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"Pilot on board!"

Gard News looks at some aspects of the relationship between pilots and seafarers.

Areas of risk
Despite the pilot’s duties and responsibilities, his presence on board does not exempt the Master and the OOW from their duties and responsibilities for the ship’s safety.” This is quoted from the IMO Code of Nautical Procedures and Practices, and should be well known to seafarers. It is, however, a fact that a large portion of navigation-related accidents occurs when a pilot is on board. The reason for this is obvious: the pilot is sent on board because the national authorities consider the area an increased risk, and in increased risk situations there will always be accidents. However, it is Gard’s clear understanding that pilots prevent far more accidents than they cause, but the picture is complex, and there is reason to study this in more detail.

Navigation-related accidents are traditionally split into three main groups: collisions, groundings and contact damage (typically collisions with piers, etc.). Despite more advanced technology, the implementation of STCW 95 and a strong focus on the human element as well as fatigue, the expected decline in number of accidents per year has not taken place. In addition, the tendency is that accidents are more severe and more expensive than ever before.

As indicated above, a pilot is sent on board because the national authorities have assessed that there is an increased risk in the area. This risk can be related to navigational hazards, geographical areas that are vulnerable to pollution, there can be special regulations related to the cargo that the ship is carrying. In some countries the master’s experience is assessed, after a number of pilot-assisted port calls the master may be approved for entry without pilot. There can also be other reasons related to, for instance, military installations in the area. It is also important to note that pilot requirements are at each individual country’s discretion. Rules may and will therefore vary from country to country.

So in situations where the navigational risk exceeds a given limit, national authorities respond by sending a pilot on board. This is where the challenges start: to a large extent bridge team management training focuses on co-operation among the bridge team and less emphasis is placed on situations where “outsiders” are introduced. Bridge manuals refer to “pilot to pilot navigation” and little or nothing is said about how to act when the pilot has embarked. In short, the pilot is expected to deliver the service he is paid to deliver and limited consideration is given to his co-operation with the bridge team. For that reason in many situations one does not achieve the desired increased level of safety; on the contrary, the responsibility for navigation is simply transferred from one person to another.

In accidents where a pilot is involved there is one factor that is frequently present: limited or no communication between the master and the pilot. There may be language problems and misunderstandings, unclear instructions to the bridge personnel about how to monitor the pilot’s actions and the bridge personnel may be over-confident about the pilot’s abilities. In some situations the pilot may not be familiar with the particular design of the navigational systems available on board. Very often these accidents may be avoided if there are clear instructions available from the ship management on how to handle situations with pilots on board.

Lessons learned
It is possible to extract some lessons from the above examples.

Voyage planning used to be a critical factor and the common response from the crew was “why should we plan the passage when the pilot always brings with him an alternative passage plan?”. It is Gard’s experience that this has improved: electronic charts have made it easy to adjust the ship’s voyage plan according to that brought on board by the pilot and attention from port state control officers has put this item on the agenda. It is also imperative that the pilot be briefed about the vessel’s manoeuvring capabilities. This includes rate of turn, propeller arrangement, output on the various manoeuvring orders and general ship data. In short, any information that can improve the pilot’s performance must be available. Many shipowners have developed so-called “pilot cards” for that purpose. These have proved to be effective and greatly appreciated by the pilots.

Language barriers have been and will continue to be a challenge; these can be related to communication between the pilot and the crew, as well as understanding the communication between the pilot and assisting parties such as shore staff, mooring boats and/or tugs. Very often these barriers can be greatly reduced by a thorough review of the passage prior to commencing it. The pilot can also be requested to communicate with external parties in a common language, or to translate his communication with them for the bridge team. Many accidents are rooted in surprises and unexpected situations that could have been avoided if the pilot and the bridge team had a common understanding about how the passage would be carried out.

The impact of commercial pressure should not be underestimated. This may result from a variety of reasons:
– the terminal wishes to maximise utilisation of the piers and requires effective (high speed) approach to the terminal;
– some pilots are paid per pilotage and increase speed for that reason;
– charterers require maximum utilisation of the ship, and under keel clearance may be challenged. This occurs particularly in river passages. The availability and suitability of tugs and mooring boats should also be considered: in many situations these are too small or too few for the purpose, but are accepted due to the commercial pressure.

Cultural differences should also be considered. The pilot is perceived as an authority and in many cultures it is difficult to correct or even question a decision made by an authority. Corrections to obvious errors may therefore be delayed and in some cases not put forward at all. Reluctance to get involved in a situation has contributed to several severe marine accidents. In particular, this may be a problem when the master is not on the bridge. It is therefore important that all members of the bridge team have the necessary authority and confidence to interfere if they are in doubt. This can only be achieved by active leadership and involvement by the master. The IMO Code of Nautical Procedures and Practices also states: “If in any doubt as to the pilot’s actions or intentions, the officer in charge of the navigational watch shall seek clarification from the pilot and, if doubt still exists, shall notify the master immediately and take whatever action is necessary before the master arrives”.

Common understanding
The first step to reduce the risk of navigation-related accidents when a pilot is on board is a common understanding by the bridge team of the risks involved. These include geographical hazards as well as cultural and management-related challenges. Introducing company “pilot handling procedures” in the ship management system has proved to be effective. In addition to voyage planning, these should include routines for pre-voyage briefing, monitoring of the pilot’s activities and communication between pilot and officer of the watch (OOW)/master. Exchange of information is also mentioned in the IMO Code of Nautical Procedures and Practices: “The master and the pilot shall exchange information regarding navigation procedures, local conditions and the ship’s characteristics”.

In summary, much progress will be achieved by implementing some simple steps in the ship procedures:
– Active use of pilot cards for transfer of ship information.
– Implementation of company procedures for pilot handling.
– Making bridge teams aware of cultural challenges that may occur when a pilot is on board, and giving them the confidence and authority to seek clarification when in doubt.
– Taking into consideration the commercial pressure that may be imposed by pilots, charterers and terminals.

Bon voyage!

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

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