The term pilot is defined as, “a person who is qualified and usually licensed to conduct a ship into and out of a port or in specified waters.”
The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 states that, “a pilot is any person not belonging to a ship who has the conduct thereof.”
For the great unwashed, a pilot is a seafarer who has detailed knowledge of a port approach or dangerous navigational area. He also has expertise in ship handling who is employed to ensure the safe passage of a vessel within the pilotage area.
Pilots tend to be retired senior navigating officers with a Class 1 certificate of competency (CoC) as a navigating officer. These are preferably ex-masters who have significant previous experience of navigation and ship handling in port conditions.
Pilots may be directly employed by the port, self-employed and contracted to provide the pilotage service to a port, employed by a pilotage company to provide a service to several ports, or state employees.
The pilot’s main role is piloting the vessel in and out of port during what is recognised as the highest risk element of a ship’s passage. This passage can be short or long. It may be less than an hour or over several days. The role also involves manoeuvring the ship on and off the port wharfs and facilities and ensuring the safe transit of shipping. Very often the master will insist on taking control of manoeuvring, as he may believe that he knows his vessel better than a stranger on board.
Up until recently it was traditional for the pilot to board and take over the navigation of the vessel. This often meant that he would do so as an individual with no help from those on the bridge, particularly the master. This would often result in disputes between the two particularly where there were language differences even though both are supposed to speak English, the international language of the sea.
In recent years we have seen the introduction of bridge resource management requirements with appropriate training. This is intended to ensure that all on the bridge work together as a team. However, this is not always possible, particularly with coastal vessels having small crews where there is often only the master and pilot on the bridge.
Your author has been on the bridge of coastal cargo vessels during pilotage where the pilot has refused to answer the master’s questions resulting in the master insisting that the port authority replace the pilot. Whilst this can cause delays, it has always resulted in a smoother and uneventful pilotage.
Of course, the priority is the safety of the ship, the environment and the port facilities. Ship handling is obviously the prime skill required but a competent pilot also needs to be able to monitor all the elements that may affect the passage and to adapt the passage plan accordingly.
A high professional attitude is required in order to gain the confidence of the master and to integrate into the ship’s bridge team. This may include responsibility for handling vessels that have long pilotages possibly running into days, carry high-risk cargo, have poor manoeuvrability, have communications difficulties, or are operating in environmentally sensitive areas.
Clearly the pilot must have good knowledge of the pilotage and port in which he is operating and usually requires a licence for such activities. Training can last four to six months depending on the length and complexity of the pilotage area. A new pilot is usually restricted to smaller vessels progressing to larger ships over a period of several years with compulsory annual assessments.
As with most seafaring activities, there are inherent dangers. The most prevalent is that of boarding and disembarking to/from a ship whilst it is moving. This activity takes place when the pilot is boarding at the start of an inward pilotage and when disembarking at the end of the outward pilotage using the pilot ladder. There are strict rules and procedures in place relating to the boarding arrangements as many pilots have been lost and injured during this activity.
Once on board the pilot has to familiarise themself with the bridge team and the vessel’s engine and steering performance, including any particular idiosyncrasies. Such information may be available on a “pilot card” or transmitted by the master. In turn, the pilot informs the master of his passage plan with any particularly risky sections. This may take place in a very short time for the inbound passage as the vessel may already have entered the pilotage area and be in confined waters.
“As with most ports, this pilot was compulsory”
A classic example of poor pilotage is a 2002 case in North Korea (DPRK). The reefer vessel was approaching the No 2 Wharf, Wonsan, when the incident occurred. She had boarded a local pilot who was reported to have been almost incapable of climbing the pilot ladder due to his age and physical condition, well past his sell-by date. He also ignored the pilot familiarisation form and the master, who reminded him of the vessel’s power.
When approaching the wharf the pilot failed to apply astern power in time to prevent a collision with two smaller refrigerated cargo vessels that were moored alongside the wharf. This resulted in the sinking of one vessel and extensive damage to the stern of the other. Breached fuel tanks resulted in several tonnes of diesel oil polluting the harbour. The collision also resulted in several crew injuries with three deaths. When re-attempting to berth, the vessel’s bulbous bow contacted the wharf and the bow flare knocked over a crane with further personal injuries. The damage resulted in a US$7 million claim against owners with the pilot walking away scot-free.
As with most ports, this pilot was compulsory. In the DPRK this may be a political requirement rather than a safety issue. However, pilotage is compulsory where a vessel exceeds certain dimensions, such as breadth, length and draught, dictated by the port’s navigation and geographic features.
The captain, or master, always has command of the ship and thus has ultimate responsibility for the safety of the ship, its cargo and crew. In most jurisdictions the pilot has the legal conduct of the ship during the pilotage and upon boarding a vessel provides a passage plan for the transit and directs the course and speed of the vessel to execute the passage plan.
However, whilst there are more successful pilotages than otherwise, many can be attributed to “pilot error”, including cases of collisions, groundings and contact damage, typically collisions with piers or similar.
Pilots are not expected to make mistakes, but they do. A recent five-year study of claims in excess of US$100,000 recorded by each of the clubs in the international group of P&I clubs revealed that some 262 claims were caused by pilot error, with an average cost per incident of US$850,000.
Free from liability?
When a vessel with a pilot on board is involved in an accident it is common practice for the pilot to leave the vessel as soon as possible to be replaced by a new pilot. Hence, examination or questioning is avoided. The pilot is “the shipowner’s servant” and faults or errors made by the pilot are generally covered by the shipowner’s insurance policies. Only in major casualties may the pilot be forced to give evidence and to be cross-examined. In these cases, the normal procedure is for the pilot to demand a written letter of indemnity from the shipowner prior to any hearing.
There are very few jurisdictions where it is possible to obtain significant recoveries for loss, damage or liabilities incurred as a result of pilot error. The pilot is considered to be a servant of the vessel, its owner and operator. The owner therefore is liable for damages arising as the result of the pilot’s negligence, even if the pilotage is compulsory. Even if a right of recourse potentially exists, it may well entail claiming against the pilot personally. As an individual with limited assets and generally no insurance, such claims are unlikely to recover adequate compensation.
Under the UK Pilotage Act 1987, a licensed pilot or assistant is not liable for damages for neglect or want of skill beyond the sum of £1,000 and the amount of the pilotage charges. If loss or damage arises through the fault of the pilotage authority, its liability is limited to £1,000 multiplied by the number of pilots holding licences from that authority. With such low limits of liability, actions against pilots or pilotage authorities are rare. There is also little evidence of pilots being prosecuted for negligence and even less that pilots are disciplined and/or penalised by the pilotage authority for failing in their responsibilities.
Pilot services have uniquely high risks with pilots protected under civil liability legislation. However, pilots have limited civil liability in Asian countries such as Singapore and Vietnam as well as European countries such as the UK and France. Pilots do not have any protection where there has been loss of life or pollution.
The pendulum seems to be swinging the other way with recent cases of masters and pilots being prosecuted. One such case was the collision between the car carrier City of Rotterdam and Ro-Ro ferry Primula Seaways in the Humber in 2017. The captain and the pilot of City of Rotterdam were sentenced to four months in prison for their involvement in the collision. However, the court suspended their sentences for a period of 18 months. In addition, the pilot had to pay $60,000 in court costs, an amount that was covered by his former employer, Associated British Ports.
In 2008, the bulk carrier Yao Hai collided with the offshore supply vessel Neftegaz 67 in Hong Kong waters with the loss of 18 crew from Neftegaz 67. This was a precedent-setting case as the masters and pilots of both vessels were charged under Section 72 of the Shipping and Port Control Ordinance (Cap 313). The master of Neftegaz 67 was sentenced to three years and two months imprisonment and the main pilot was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The two other defendants received sentences of two years and four months. Both masters were jailed whilst the pilots succeeded in their appeals and were not.
The question of liability has been subject to much debate over the years. Whilst the pilot may be self-employed he is being paid by a pilotage authority so why not make the authority liable for the actions of its servants, whether an employee or sub-contractor? Whilst some would argue that the insurers end up paying the bill it is the shipowner’s vessel that is taken out of service, often with a consequential loss of earnings.
With the advent of ARPA, GPS, ECDIS and vessel traffic systems, more information and assistance is available to pilots. Masters are also capable in the use of this equipment whether on the open sea or in navigational channels. More port authorities are giving exemptions to ships that regularly transit their ports with experienced masters in command. Several authorities, for example, Finland, are moving towards remote pilotage. Merchant shipping is also moving towards autonomous ships.
After all, if there is an incident it is highly likely that the master will be held liable anyway. So why do we need pilots nowadays?
Perhaps it is time to drop the pilot?
Mike Wall has been a marine educationalist for more than 50 years, writing training modules and books on various shipping technical subjects. Mike has also been a marine surveyor and consultant for more than 30 years, operating his own company in New Zealand, Fiji and Hong Kong. Due to his qualifications and experience he has been appointed to carry out many varied investigations and to give expert opinions. He is also an accredited mediator.