The master’s responsibility

Thetius founder Nick Chubb lets Splash in on a topic that has been troubling him of late while attending myriad maritime expos. With the rise of technology, the time has come, he argues, for people other than the ship’s captain to share the burden of responsibility that comes with the command of a vessel at sea.

I’ve attended a lot of conferences and trade fairs recently, and it is fantastic to see a plethora of new tools and technologies coming onto the market to aid operational decision making on the bridge, improve situational awareness, or even remove human operators from the loop entirely. That said, the more these technologies evolve, the more questions need to be asked and answered regarding the division of responsibility and liability when things inevitably go wrong.

Picture the scene, you are wandering round the hall of a giant maritime trade show somewhere in Europe. You’ve been walking for what feels like miles and you are looking for something highly engaging to wake you up from your heavy lunch / hangover / jetlag, that doesn’t involve a VR headset. You walk past the stand of a major OEM and spot a large touchscreen and some snazzy visuals. You wander over to investigate, before you’ve even realised what you’re looking at, a sales rep thrusts a business card into your hand and launches into a slick pitch. The system on display does everything from automatic collision avoidance, to fuel optimisation, to making the now redundant officer of the watch a cup of tea. On the screen, you are watching a ship flawlessly conduct a complex piece of coastal navigation in a high traffic area.

You begin to ask some basic questions like, “How does the system apply the Colregs?”, “How does passage planning work?”, “Can it take a visual fix?”, “What happens if there is a GPS error?”, “Can it make coffee as well as tea?”

What comes next appears to be a stock response. The sales rep stops, looks into the near distance as if deep in thought for a moment, and then says with absolute confidence: “Of course at the end of the day, the final decision is the master’s responsibility.”

This statement is repeated so often and with such word-for-word accuracy across the maritime technology industry that I fear I missed a memo letting everyone know what to say when a tricky question is asked. At this point, you realise that debating the finer points of the Colregs with this particular sales rep will frustrate you as much as it entertains you. You thank them for their time and head over to a lecture hall to listen to a panel discussion about AI powered digital blockchain twins.

Shipping has evolved a great deal in the last few centuries, but ‘the master’s responsibility’ has not. Back in the days when ships were made of wood and men made of iron, the master was god. He was both feared and revered by the men on board.

What he said was gospel, and his orders were followed without hesitation. Once outside of a pilotage, a ship became an independent entity, and the master was solely responsible for ensuring that it, the crew, and the cargo arrived safely at the next port, rightly so.

Today, basic bridge resource management tells us that the men and women who crew the world’s ships should question the master’s decisions, even overrule them in extreme circumstances. Passage planning is now often sent ashore for approval, if done on board at all. Shore based monitoring stations are able to track entire fleets, ready to call the bride of a ship 4,000 miles away if it goes outside its approved cross track distance. The Sea Traffic Management project in Europe has even successfully trialled sending a new passage plan direct from a VTS operator’s computer to an approaching ship’s ECDIS.

While there is no doubt that these initiatives serve to make ships safer, it is also safe to say that a ship is no longer an independent entity, and the master’s word no longer gospel. Yet, despite all of these inputs from ashore, the master is still solely responsible for the safety of ship, crew, and cargo.

This is further compounded when the commercial reality of operating ships rears its ugly head. At the height of the Somali piracy crisis, I stood on the bridge of a fully laden tanker and listened as the captain was asked to alter a passage plan during a voyage. The new plan would allow the ship to arrive two days earlier but would mean sailing through the Gulf of Aden’s high risk area with no security on board. The captain was, of course, told that “at the end of the day, it’s your decision,” but the conversation was saturated with a subtext that said; If you ignore us you will be discharged at the next port”. We changed course.

We have recently seen, with devastating consequences, what happens when decision making software is installed to a vehicle without the operators’ full understanding or consent. The Boeing 737 Max aircraft was fitted with a “manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system” that was designed to adjust the aircraft’s pitch in such a way that a pilot would not notice the difference between the Max and its predecessor, the 737NG. The system relied on input from a single sensor at any one time, and could not be easily overridden by the pilots in command of the aircraft. There were many contributing factors that went into the 737 Max disasters, poor system design, alleged corner cutting at Boeing, and poor training among them. Ultimately though, 346 lives were lost because a computer system, designed with the best of intentions, took too much control away from the pilots responsible for safely flying the plane.

This is not just a problem of software and technology. As land based navigation support continues to grow in popularity, we should be questioning the rights and responsibilities of those providing it. Standards for seafarer training and certification are covered by a 98,000-word legally binding convention (STCW), whereas the IMO’s only rules on Vessel Traffic Services come from a single regulation made up of just five lines in the Safety of Navigation chapter of the SOLAS Convention. The regulation itself is so full of “in their opinion” and “endeavour to” get out clauses that there is really no legally enforceable requirement for either the adoption of, or the proper running of, Vessel Traffic Services around the world. There is no silver bullet to this problem. In aviation, air traffic control regulations have evolved over a number of decades and a command hierarchy exists that bestows rights and obligations on all parties involved in the safe navigation of the skies, but still ultimately leaves the aircraft’s captain in charge.

I don’t believe there is any other safety critical, asset intensive industry that puts such a level of legal responsibility on the shoulders of one individual, often for months at a time with no reprieve. The inevitable advance of autonomous technologies and collaborative decision making tools will continue to change the power dynamic between ship and shore, and as both a technologist and a seafarer, I welcome that shift. Technology has the power to make the seas safer, and the lives of those who ply it better. But equally, if we insist on eroding the decision making power, authority, and ability of our master mariners from the comfort and safety of our offices, we must also be willing to share the burden of responsibility that comes with the command of a vessel at sea.

Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb is the founder of maritime innovation consultancy Thetius.


  1. ” 346 lives were lost because a computer system, designed with the best of intentions, took too much control away from the pilots responsible for safely flying the plane.”

    Sorry, but that’s not quite accurate. 346 lives were lost because Boeing tried to work around an inherently unstable design with a software patch, so probably not a good illustration of your point.

    We can agree though that a balance needs to be struck regarding responsibility. In the past, the Master had complete command and the lines were clear. In the future, with full automation, shore staff will have complete control and the lines will again be clear. For now, however, we have entered into the grey zone and it will be very messy until we come out the other end.

    1. Hi Richard, I take your point there may well be better illustrations of the point out there. But I do know that MCAS are successfully used in a number of other aircraft with a safe method of override. One of the problems with the Max was that it would switch itself back on repeatedly after being switched off by pilots.

      Completely agree that we have entered a time of blurred lines, and I hope as an industry we can find a way through.

    2. nothing wrong with the example, the software, regardless of why it was designed and installed in the first place ( i also share the view that the 737max is an inherently unstable design but i am not the expert to determine such) would not let the captain of the aircraft assume full manual control, it would just drop the nose repeatedly after every correction, a look at the altitude graphic that was circulated at the time of the second accident should be enough to convince the naysayers. The existence of a single sensor is a focal point in the failure sequence, because the bias introduced into the system (interpretation of false readings) was impossible to be overridden by the captain.

      I guess what is meant to be conveyed here by the author is that tech interfered irreversibly with the work and responsibility of the captain leading to an accident that could have possibly been avoided.

  2. A person or a computer or a Robot ashore can only take away a part of Master’s authority only when a Master allows it.

  3. A splendid article, thank you. Your Boeing example aside (per Richard’s comment), it would really help our complex industry if many more authorities and those making decisions were to read and heed your warning : perhaps send this to the UN / IMO ? I know several people there and, as a long-standing Visiting Professor at the IMO’s World Maritime University, could share this with my academic colleagues there: perhaps they have greater UN influence ?

    Jeffrey Blum FICS FCIArb

  4. Once upon a time, not that far ago, Bill of Ladings contained a phrase, if I remember correctly, ”I NN, Master under God…….” when signing this document promising to deliver the cargo recieved to named receiver/port/type of cargo, weight and numbers. Although the phrase is no longer
    incorporated in B/Ls of today, the responsibility of the master is still in force accordingly, or?

    Erik Hammarstrom
    Ex. Master and Senior Marine Surveyor

    1. When it comes to the legal interpretation of Master’s responsibility and authority, nothing has changed. It is only bedwetter Captains who are constantly moaning about an imaginary loss of power and influence. Whether it is an aircraft or a ship or starship Enterprise, there will always be a Captain. Learn to navigate the complexities of modern communication technology but assert yourself in command.

      1. I’m not sure I agree with that. One of the keys to good bridge resource management is creating an environment where decisions can be challenged. This isn’t about asserting power or influence, it’s about using all of the available information to make the right decision for the safety of the ship and crew and making sure that responsibility for that information is shared between all parties involved in the safe running of the ship.

        1. We can have BRM with its myriad of nuances, but ultimately the buck stops with the Captain. No Master can expect to wriggle out of his responsibility of command howmuchsoever intense the pressure.

  5. fanatastic article thanks Mr Chubb ( of the locks fame !) but its only a short while ago we were discussing animatedly unammaned ships !

    1. Thanks Arvind (I wish I was of the locks fame!). Very true, though I think a lot of good work is happening in that field and it will only serve to make the environment more complex.

  6. Quote
    But equally, if we insist on eroding the decision making power, authority, and ability of our master mariners from the comfort and safety of our offices, we must also be willing to share the burden of responsibility that comes with the command of a vessel at sea.

    This won’t hold much value as a defence plea in an Admiralty court of law.

  7. Nick, the statement made above “Of course at the end of the day, the final decision is the master’s responsibility” says it all. I may be from the “old school” but you can put all of the technology you want in place, but the “human element” will prevail, the issue is that too many “modern” Masters are unwilling to take decisions when they can pick up the phone and call for assistance.

  8. I have come across masters calling the head office on their mobile phone before giving a yes or no reply to every question asked to describe what transpired that led to a mishap which I was sent on board to investigate on behalf of the vessel’s P&I. Some of them would not scratch their backs before approval from above – so to say. Indecisiveness is today a common commodity and part of the set up today among some masters operating and acting under a tight rein by the head office or the Charterer. There is also a cultural aspect of this issue which has to be addressed.

  9. Hey, TL;DidR – my 2c as below:

    If as you say technologies are to aid operational decision making on the bridge then there are no questions to be asked regarding the division of responsibility and liability when things inevitably go wrong – provided tech is delivering reliable info, because decision still lays with the human aided. Take for example the Ovit incident. Tech was there delivering the deliverable, humans opted to neglect it or more accurately set it up properly. I will not dig deeper in this (I mean real to the bone root cause analysis (RCA) and not superficial like OOW did not check the alarm settings and hence Ovit grounded) as to why this happened, since it won’t change the bottom line.

    You are giving an example of a multi tasked system (collision avoidance to fuel optimization) making making the now redundant officer of the watch a cup of tea.
    Redundant being the keyword here, not the capabilities of the system (advertised, real or blown up (possibly)). Nope, OOW is not redundant as automation in the level described doesn’t mean no human. Instead it means human to supervise the machine with override-veto authority machine’s decisions or suggestions. So by design no redundancy. The fact that OOW most likely over-rely to tech is a whole other discussion.

    You say that shipping has evolved a great deal in the last few centuries, but ‘the master’s responsibility’ has not.
    Of course it hasn’t because there is no angle to improve master’s responsibility. It’s an inherent attribute of being the master. He’s onboard, so is his responsibility with him. That is because shipping still (until when is debatable) needs someone for the ultimate judgement. Judgment’s arrow leads to actions that bear responsibility. That stands whether judgement leads to sound actions (praise the master for standing up to the events and exercising solid judgement) or evil (passed below the judgement bar and now assumes responsibility for his poor decision). Oh, and for those thinking that the master acted upon the best of his knowledge then I’m sorry folks for breaking the news: part of reaching through to sound judgement is to evaluate whether all available info, data, whatever, is firing up the correct sequence of synapses to result to a sound judgment. If not stop and wait and ask for more or even back up and wait asking for more. Owners appreciate that.

    Next you claim that BRM is the platform to question and even overrule them in cases.
    No, unfortunately that is not what today’s BRM tells us. Instead questioning it requires to provide feedback to the master so to assist to overall safety. Consult. Because at the time that ships were made of wood (as you say) there were no VLCCs. In addition, modern shipping adjusted master’s decision making process (and still is work in progress) because in the age of wooden ships there weren’t over 90.000 ships greater than 500GT. As for overruling it was and is always there, because the OOW acts as a delegate of the Master – who by his authority delegates him – and since the former has been delegated he acts in his own judgement, perhaps e.g. overruling passage planning if say dramatic weather change has occurred and the Master is unavailable (poor Master judgement to make himself unavailable).

    As for the passage plan approved ashore then this master is not worthy of being in command as anticipated by the owners. Because an owner who has such a manager for his ship, asking the master to send over his passage plan from ashore has no clue on the liabilities he load his ship. Office ashore is to review the passage plan and if during review hits a point of attention then consult with the Master. In the companies I’ve worked never asked for any passage plan. I was always trying to make sure that the masters assigned to ships had a clear understanding of their responsibilities and tried to probe their judgement prior employment. There were failures in probing – fortunately not involving passage planning – but then we went back to the drawing board to fine-tune selection process, improve selection criteria, etc.

    Moreover, your statement /Q/ While there is no doubt that these initiatives serve to make ships safer, it is also safe to say that a ship is no longer an independent entity, and the master’s word no longer gospel. /UQ/ finds me in mostly in agreement I have to say that master’s word is still gospel. At least from a legislative, as well as a financial standpoint. ISM Code (Code means law, hope we all agree to that) mandates master’s ultimate authority since he is owners’ rep. That’s why he signs or authorizes his agents to sign BoL (financial – commercial aspect of responsibility). Or he’s responsible towards insurance liabilities for a maneuvering – navigation that led to an accident when he had the con (again, funds involved).

    I could go on and on in your text but will not.

    Instead I think that your point is (and this is manifested in your tanker forced through GoA HRA narrative – I assume with no armed sec. team onboard) that Masters yield their authority – but maintain their responsibilities as these are not relinquishable (yet). My comment is yes that is absolutely correct. But RCA about this points to and has to do mostly with owners/managers and to a lesser degree by the individual master that yields to keep his employment. It is truly sad to see such owners/managers shoot at their own feet. Because if that tanker (under the specific circumstances) was highjacked then cargo interests and a bunch of other people should be jumping up and down, blowing steam against management. And top management too should be furious with such decisions and master’s coercion for that matter as unprotected ship through GoA – Indian Ocean HRA was (and still is to a degree) like saying “hello, please come and get me”. For the master I can only say that perhaps his diplomacy skills were lower than they should be or even that he should resign in written prior next port arrival, but that’s only a tiny issue compared with the colossal misdeeds of the office. Now what fuel moves such inept ship management looks like another million-dollar question in its own right. Not because it requires exceptional science to tackle it. On the contrary. It is so obvious that Andersen’s story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” fits the bill exactly, with 0 tolerances. You see emperor’s subjects dare not to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. The fear here comes from the financial stakes involved. But the catch here is that those (and if you think about it they are many) that are supposed to be the kid crying out , “Hey, he’s totally naked, he has no clothes” just don’t cry out, but they enjoy the ride as if we’re in a constant downwind leg with some hiccups here and there.

  10. Thank you for articulating what many of us sailing masters have been feeling for the past few years . The old adage No responsibility without authority basically covers it all . Far too many Managers today expect to be consulted and in fact dictate every little matter on a vessel , yet the moment there is a problem its the masters responsibility . A re balancing of scales is way overdue . I Retire shortly but pity the younger generation of Masters .

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