A short wish list for the IMO

Some recent sessions at the IMO have been quite exciting, attracting attention from the ‘mainstream’ (non-shipping) media and from Transparency International. Too much excitement is never a good thing, so here is a list of ‘housekeeping tasks’ that the IMO might like to consider.

Now, I know, because the Secretary General Mr Lim, has told me so, that the IMO cannot initiate anything; it does things only at the instigation of Member States, so this is really a list of things that Member States might like to take up. There are plenty of Member States, so can someone oblige?

First, all those bits of paper. Every merchant ship on the planet to which the conventions apply has onboard a folder full of paper certificates, and these get looked at by Port State Control (PSC) whenever they come onboard, in a form of religious ritual, using time which could be spent more usefully by looking at the actual ship and her crew. If all the those bits of paper were held centrally on a server (yes, with a back up server or three) in electronic form, PSC could know before they boarded whether the ship was in compliance or not, and a huge amount of time onboard, in owners’ offices and in ship register offices, could be saved. My prize for the most absurd bits of paper goes to the various ‘Evidence of Insurance’ certificates, issued by the Flag State, which have to be held onboard as originals although they are issued against ‘Green Cards’ issued by P&I Clubs which do not exist as originals anywhere – they only exist as .pdfs! Ladies and gentlemen, this is absurd! Stop it!

Next, the Collision Regulations. We are operating under the ‘oldest’ Colregs ever. The rules that we operate under have been in force for 41 years. There has not been a full-blown revision of the Colregs for 46 years. That is really much, much too long, when we consider how much the technology has changed. The 1972 rules were brought in so as to include Traffic Separation Schemes (TSSs), which did not exist when the 1960 rules were drafted, amending the 1948 rules which were themselves a redraft of the 1910 rules to take note of the existence of radar.

The amendments to the 1972 rules that have been enacted have been really quite trivial, mainly concerned with lights and shapes and separation schemes – and of course WIG craft. (Let us not forget WIG craft – by the way, how many WIG craft are in service?)

There is no mention in the rules of ARPA, no mention of AIS, no mention of ECDIS, no mention of VHF in the main body of the text, yet today it is almost certain that vessels will become aware of each other on radar, will use ARPA to determine the CPA, will use ECDIS to check that there are no navigational hazards that might affect a proposed course of action and to determine whether there is a TSS involved, will use AIS to identify the other vessel and it is highly likely that if the CPA is close one of the vessels will call the other on VHF. And speaking of VHF, what about the requirement to report to, and instructions received from, a VTS?

It may be that the rules exist in such a high state of perfection that no amendment is needed. But surely, if that were the case, collisions would no longer be happening. Sadly, they are still happening.
I am just going to pick out three very well known problems with the present rules.

One is the Rule Seventeen Dilemma, which every deck officer has to deal with. Cockcroft’s current edition devotes several pages to this, and has a pretty diagram illustrating ‘The Four Stages of a Collision’ in which the stand on vessel progresses from ‘action permitted’, to ‘keep course and speed’, to ‘action permitted’ and finally to ‘action required!’

This is simply not a good way of doing things, and it arises because the rules retain the concept of the stand on vessel and the give way vessel, which are a hang over from the days of sailing ships.

When two commercial square rigged sailing vessels were crossing and both were working to windward, neither could easily alter course into the wind, because to do so meant having to put the ship about, an operation requiring the whole crew and taking between 10 minutes and an hour to accomplish, and if both altered away from the wind they would alter into each other, so a custom developed amongst North European seamen that the vessel on port tack gave way to the vessel on starboard, and the vessel on starboard held her course and speed.

There is no other situation outside a narrow channel (covered separately in the rules) where two vessels, neither of which is constrained by her draft, or is restricted in her ability to manoevre (covered separately in the rules) in which it is impossible for two power driven vessels to both take action.

Square rigged sailing vessels are slightly more numerous than WIG craft, but it’s a close run thing, and in any case sailing vessels meeting are covered in Rule 12. More pertinently, there has never ever been any need to make a power driven vessel a stand on vessel. Be it noted that in the very first written Collision Regulations, drafted by Trinity House in 1840, two power driven vessels meeting were both required to alter course to starboard, this became law in Britain in 1846 and was the law until 1863, when the British and French governments met and formulated what became the first international rules and, for some reason that nobody has ever explained, steamships suddenly got treated like sailing ships. If we add up the lives lost, and the lives still being lost, because of the Rule 17 confusion, we are going to come to tens of thousands of people killed because of a bureaucratic error.

Next, the Section Two and Section Three Problem. As we all know, Rule 11 in Section Two states: “Rules in this Section apply to vessels in sight of one another”, whilst Rule 19 in Section Three deals with “.. vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility.” This means of course that the rules change as soon as one vessel sees the other, but it also means that there is no rule at all for vessels which have detected each other by radar or by plotting AIS but which are not yet in sight of one another in clear weather. Theoretically this does not matter but in practice, where there are many vessels being plotted on ARPA, and the closing speed may be forty knots or more, it does matter.

And finally the Overtaking or Crossing Issue, Rule 13.

It’s surely time to have another look at this, using computer simulations – and, indeed, humans in full mission simulators – to see whether the rules can be improved. If Rule 19(d) works in fog, heavy rain falling snow and sandstorms, it surely can work the rest of the time as well – but if it does not, then let’s find out.

And lastly, please can we have a Plain Language Initiative to reduce the absurd volume of paperwork that bedevils the modern mariner. Three pages is two pages too long for a Tank Entry Form – if you don’t trip over the BA set on your way into the tank, you are unsafe. Likewise, Risk Assessments…

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Andrew Craig-Bennett works for a well known Asian shipowner. Previous employers include Wallem, China Navigation, Charles Taylor Consulting and Swire Pacific Offshore. Andrew was also a columnist for Lloyd's List for a decade.


  1. I always found the argument for speed log feed into the radar to be particularly farcical: “*if* a vessel is approaching from a certain angle and *if* there’s a strong current from a particular direction and *if* she suddenly pops out of the fog, then you see a different aspect and so a different collision rule applies and you have to take a different action.”
    In reality, how many vessels select speed log input over GPS? Great suggestion to just apply 19(d) everywhere.

    DNV & MPA are making great strides towards electronic certification, but unfortunately, many PSC authorities are not appreciative of this. It’s a bit much to take for people who have been used to demanding money because there’s no original type-approval certificate for the fresh water pump onboard.

    1. Thank you Richard.

      My favourite PSC story (it wasn’t so funny at the time) concerned a ship that had called at a port in a well known Eurasian state for bunkers. The Agent (not a lot of choice of Agents, here) took the folder of original certificates ashore “for processing” and thirty minutes later a brace of PSC types walzed up and demanded to see the certificates. When told that the Agent had the Certificates they imposed an on the spot fine of US$ 5,000. Cash was acceptable…

  2. Port state controls, relevant authorities and agents should have access to databases of certificate issuers of ship inspections, repairs, maintenance records way in advance of ship arrival and individuals should verify issuers’ databases and if inconsistencies is discovered between shoreside managers forwarding all vessel certs and logs, then it would not be necessary like in the unusual case of agent taking records off the flagged vessel. these must be part of an edi system or the like. IMO must have a role to enforce digitalization in the age of more advanced vessel designs and shoreside computerized operations. these digital systems can work in a well integrated ecosystem across the industry and more importantly across modes of transportation where inter modal transportation in aligning with new port and terminal technologies and processes for seemless transfers, transits and deliveries.

  3. Unfortunately, IMO cannot enforce anything; it is up to individual states. Having worked for years in West Africa, there are plenty of places where PSC officers don’t even have a smartphone, never mind a computer in their office, so everything is done on paper. If any government funds became available to purchase such technology, there’s a high chance they would be syphoned off before they reached their destination. It’s not a completely lost cause, there has been progress over the years; just painfully slow. It’ll be a long time before all countries are ready for full digitalisation – the biggest risk is that failure to digitalise will only widen the gap.

  4. I have just been told about the lady Chief Superintendent of Shipping, in a quite prominent flag state, who enjoys her PSC inspections. She only inspects passenger ships, and she does so in high heels. She notes down all the Certificates on her form, and then enjoys lunch on board. My informant suggests that she would not enjoy having all the forms on an accessible online database, as she would then have nothing to do. But looking on the bright side, she doesn’t want money.

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