YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | Looking forward to a golden age in pilotage

Helen Kelly | LLOYD’S LIST

STEVE Pelecanos jokes that he only became a pilot to enjoy the ‘retirement-like’ lifestyle.

In 1970s Australia, with a young family to support, the shore-based vocation must have seemed halcyon compared with its more capricious ocean-going alternative. But a quiet life was not to be for this outspoken Queenslander with a fire in his belly in an industry in need dire of modernisation. “Our obligation as a pilot is to look forward,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are many people in shipping that gaze in the rear view mirror and look backwards to a ‘golden age’ that is past.”

His most recent campaign is to fix the broken system of pilotage on the Great Barrier Reef. It is a system inherited from a previous federal government, which believed greater competition between pilots would drive costs down at some of Australia’s biggest trading ports.

That let the door open for three entrepreneurs to swoop in and corner the market. Pilots were forced to work on a freelance basis and compete with each other for ships, leaving the middlemen holding all the power. They negotiated directly with shipowners for pilotage contracts, and then apportioned the spoils between their ‘staff’.

That power has been abused, says Mr Pelecanos. “If a pilot doesn’t do what one of the entrepreneurs want — if he or she upsets the entrepreneurs — they don’t get any ships,” he says.

Mr Pelecanos is angry that profits have been put before people. “If I could tell you about some of the conditions that pilots work and live in, when they are on roster on the Barrier Reef, you would be amazed,”he says. “It is not befitting of a nation that claims to be a modern society.”

The most galling example, he says, is one company that forces its pilots to live on an ageing Japanese fishing boat, anchored in a lagoon in Hydrographers Passage, Papua New Guinea, to wait for passing business. “It is a ship that would not pass survey in Australia, so they have it in a lagoon in New Guinea and make [the pilots] live there,” he says. “These are things you would expect from a Third World country.”

But it is not just the appalling way pilots are being treated that angers him about the deregulated system. Greater competition, he says, has eroded safety in one of the world’s most pristine environments.

“The only place in Australia with competition is the Great Barrier Reef, and compared to the rest of the pilots they are the worst resourced and they are the poorest trained,” he says.

“Because all the pilots are competing with each other, they don’t pool their knowledge of safety information at sea; they consider they can have an advantage over one of their colleagues if they keep that knowledge to themselves.

“If operators concentrate on the bottom line only, the attention to safety is going to be diminished.

“What you see on the Great Barrier Reef is a shell of a pilotage service that if you poked it, would quickly crumble.”

Pelecanos has fought for the past two years to fix the system. Along the way he has gathered the support of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which has jurisdiction over pilotage in the Great Barrier Reef, and various government officials. The result is Star Pilots, a not-for-profit organisation, funded by pilots, who buy shares in the company. Star Pilots guarantees pilots a salary, an income, annual leave and continuing professional education.

Any money made is reinvested back into the company. To date, 83% of pilots on the Great Barrier Reef have joined Star Pilots. “It speaks volumes for the environment they work in,” says Mr Pelecanos. “They know that competition does not work.”

That zeal could soon be focused on the global stage, with Mr Pelecanos considering a shot at the International Marine Pilots Association presidency. “IMPA is a good organisation that has grown steadily since the 1970s, but it is still to achieve its level of greatness,” he says. “I think it is important to have people with the appropriate vision to lead that change.”

His campaign has echoes of the Great Barrier Reef barnstorm. “There are varying views about where pilotage should be,” he says. “Some think the golden age of pilotage lies somewhere in the past; I’m saying the golden age lies somewhere in the future.”

Mr Pelecanos is acutely aware his outspoken nature has earned him enemies, and in the past has struggled with some of the more ardent opposition. “When you go out on a limb, those that have got the most to lose can be vicious in their opposition to you,” he says.

Mr Pelecanos remains passionate about the industry he joined 41 years ago, and enthusiastic that there are great things to come for pilotage, but he acknowledges that some things may have changed irrevocably for the worst. He will not be encouraging his two sons to go to sea. “When I was at sea it was fun; I have been piloting for 26 years and you can see it on [the crew’s] faces,” he says. “These people are overworked. To them it is just a job. They work hard, they work conscientiously; they don’t spend much time in port. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone these days. My father was at sea. My sons have decided they want to be rock stars.”

Life at sea

STEVE Pelecanos has 41 years at sea under his belt, first as an able seafarer and master then as a licenced pilot. He was head of the BrisbaneMarine Pilots Association for 10 years before stepping down last year. He is a member of the International Marine Pilots Association. He founded industry collective Star Pilots and continues to work on-roster as a pilot at Brisbane port amid a number of other marine industry commitments.

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3 responses to “YEAR OF THE SEAFARER | Looking forward to a golden age in pilotage

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