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Useful lessons can be learned from the following incident, which could happen anywhere, any time, with almost any ship.

The incident
“Good afternoon, Mr Captain. I’ll take over. Starboard 10, come to two five six degrees and full ahead.”

“Starboard 10 to two five six degrees, full ahead. She is all yours, Mr Pilot.”

We are on board an ordinary tanker, on an ordinary day, approaching an ordinary terminal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. The weather is grey but the visibility is not too bad, although it is early evening. The speed is slowly increasing and the last light of day is rapidly disappearing. The atmosphere on the bridge is relaxed.

“Full speed, Mr Pilot, 14 knots.”

“Full speed. Thank you, Mr Captain.”

The pilot and the master continue talking about everyday matters such as the weather, how long they are staying at the berth, etc.

“I’m leaving the bridge”, says the master. “I have to prepare some papers before we berth. The second mate will assist you. If you need me, just tell him and he will get hold of me.”

The voyage continues and the pilot gives instructions regarding the necessary course alterations, as the fairway becomes gradually narrower. The ship is still at full speed.

The pilot calls the harbour master (in his native language) and tells him that ETA (estimated time of arrival) will be in half an hour. He also gives the three tugs waiting to assist berthing the ship an update on the situation (also in his native language). There is no request for translation from the second mate and no information is volunteered by the pilot.

We continue full ahead. Traffic increases as we enter sheltered waters. The background lights from the harbour area make it difficult to see the difference between moving and stationary objects.

“Mr Mate, can you prepare to receive the first tug on port bow? We will have starboard side alongside.” (Two other tugs are also ordered but this is not mentioned by the pilot).

“Aye-Aye, sir”, says the mate.

The pilot contacts the tugs on the VHF again (still in the local language) and, as he is talking, his mobile phone rings. The mate calls the master, who enters the bridge after a couple of minutes. He consults the radar and although it is many years since the last time he was in this harbour, he feels somewhat uneasy with our present speed, as we are rapidly approaching the inner part of the harbour. The master is tempted to ask the pilot to reduce the speed, but for some odd reason he does not. The pilot orders half ahead and continues to talk in his mobile phone. We are approaching the berth and the master is more and more anxious about the speed, so he politely suggests the pilot to reduce the speed. The pilot explains that there is another ship waiting to leave the berth and he has to board it as soon as possible.

The first tug is closing in on port bow and is ready to receive the heaving line from the ship. The second mate, who has just left the bridge, is now on the forecastle making his first attempt at the heaving line, but misses the tug. He sees that they are now alarmingly close to the berth and hurries to do his second attempt. This time he succeeds and reports back to the bridge that the line from the tug is on board and secured. At the same time the pilot, who has just finished his telephone call, is at the bridge, hectically instructing the tugs on how to berth the ship, still in the local language – this time with a raised voice.

The tugs seem to have problems keeping up with the speed of our ship and this is communicated to the pilot. The distance to the berth is rapidly diminishing and the pilot asks for slow astern. The master, who is really getting nervous now, orders slow astern and even increases this to half astern. The pilot orders the aft tug to start pulling in order to reduce the speed of our ship.

The master finally realises that there is no way he can avoid hitting the berth and orders full astern. Because of the full astern manoeuvre, the ship does an uncontrolled starboard turn and hits the berth with a speed of 2 knots, making a 3-metre long gash on the starboard bow and causing extensive damage to the berth.

What went wrong
The situation described above could happen anywhere, any time, with a lot of ships trading the seven seas of today.

Can we learn something from this incident?
– The vessel’s speed was excessive.
– When trying to connect to the tugs the ship’s speed was too high.
– There was lack of communication between the pilot and the master at many stages while transiting the fairway. There was little or no information exchanged regarding the docking plan and how the three tugs were to be put to use and co-ordinated.
– The master did not insist that the pilot should reduce the speed as they approached the harbour area.
– The pilot, when communicating with the tugs, was speaking a language that was not understood by the master. This made it difficult for the master to be fully aware of the situation.
– The master was over-confident of the abilities of the pilot.
– And guess what: the pilot will of course blame the master for interfering in his efforts to manoeuvre the ship safely alongside because he ordered full astern!

Recommendations and lessons learned
– The master is in command of the ship at all times with only one exception: when transiting through the Panama Canal. Therefore, it is always the duty of the master and the officer of the watch (OOW) to be aware of all actions of the pilot. Although the pilot is more knowledgeable about local waters, it is the responsibility of the master/OOW to verify the position through the proper use of charts, radars and other position fixing devices and follow local rules on speed and routing.
– Voyage planning is crucial in all situations including when pilots are on board. Sufficient time should be allowed for proper communication between the master, pilots and OOWs. This voyage plan should include every important activity starting from the embarkation of the pilot, entry and exit from the berth and finally the disembarkation of the pilot.
– If the pilot communicates with tugs, etc., in the local language (which is likely), the master should ask him to explain what was said in a common language (probably English).
– When the voyage under pilotage takes the vessel through narrow waters, one should mark “wheel-over” points either on the chart or at the radar screen in order to know when “points of no return” are reached. This helps the pilot, master, and/or OOW to have better situational awareness.
– The ship’s crew is normally the most knowledgeable regarding the manoeuvring capabilities of the ship. Detailed descriptions of the ship’s manoeuvring characteristics should be communicated during the voyage planning stage. In addition, the master and/or OOW should communicate manoeuvring capabilities during the voyage, as necessary. The master and OOW should never hesitate to discuss these matters with the pilot if they feel it necessary to do so.
– One should ensure that the vessel is equipped with the necessary updated charts for the intended voyage. It is not sufficient to rely on the pilot to provide this information.
– The OOW should always closely monitor the activities of the pilot. Many times the pilot will not communicate with the OOW regarding the vessel and/or voyage as necessary. The OOW should not hesitate to communicate with the pilot on any relevant matters regarding the vessel or the voyage.
– The OOW should not only be diligent with regard to his duties to ensure that the pilot’s orders are properly followed, but should also monitor the pilot’s activities. If the OOW has concerns regarding the pilot’s activities, he should contact the master immediately.
– The vessel should have clear procedures and instructions to masters and OOWs on what to do with a pilot on board. These should be included as part of the ship’s safety management system (SMS).
– Bridge resource management (BRM) is important to ensure safety. Any BRM training should include how to handle the change in communication, command, and control when a pilot takes over navigation of the ship.

Who is then to blame? In practice, both, master and pilot, but it is important to keep in mind that as the master is in command of the ship, he is the one who gets the blame!

Gard Services Pilotage Seminar
Gard Services offers a pilotage seminar package for members and clients. More information regarding the Gard Services Pilotage Seminar may be obtained from Gard Services’ Risk Assessment & Loss Prevention Department upon request. See also the articles “Gard Services Pilotage Seminar” in Gard News issue No. 166 and “Pilot on the bridge – Role, authority and responsibility” in Gard News issue No. 160.


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