REMINISCENCES | The pilot’s progress

REMINISCENCES | The pilot’s progress

Wyuna. Photo: Maritime Centre

It was a picture of a brand new pilot boat in Work Boat World that got me thinking; a beautiful and powerful craft, clearly built for heavy weather and the efficient delivery of the pilot. It probably cost about as much as a 10,000-tonne ship did sixty years ago.

The weather, as we came slowly up to the pilot station off the Belgian coast on that winter’s night in about 1960 was filthy; blowing a freezing gale, a choppy, confused sea with driving snow squalls that lowered visibility to zero as they swept by. Actually finding the pilot on that dark night was difficult, but eventually the lights of the cutter were identified and we slowly closed her. As the senior apprentice, I was sent down to meet the poor frozen chap.

We did things properly on those ships, and the ladder was secure and at just the right height, the manropes ready, boatrope lowered to the correct caternary for the chaps in the pilot boat to grasp, the light illuminating a circular pool of black sea, with white flakes of snow driving past. The heaving line was ready, one end tied to the bucket in case there was mail to bring aboard. A couple of our stoutest ABs, muffled up in their oilskins, were standing ready for the reception.

We lost sight of the cutter as the ship made a lee, and suddenly the boat swam out of the snow into our light; a little wooden craft with a canvas spray shield over the bow and a couple of hands to tend it. One of them had reached out for our ladder with a boathook, missed at the first attempt and then as the coxswain was lining up for a second go, their engine cut out.

There was a lot of confused French shouting in the boat, which was being whirled away by the wind and tide. There was a desperate call for a rope and one of our ABs hurled the heaving line at the drifting craft. The wild wind took it clear. Just before the boat vanished into the blackness and encouraged by a lot of bad language from the wing of the bridge above, I seized the steel bucket on the other end of the line and hurled it with all my strength at the disappearing boat. Amazingly it was on target and, equally amazingly, failed to brain any of the occupants as the line was grabbed and we cautiously hauled the little craft back to the ship’s side.

As the pilot vaulted the rail, with several expressions of gratitude, the boat’s engine coughed into life and it disappeared into the snow, hopefully able to detect its mother cutter. The master, as I recall, was a bit disparaging, suggesting that I might have killed somebody (in an era well before hard hats, health and safety). The pilot, bless him, sprang to my defence.

I retain, to this day, a lot of respect for pilots. Their means of getting to and from ships might have changed and fast craft have in many places replaced the station cutters. I can still recall the elegant yacht used by the Sydney pilots, the beautiful Wyuna of the Port Phillip Pilots and I even saw a wonderful sailing cutter off San Francisco. But however pilots are shipped, other than by helicopter, they still have to climb up and down swinging ladders in often hazardous conditions.

There are still too many cases reported in safety bulletins about neglected ladders, improperly rigged or fastened, even those which give way with the weight of the pilot upon them. Daft designers will position pilot boarding stations in quite the wrong place, stick blooming great rubbing bands in the way, which, with the ship rolling , could come down on a pilot launch and damage it or worse. There was even a report recently of a gun door opened for the pilot that was so near the waterline that it completely submerged when the ship rolled as she made a lee off the pilot station and nearly drowned the crew who were to meet the pilot.

Piloting is a profession that has never managed to remove all its attendant risks, no matter how much technology is employed. It still involves a certain amount of nerve and faith to let go of the pilot boat’s rail and leap onto a ladder, hoping that its condition is up to scratch, then scramble up the considerable height of a big ship’s freeboard. If you are not in the first flush of youth, and not so fit as you once might have been, it will take more. Then, of course, there may be another umpteen steps from weather deck to the top of a towering bridge structure, before the proper work begins. There may be an elevator, but that carries its own risks, if it decides not to work at this crucial time.

You had to feel for a pilot, clad in his bulky heavy weather gear after boarding a ship, meeting a very large AB descending the narrow stairwell he was rushing up and spending crucial navigational time disentangling themselves, as the vessel moved inexorably towards the point of collision in a fogbound estuary.

Operating pilot boats in exposed port approaches takes as much skill and seamanship as it ever did, possibly even more as the performance of these advanced craft tends to have widened the weather window and it will be far less frequently that the pilot will be unable to board or be landed on account of the weather. It is probably unlikely that anyone will throw a bucket at them, and their powerful engines won’t pack up when they are needed most.

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Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.