Communication and language barriers

Communication and language barriers


Without effective communication safety is compromised.

What the reporter told us:

I would like to report three issues I encountered on what should have been a routine pilotage operation, that effectively resulted in a complete lack of effective BRM and communication.

The initial area of concern was that communication with the bridge team was particularly difficult due to the almost complete lack of spoken English. We resorted to a well-known online translation app on a couple of occasions. The crew were willing enough but unable to communicate.

Secondly, the pilot card lacked some basic information. Neither the direction of rotation of the propeller, the astern power, nor the number of consecutive starts of the main engine were mentioned on the card. Given the language problems, I never received this information.

Finally, upon approaching the berth, the master was unable to start the bow thruster and despite repeated attempts, the bow thruster was unable to be used for the whole berthing operation. The master did not communicate this fact to me until pressed to do so. The translation app came to the rescue again, and it is believed that the problem lay with an auxiliary engine.

Two days previously the starboard windlass brake had failed to operate correctly when the vessel arrived at the inner anchorage.

CHIRP comment:

SOLAS V – Regulation 14 states among other things that “English shall be used on the bridge as the working language for bridge-to-bridge and bridge-to-shore safety communications as well as for communications on board between the pilot and bridge watchkeeping personnel, unless those directly involved in the communication speak a common language other than English. The IMO Standard Marine Communications Phrases (SMCP) Resolution a.918(22), may be used in this respect”.

The use of an online translation app had two downsides (although it is completely understood why it was used). First, the pilot was potentially distracted from the job he was doing. Second, generic online translation apps, as good as they are, may not effectively be able to translate marine technical terms, particularly to and from languages that do not share a common alphabet.

In this case almost all the human element factors of the Deadly Dozen, as highlighted in Merchant Shipping Guidance Notice MGN 520 come into play; training, communications, local practices, and culture are particularly relevant. The vessel’s managers have a responsibility to ensure that crews employed on vessels engaged on international voyages have acceptable standards of English. Not only is it a safety-critical issue, but a SOLAS requirement.

CHIRP did attempt to contact the vessel managers regarding this report, but they did not reply.

The issue concerning the non-availability of the bow thruster was never satisfactorily explained, it was possibly an issue with the auxiliary generator, in any event it was not properly declared to the pilot.

Pilot card information is a flag state and class requirement so to find it missing is a flag state non-compliance issue. The information might have been available on board, but without communications the pilot never knew.

All vessels should be aware that it is entirely within a pilot’s authority to turn the vessel around and take it out to anchor if safety-critical communications are not possible.


Report Ends………………