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Is the pilot a part of the bridge team?
By Captain Erik Blom Master of the M/V BLACK WATCH, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines

Hopefully the answer to the above question is yes, but this comes at a price.

I have been a Captain for the last 20 years, starting in the Royal Norwegian Navy, later becoming a pilot on the Norwegian coast, until I decided to change trade and became a cruise vessel captain. Over the years I have worked on and managed a lot of bridges, some well-functioning and the odd ones not working at all.

Most readers will certainly know the purpose of a well-functioning bridge team. Hopefully gone are the days when the Captain – with a capital C – took all the decisions without discussing with anyone, and not listening to advice from others. On bigger ships the master now has a team around him on board to support him in his decisions: the bridge team.

Bridge team and its responsibilities
There are many combinations of environmental and other factors for setting different watch conditions, but as a minimum on ships with crews of more than 6-7, the bridge team (BT) consists of the master, the officer on watch (OOW) and a sailor as helmsman and lookout. With several shipping companies, especially within the cruise and oil industry, additional crew joins the BT.

The BT’s responsibility is to ensure a well-functioning Bridge Resource Management (BRM). Some of the main objectives of BRM are:
– To assist the ship master in managing the vessel’s bridge team for each voyage so that personnel are rested, trained and prepared to handle any situation.
– To help the ship master recognise workload demands and other risk factors that may affect decisions in setting watch conditions.
– To ensure bridge team members are trained and aware of their responsibilities.
– To help bridge team members interact with and support the master and/or the pilot.

Pilot’s responsibilities
The pilot is on board to assist in navigation and manoeuvring. The exchange of information between master and pilot does not shift the responsibility for the safety of the vessel from one to the other.

Chapter VIII (Fitness for duty) of the STCW Convention1 sets limits on the hours of work and minimum rest requirements for watchkeepers.

A pilot’s work environment (irregular and lengthy working hours, working at night, unpredictable duty rosters, and travelling to and from their jobs) can significantly contribute to fatigue. Moving a large vessel in confined waters is a high-risk task and the pilot assigned to that task has a responsibility to the state, the port authority and the ship’s master.

Pilots are managers of high-risk situations that require intense concentration and skill levels so that any decrease in performance can potentially lead to a catastrophe. A pilot error caused by fatigue can endanger the ship, crew, port and the environment.

Only national rules apply to pilots and they are not subject to the same regulations as the ship-board crew. I have met pilots who have been on the run for more than 36 hours without a decent nap, and I can assure you it does not bring back happy memories.

Communication can not be overrated. It is the most vital part of bridge team management. Communication with pilots and their organisation starts already during passage planning. Some countries have pages and pages with information within our planning material, and the information often ends with the statement “…failing to report… might cause x hours’ delay”. If the master/ship has not been to the port before the stress level within the BT begins to rise.

The next crucial point of contact is when the OOW uses the VHF to report to Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) or pilot station. Most stations are very friendly and helpful, but others do not reply at all when ships try to comply with the compulsory rules to report the required number of hours before arrival. The OOW has been informed via passage plan that he must get in touch with the pilot station by a specific time otherwise the ship might be delayed. If there is no reply he will continue with repeated calls on all possible means, dive back into the publications to double check the passage plan information and take the focus away from his main duty – to navigate. This in turn again increases the stress level.

Communication is the most important part of the bridge team management.

Then the pilot boat is approaching. Being a former Norwegian pilot myself I know how important it is to have optimum conditions for the pilot boat when the pilot is boarding. It can look very calm down there from the bridge wing, but being in the pilot boat is a different story. Very often the pilot boat master has a specific heading he wants us to steer. Coming into the UK is a pleasure: they are always very polite using phrases such as “Please, Sir” and “Captain”. Others merely observe the formalities and make you feel ill-at-ease. This is not a good start as you are waiting for a person from that particular pilot boat to come up on the bridge expecting him/her to be a part of the bridge team.

Eventually the pilot is on the bridge. How the master and the pilot meet and greet each other is the key to how the rest of the passage will be. The pilot has (maybe) done this passage hundreds of times and the master – not having been here before – has made his own assumptions on how the approach should be handled.

I have experienced pilots embarking at the breakwater, not giving us time to meet and greet at all, forcing me more or less to disregard the pilot as there is no time to discuss or exchange information. This is very often the case in Mediterranean ports where you only have a breakwater and a berth or two. The pilots are just there as an advanced linesman showing us where to berth. This is a very unsatisfactory situation as the pilot is not integrated with the BT and sometimes just creates clutter to the organisation.

In general the pilots are on the bridge in due time in order to allow for a thorough “handover”/information exchange. In this case the master has a vital role in making the pilot feel welcome, and the pilot needs to remember how it was coming into a new (complicated) port for the first time.

A lot of information has to be exchanged between the pilot and the master in a relatively short time, when the master normally has “the conn” and the ship is moving in confined waters (to have “the conn” is to have sole responsibility to control, or direct by order, the movements of a ship, i.e., to give proper steering and engine orders for the safe navigation of the ship).

Typically the following information is to be exchanged between the pilot and master during the approach: ship details; originating authority; manoeuvring details; propeller details; main engine details and equipment defects; berth and tug details; local weather and sea conditions; details of passage plan, including navigational hazards, abort points and emergency plans; local regulations, including VTS reporting, maximum allowable draft, etc.; ship’s agent; year built; IMO number; cargo type (IMO codes if dangerous cargo); last port; etc.

At this stage it is very important that the chemistry between the pilot and the master is good. Otherwise it might lead to dangerous situations.

The next step is transition of “the conn” from the master to the pilot. I have met pilots coming on the bridge and, without acknowledging anyone, giving the helmsman orders based on the ship’s heading when he left the pilot boat, not realising we were on the correct heading for the approach. After the exchange of information summarised above I always clearly inform my bridge team with the phrase “Pilot has the conn” and in turn my OOW and helmsman acknowledge the information: the closed loop.

The “closed loop” is a communication protocol where information is given, repeated by the receiver and normally confirmed by the issuer. This is the only way one can be sure an order is being followed and is a vital part of the bridge team management. Having observed this from all sides, it is obvious to me that you can minimise the risk of misunderstanding if the “closed loop” is working. In a Canadian study where 200 accidents were related to human error, 84 (42 per cent) involved misunderstanding between pilot and master and some could probably have been avoided if the “closed loop” protocol had been used.

I have recently returned from a voyage to the French part of Canada. In the St Lawrence River ships the same size as mine always have two pilots on board taking one hour watches. As in many other countries, a new generation of pilots is being trained and in addition to the two pilots we had apprentices on board. It was too easy for them to fall back on speaking French between themselves instead of speaking English and in turn creating two “bridge teams”, which should be avoided.

Sometimes it is not possible to avoid two teams due to communication difficulties, either on the crew or on the pilot’s side. Based on my experience, most pilots speak more than good enough English, but as a pilot conning a ship heading for Mongstad oil terminal I have experienced that my helm orders had to be translated into three different languages before they were executed by the helmsman. In that situation it was difficult to establish a closed loop.

The pilot is a vital part of the bridge team
Provided a few essential premises are taken care of, the pilot is a very vital part of the bridge team.

In my opinion, fatigue, language barriers, lack of chemistry, an open loop and, last but not least, cell phone calls from the pilot’s family are threats to ships’ safety.

“Welcome on board, Mr Pilot. Coffee or tea?”

1 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch-keeping for Seafarers, 1978.

Gard News 185, February/April 2007

Any comments to this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editor.

Gard News is published quarterly by Gard AS, Arendal, Norway.