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A Pilot’s Day

“There are few members of the shipping industry who are so vital to safety as pilots……………..Pilots are at the apex of the professionals in the maritime industry when it comes to navigational skills, knowledge, experience and ship handling.”  

Secretary General International Maritime Organisation

The role of the Marine Pilot is quite unique. It involves navigating and handling an often very large vessel which in all likelihood the Pilot will never have seen, and working closely with a vessel Master and bridge team (usually foreign nationals) who in all probability the Pilot will never have met. The Pilot is specifically trained to handle any size or type of vessel, utilising his/her thorough working knowledge of the port and it’s environs. By exchanging information about the proposed passage and berthing with the Master, and in turn taking on board the manoeuvring characteristics of the vessel, the Pilot takes the conduct of a given vessel to safely manoeuvre and navigate that vessel in or out of port.

The Pilot’s relationship with the Master is crucial to the success of the operation, and all support personnel are required to be fully aware of their various roles and responsibilities. It is therefore essential that the Pilot exhibits excellent communication, leadership and teamwork skills in order to work effectively with the Master and bridge team on the vessel, as well as the external support staff such as tug and line boat skippers, and port control and mooring gang personnel. While the Pilot is the clear focal point and manager, this team approach is critical to ensuring a safe and efficient outcome.

In order to help explain the Marine Pilot’s unique role in the maritime industry, the tabs below briefly outline a Pilot’s tasks and responsibilities during pilotage operations within the Port of Fremantle.

Each Pilot is allocated a rostered shift to ensure 24 hour a day coverage for absolutely every day of the year. At the commencement of their shift, the Pilot will carefully prepare for their allocated vessels by assessing prevailing and forecast weather and tidal conditions, manoeuvring characteristics of that vessel, proximity of other vessels and navigational hazards, plus any other relevant operational considerations. The Pilot will then subsequently determine whether the towage assistance that has been allocated (tugs and/or bow thrusters) is appropriate for the intended manoeuvre. A detailed passage plan is then prepared in readiness for discussion with the ship's Master once the Pilot arrives on board.

Prior to the scheduled arrival/departure time, the Pilot will proceed to the pilot boat landing or vessel berth as required. For vessel arrivals, the Pilot will board the pilot boat and proceed out to the vessel which will either be in Gage Roads, or to the north east of Rottnest Island. Whilst in transit, the Pilot communicates with the ship's Master via VHF radio and provides instruction in preparation for the transfer of the Pilot from pilot boat to the vessel. The passage to the boarding area can often occur during extremely rough and challenging conditions resulting in large sea and swell heights, particularly during the winter months.
Pilot transfer for arrivals is a high risk activity that needs to be carefully managed, particularly in adverse weather conditions for which Fremantle is renowned. Every year throughout the world, Pilots are seriously injured or even killed during Pilot transfer. Essentially, the Pilot is required to climb a rope ladder up to a height of 9 metres to the deck of the ship. The Pilot, in conjunction with the pilot boat skipper, carefully assesses the environmental conditions and subsequently determines what heading and speed the vessel to be boarded should follow. This ensures the best lee (or shelter) for a safe transfer is provided. This information by way of a clear instruction is then communicated to the ship's Master via VHF radio.

Once the pilot boat is alongside the vessel, the Pilot and the pilot boat deckhand will make their way out onto the foredeck of the pilot boat. They assess if the ladder is rigged in accordance with strict international regulations, and if all is in order, the Pilot will commence climbing up the ladder to the deck of the vessel. Large sea and swell conditions make this a dangerous and challenging task, sometimes requiring the Pilot to jump onto the ladder when the pilot boat is at the top of the swell, so as to prevent the boat "chasing" the Pilot up the ladder. Therefore the pilot boat crew and Pilot need to exercise excellent judgement, skill and timing to ensure the Pilot transfer is carried out safely. Once on the deck of the vessel, the Pilot will give a "thumbs up" to the pilot boat deck hand that all is OK.
For both arrivals and departures, once on board the Pilot proceeds to the bridge of the vessel and is greeted by the Master. The Pilot and Master together with members of the bridge team exchange information about the intended manoeuvre and vessel characteristics accordingly. This information includes but is not limited to proximity of other vessels and navigational hazards, expected weather and tidal conditions, vessel dimensions and drafts, vessel manoeuvring characteristics, port parameters and rules, berth location and characteristics, tug type and allocation , mooring arrangements, and the intended passage and manoeuvre on approaching and/or departing the berth.

The Pilot then requests and is handed over the conduct of the vessel from the Master, and subsequently commences the arrival or departure pilotage operation.
With the exchange completed and conduct of the vessel handed to the Pilot, the pilotage operation begins. An essential component of this operation is the establishment of communication with the various support resources external to the vessel that the Pilot depends upon throughout the operation. These include the port control communications personnel, tug skippers, line handling vessel skippers and mooring gang personnel. The Pilot is responsible for managing and coordinating these resources, together with those on board the vessel to ensure the successful and safe execution of the entire operation.

The Pilot achieves this by providing direct instruction to each party as required. Examples include
- direct helm orders to control vessel direction which are relayed to the helmsman such as "port 10!" or "hard to starboard!", or a course to steer such as "steer course 169º!" ,
- direct engine orders to control vessel speed and slow or stop the vessel which are relayed to the ship's telegraph operator such as "slow ahead!" or "dead slow astern!",
- or direct tug orders to control vessel swing and lateral movement related to a specific tug positioned where the Pilot has instructed such as "Wambiri...lift off quarter power!".
Additionally, the Pilot will expect to receive advice and information from all parties at relevant and critical stage of the manoeuvre including proximity of any other vessels or navigational hazards, vessel speed, swinging and clearance distances, mooring and/or unmooring progress, tugs made fast or all clear just to name a few. Of course some vessel crews are more efficient, professional and proficient in english than others, and communication may almost be non existent in some circumstances, however the Pilot is still expected to manage and overcome these hurdles in order to facilitate a successful outcome.
Completion of the pilotage operation is determined by the vessel either being safely secured alongside the berth, anchored or having cleared the port on it's way to it's next destination.

For those vessels departing the port, the Pilot hands back the conduct of the vessel to the Master together with all relevant information, which includes course and speed, proximity of other vessels and/or navigational hazards plus any applicable port rules or regulations. The Pilot then makes contact with the pilot boat to confirm all is in readiness for the Pilot's disembarkation. As with boarding, this is a high risk activity that needs to be carefully managed, and large sea and swell conditions make this a dangerous and challenging task. Skill and timing and effective communication between the Pilot and pilot boat deckhand are again essential to ensure the Pilot transfer is carried out safely. Once on the deck of the pilot boat, the Pilot will give a "thumbs up" to the vessel's crew that all is OK and the pilot boat begins it's journey back to port or to the Pilot's next vessel.

For those vessels that berth alongside, the Pilot ensures the Master is happy that the vessel is safely secured. The Pilot then dismisses the tugs and passes on any relevant information about terminal/berth requirements and rules plus any other operational information that may be of use to the vessel Master and crew. Strictly speaking the Pilot is not required to help in this way, and could simply walk down the gangway without so much as a word, however at Fremantle Pilots, we pride ourselves on ensuring that we help out the Master and crew as much as is practicable to ensure their stay at Fremantle is a positive one. On a lighter note, Pilots are also always happy to provide information about restaurants, shopping, tourist attractions and transport tips to the Master and crew. We are all former seafarers, and appreciate the tough long life away from home and loved ones that goes hand in hand with this occupation, so to help in even a small way is the very least that we can do and ensures we never forget where we all began our career journey.