COLUMN | Marine pilotage: a highly dangerous business [Tug Times]

Photo courtesy of Alan Loynd

Things can change, there’s always changes
I want to try some rearranging, I say

Drop the pilot, try my balloon
Drop the monkey, smell my perfume

Joan Armatrading, Drop the Pilot

The year got off to a tragic start for people in our business, with the news that another pilot has died while transferring to a large ocean-going vessel. Francesco Galia, who lost his life in the Humber Estuary on January 8, was by all accounts an experienced pilot who was not far off retirement. We do not know the circumstances, but the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) will issue a report in due course.

In the meantime, the UK Maritime Pilots’ Association (UKMPA) has called for improvements in safety and training.

“We urge the maritime industry and regulatory authorities, once again, to prioritise safety and training with regard to the transfer of pilots and crew and to invest in safe and reliable technologies and procedures to ensure that our maritime pilots and seafarers return home safe after every voyage,” the UKMPA said.

I could not agree more. The closest I ever came to ending my career prematurely was when joining a ship off Cape Town – a long way off Cape Town – in a small launch that probably should not have been permitted to go beyond the breakwater in such vile weather. I did not think we would make it, but we eventually arrived alongside the ship and I was young and foolish enough to leap from the launch to the pilot ladder at the top of a swell and scamper far enough up to evade the launch when it returned at the top of the next swell.

“Delaying a ship until it offers a compliant means of access is probably a very effective way to convince owners to do the right thing.”

I was barely twenty years old and as fit and nimble as I would ever be, and too stupid to refuse the challenge, but I would not attempt it today and it gave me an early insight into the perils faced by pilots on a regular basis. At least I did not have to worry about the quality of the ladder in those days when crews were large enough to make and maintain their own ladders, and when ships were small enough not to need the dreaded combination ladder arrangement.

Of course, our pilots face more dangers than just the forces of nature, and it appears to be increasingly difficult for ship’s crews to rig a pilot ladder properly. The reports published by MARS and CHIRP Maritime contain numerous examples of this phenomenon, and make frightening reading.

Why this should be is a mystery to me. The pilot ladder poster that is prominently displayed on board is not difficult to understand, and there are numerous other guides available including the Pilots’ Pocket Guide and Checklist produced by UKMPA and the British Tugowners Association, and guidance on pilot transfer arrangements from the International Chamber of Shipping. So even if crews do not spend their spare time reading IMO resolutions, there is plenty of advice available. Perhaps modern crews are simply too busy or too close to their working hour limits to have time for all the mundane tasks that were easily accomplished when crews were larger and the average AB had marline spikes for fingers.

Some ports do their best to reduce risk by, for example, using tugs to transport pilots in bad weather, and there are now ports where pilots simply refuse to board if they see a problem with the pilot ladder. Delaying a ship until it offers a compliant means of access is probably a very effective way to convince shipowners to do the right thing, but the tactic only works if the problem is clearly visible. Otherwise, the pilot has little choice but to trust the boarding arrangements and hope there are no hidden dangers.

The same is true for chaplains, agents, and others who visit ships at sea or at anchor, of course, but the pilots do it more often and probably in more dangerous weather. All too often, it is the thing you cannot see that will catch you out, so boarding a ship using the means available today will never be entirely safe.

“If anyone can find a solution, it is probably the pilots themselves since they are most familiar with the problems and have the most to gain.”

But what are the alternatives? The wonderful Joan Armatrading was not particularly helpful when she wrote Drop the Pilot, and I am unable to see how ballooons or monkeys might offer a solution. But she is correct that things can change – indeed, they must change.

If anyone can find a solution, it is probably the pilots themselves since they are most familiar with the problems and have the most to gain. So it is a bit disappointing that they are just calling for the authorities to improve safety and training and invest in “safe and reliable technologies and procedures”. What technologies? What procedures? If the pilots themselves cannot answer those questions, then it is unlikely the authorities will do any better. I confess I am also at a loss, so I do not blame the pilots.

Going back to the CHIRP and MARS reports, there is ample evidence many of our seafaring colleagues are unable to enter an enclosed space without killing themselves, while lifeboat drills are a constant source of deaths and injuries, so any solution we can come up with has to be completely idiot-proof.

One problem may be that we are all so accustomed to the idea of pilot ladders that it is impossible for us to think outside the box. New thinking is required, so it might be a good idea to run some sort of competition aimed at the maritime schools, with juicy prizes for the winners. There are thousands of bright youngsters around the world who are studying for a career at sea, but have not yet set foot on a ship. Give them the problem and perhaps, just perhaps, one of them will come up with a safe and workable solution.

As I said at the beginning, we still do not know the circumstances of the tragic loss of Francesco Galia, but we do know that pilots face a range of dangers that need sorting out. “They that go down to the sea to do business in deep waters will see the wonders of God,” Psalm 107 tells us. We simply need to find a way to see the wonders of God without actually meeting Him before our time.

In this part of the world we just celebrated Lunar New Year and entered the Year of the Rabbit – a water rabbit this time, which one expert has predicted will make it an interesting time. He claims it can be likened to a ship navigating through a sea of uncertainty. So on that ominous note I will simply close by wishing you all Kung Hei Fat Choi (Gong Xi Fa Cai to our Mandarin-speaking readers)!

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.