SAFETY: Sensible seamanship

Michael Grey 

THERE were some 270 pilots on the loose in London late last month, attending the 21st Congress of the International Maritime Pilots Association.

If you have read this column for any length of time you will realise that I like to support pilots all I can, believing that they are a force for maritime safety, insurance against accident and bring practical good sense into any operational discussions.

Their association is an important attendee at the International Maritime Organization, where those representing it bring a unique practical perspective to any debate.

There are many ex-mariners in national delegations and non-governmental organisations, but only the chap behind the IMPA card can say things like “on a VLCC I was piloting yesterday…” and apply this contemporary knowledge to the discussion. This matters.

The fact that they are on and off ships all the time also gives them a wide-ranging view on ship operating standards, along with the training and competence of their crews. It’s one thing for a government surveyor to sternly walk around a ship in port with his clipboard. A pilot sees that ship from the sharp end, in motion at what is arguably its most vulnerable time.

Some have suggested that pilots tend to be a bit prickly and defensive, but I would suggest that this is because so many shipowners like to think that they are a sort of optional extra and compulsory pilotage an unfair cost.

Those same shipowners have run their crews down to an overworked and exhausted minimum, and demand that Pilotage Exemption Certificates enabling practically anyone including the ship’s cat to substitute for a licensed pilot be available on demand.

The latest enthusiasm, now that the idea of “remote pilotage” from a VTS tower seems to have been discredited, is to inflict competitive pressures on pilots, to drive down the costs in a sort of Hayek-inspired fashion.

This seems to spring from a romantic notion of what pilots were like in the days of sail, when swarms of pilot cutters would meet arrived ships in places like the Western approaches to the Channel, all touting for business, with the shipmaster spoilt for choice.

Many professionals would rather think of pilots as a human addition to the safety systems, and generally fail to see how this is in any way improved by the imposition of a “market”, especially where there is not the level of business for such competition.

You don’t have competing bollards on the quayside, or competing locks into the same enclosed basin, do you?

And in most of the places where competition has been imposed, surprise, surprise; the actual costs of the pilotage to the users have increased, not least because of all the additional management extras.

In Australia, in Argentina, Denmark and a number of other places, competition has meant change for the considerably worse, with the job a darned sight less attractive for the people carrying out this important safety work.

However, there was little sign of such complaints at the recent IMPA Congress, with sessions on personal safety (pilots still take their lives in their hands as they board and leave ships), the design of pilot boats, pilotage administration and perhaps unsurprisingly, some important sharing of ideas on technology.

Pilots know they must “stay current” with fast-changing technology, while being very aware of the risks of over-dependence on electronics, as they tend to see this a great deal aboard ships they are handling.

“Technology is great — when it works,” an IMPA past president famously said.

With the arrival of electronic charts, ship’s officers are vulnerable to the march of technology and a new type of navigation. They might be on a new ship, and have to get attuned to new equipment every year or so.

A pilot faces one of at least 30 different Ecdis units every time he or she boards a ship. How can the pilot tell that the equipment has been properly set up by some second mate who is also unfamiliar with the equipment?

One pilot made the point that half the Ecdis units he sees are not set up properly, many using pirated or out of date software.

Maybe we should worry more about this revolution now taking place, especially when one third of 500 respondents asked about Ecdis revealed that they had encountered serious problems. “It’s still embryonic,” was one remark. Sure, but it is also mandatory.

Pilots really earn their crust when they board a ship and find that the pilot station to berth passage plan on the Ecdis takes the ship right over several shoals, because the wrong draught had been entered.

Or clambering up a ladder in a storm off New Zealand to find the ship on its “electronic leads”, heading straight for a cliff, with the bridge team following their electronics assiduously, without any adequate check.

Many pilots themselves use the Personal Pilot Unit, now laptop size but quickly becoming smaller. There was fascinating discussion about how this can be integrated into the training of new pilots.

“Brilliant kit, but it should not lead me to a place my brain had not visited first,” was the very sensible pilot advice.

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4 responses to “SAFETY: Sensible seamanship

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