were discussing many years ago.

IMCA offers some useful guidance on the subject of Operational Communications

It remains true today that conversions are never ideal. From a good practice perspective:

  • Who would allow a design where situations like this need managing in order to do the job properly?
  • Hanging out of the bridge window to berth a passenger ferry is not an ideal solution.
  • Lighter drafts and reduced astern power obviously impact upon manoeuvrability – thus the vessel was being run outside of the original design parameters and was therefore susceptible to problems which onboard staff were expected to manage.

Risk Management is the systematic approach to minimizing an organization’s exposure to risk. A sound risk management programme includes policies and procedures that work together to identify, analyse, evaluate and mitigate risk. Management should consider these issues both in terms of the primary communications between the bridge and engine room, and when utilising change management for any proposed retrofit.

There is a concern that, whether the subject is a new build or retrofit of an existing vessel, mariners’ expertise has not been fully utilised at the design stage – bridge ergonomics (including the subject matter in the report) is simply not being fully considered. The whole concept of a ship’s design (or even part of it such as a mooring system) should be subjected to Human Centred Design analysis from the concept stage through to the retirement of the vessel. This requires human element expertise and, currently, shipyards do not have it.

For new build vessels, there is often a “standard” design for many types of vessel and there is often very little owner involvement since additional “extras” are cost prohibitive. There are issues, however, which are worthy of further consideration. One of the concerns is that, as ships get bigger, the effect of windage becomes greater – this requires a different approach to berthing vessels and may require a change in the maximum environmental criteria by companies and ports for berthing vessels. Another issue is engine management – new ships are expected to be cost efficient with bunker savings which fully meet with the approval of shore management as a purely commercial consideration. This wonderful technology sometimes gives the latest generation of pure car carriers (high windage again) a dead slow ahead speed of seven knots. This requires a completely different mindset when berthing, and such a high speed is less than ideal when approaching a berth or locks!


Report Ends……………………….