How marine pilots are involved in vessel movements
The process by which a marine pilot is assigned to move a vessel is initiated by the local agent for the ship or cargo owners. The agent will place a call to the Pacific Pilotage Authority dispatch office and request a pilot to move a ship from either one berth to another, from a berth to sea (or vice versa), or from one port to another. The dispatchers will enter the order into their computer system and dispatch the next available pilot from a rotation list. The pilot will receive a telephone call from the dispatchers informing him of his next assignment and will begin to make preparations for the assignment which includes reviewing the latest information regarding the route the vessel will take and its intended berth, making transportation arrangements, and planning his pre-assignment rest period to ensure that he is adequately rested for the assignment.
One of the more challenging logistical aspects of a B.C. Coast Pilot’s career is the complex travel arrangements which apply to most assignments. Moving a ship from one port to another, for example, means the pilot must make arrangements to get to the berth where the ship is located and then get back home from the port where the ship is destined. This can involve the use of commercial airline flights, charter flights, float planes, helicopters, ferries, taxis, the pilot’s own car, limos, buses, etc. Some assignments are relatively easy since the vessel is only moving from one berth within the harbor to another berth within the same harbor. Other assignments are more difficult since they originate in a distant outport, which can only be accessed by floatplane or helicopters, and completes in another outport more than 200 nautical miles away. A pilot can travel from 6 to 8 hours before he reaches the vessel and actually begins his piloting assignment.
For assignments where the vessel is at anchor the pilots will use a water taxi to board the vessel. A water taxi is a small passenger boat that is used in relatively calm waters to provide a taxi service between the ship and shore for pilots as well as crewmembers, ship’s agents and government personnel.
When a vessel is inbound from sea, there are four specific locations – pilot boarding stations – on the B.C. coast where the vessel can pick up a pilot. Pilot boarding stations are located:
- Near Victoria, B.C.,
- On the west side of Vancouver Island at the entrance to the Alberni inlet,
- At the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island, and
- Outside Prince Rupert, B.C.
In these locations, pilots take a pilot launch, a specialized boat made specifically for boarding and disembarking Pilots from ships, from the shore to the vessel. The Pilot launch picks up the pilot from shore and takes him out to meet the arriving vessel. This can take as little as 15 minutes at the Victoria Pilot boarding station, or as long as 2 hours as in the case of the Prince Rupert pilot station.
If a vessel is coming in from sea to an area on the coast other than a pilot boarding station, the pilots will use a helicopter to board the vessel. The use of helicopters is governed by type of vessel the helicopters can land on as well as weather restrictions.
Once the pilot launch reaches the ship, the pilot boat skipper matches the launch’s speed to that of the ships and comes alongside until both vessels are touching. The pilot then steps off of the deck of the pilot launch onto a rope ladder hanging down from the side of the moving ship and climbs, sometimes up to thirty feet, before reaching the deck of the ship. If the distance from the water to the deck of the ship is greater than thirty feet, the crew of the ship will provide a combination ladder that incorporates the ship’s gangway ladder with the pilot ladder. The pilot will climb part way up the side of the ship by the pilot ladder and then step across onto the ship’s gangway to climb the remaining distance to the ship’s deck.
The pilots wear special safety equipment that will not only keep them afloat should they fall into the water, but will also protect them from hypothermia. Pilot launch crews are specially trained in “man-overboard” recoveries and can get a pilot who has fallen into the water back onto the pilot boat in just over one minute.
Once on board the vessel, a crew member will lead the pilot up to the wheelhouse, or bridge, of the ship. The bridge is located at the uppermost deck of the ship, which can be up to ten stories from the main deck. Once the pilot enters the bridge he begins his piloting duties. The first thing the pilot will do will be to carefully explain to the Captain of the ship or the duty officer what his intended routing is for the transit. If the ship is already under way, as is the case when a vessel is inbound from sea, the pilot will first set the vessel on its appropriate course before exchanging information with the bridge crew.
The pilot utilizes all of the technological aids at his disposal on the bridge including the gyro compass, radar, VHF radio, ARPA, GPS, DGPS, ECDIS, etc. The reliability of the equipment varies from one vessel to another and Pilots have learned to use the technology with discretion.
Pilots also bring with them their Portable Piloting Unit (PPU) which provides them with highly accurate positioning information independent of the ship’s equipment. The information is displayed on a laptop containing customized navigation software and allows for precision navigation even in adverse conditions.
The pilot’s duties on the bridge include giving orders to the helmsman on what course to steer and giving engine orders to the officer of the watch to regulate the speed of the vessel. The pilot also communicates with Vessel Traffic Services to inform them of the vessel’s routing and contacts other traffic in the area to make passing or overtaking arrangements.
One of the most difficult tasks a pilot faces during an assignment is the actual berthing of a ship alongside a dock. The sheer size of the ships makes them extremely difficult to slow down or stop and this is made even more difficult by the currents running along the face of the dock. Any hard contact with the dock may cause millions of dollars in damage to either the vessel or the berth. To assist in safely berthing the ship, pilots utilize the services of ship berthing tugs. These are powerful tugs that can fasten a line to the ship to pull the ship away from the berth, or push with their bow against the side of the ship move the ship towards the berth.
A piloting assignment generally concludes within eight hours from its commencement, which is the accepted length of time a single pilot can perform his duties before becoming fatigued. By the end of the eight hours the vessel should either be safely anchored at its berth or outside of the Canadian piloting district. If the vessel is headed out to sea, the pilot will notify the Captain of the vessel’s current position, its course and speed, and then debark via the pilot launch. If the vessel is headed into US waters, the pilot will hand over the piloting responsibilities to a US pilot.
If it is known in advance that the length of the transit will either be over 105 nautical miles or 8 hours in length, two pilots will be assigned to the vessel to share the piloting duties. One pilot will rest in a cabin, while the other is working, until it is his turn to take over the duty of piloting the ship. A pilot can be on the same vessel for as long as 30 hours as is the case when a vessel is transiting from Vancouver to Stewart, B.C. or as short a time as two hours when a vessel is changing berths in Vancouver harbour.
At the completion of a piloting assignment, a pilot is entitled to prescribed hours of rest based upon the length of the preceding assignment. The pilot will either obtain this rest at his home or in a hotel if he has not yet returned to his home port. Once the pilot’s rest period has expired he is available for his next piloting assignment anywhere on the BC coast. The pilots pay strict attention to their rest periods since experience has shown that performance and concentration rapidly decline as fatigue increases.
The BC Coast Pilots each work for a twenty-day period and are on call 24 hours per day during this time. There are specified hours of rest following each assignment to avoid fatigue, but other than these times the pilot is either traveling or working.