The Helsinki Bridge broke free from Conley terminal in South Boston on December 6, 2017. How does something like this happen? Who is responsible for the ship, the dock and pilotage? What were the weather conditions? What safety precautions were taken?
Accidents like this do occur but they are not frequent. I have sailed on ships as master and pilot that have experienced a parted mooring line or two, but I have never experienced breaking away from a dock. Mooring lines do fail when they exceed their breaking strength. Dock bollards fail when the pull exceeds the rating of the bollard. These single events or combination of both can result in a ship breaking away from the dock. Weather has an exponential impact on the ship and dock mooring systems i.e. ship lines and dock bollards. The Helsinki Bridge is a New Panamax container ship and is much larger and has more sail area (sail area is the structure of a ship that is exposed to wind) than the container ships that have traditionally called on Conley Terminal in South Boston. The marine weather forecast for Boston harbor advised gale force winds. The National Weather Service in Taunton reported wind gusts up to 46KTS out of the south at Logan airport. A ship moored at Conley Terminal will experience the full force of southerly winds trying to push the ship off the dock.
The Helsinki Bridge came off the dock because of the wind weather. Could or should there have been other assets in play to prevent the accident? From the reports I have read and those I have spoken with there were no tugs standing buy pushing on the ship to keep her moored at the terminal. One may ask why there were no tugs pushing on the ship. I can only tell you from my experience as a Master and a Commissioned pilot how I make decisions. The Master is ultimately responsible for the safety of the ship and its crew. The Master is required to hire and use a pilot commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As Master I rely on the pilot for their vast knowledge of local weather, tide and currents for advice on ordering tugs to standby. As a commissioned pilot I relay my experience and what to expect during a port stay to the master as part of my master/pilot exchange of information before heading into port. The commissioned pilot has a duty to represent the public interest in moving commerce safely on the waters of Boston Harbor. I offer the master any help they require in obtaining tugs. I make sure the master understands any unusual weather being reported and how to get a hold of a commissioned pilot if needed. I make sure the master knows that Boston does not have tugs available on a moment’s notice.
The USCG is investigating this incident. The Pilot Commissioners should be as well. Did the Master of the Helsinki Bridge have all the information he needed to make a prudent decision before entering port and stay safely moored to the terminal? Did he know how to contact tugs and a Commissioned pilot if he needed them? Were the tugs available? Was there a commissioned pilot in the office available because of the threat of high winds? I can speak for myself that when I am on the pilot board for work I would be in or very near the office during a weather event such as this. This is not the case with all of the commissioned pilots some live more than an hour away from the office while on the working board do not follow this safety measure. When an LNG is in port the commissioned pilots are compensated and are supposed to be available on short notice.
When a ship breaks away from a dock the crew may or may not have enough time to get the ships engines ready for maneuver. I have no knowledge if they did. The ship did travel across the Reserved channel and strike the Black Falcon Terminal dock 600 feet away from its mooring causing damage to both the dock and the ship. If another ship were moored at Black Falcon things would have been much worse. Tugs arrived on scene at some point and a Docking master boarded the ship. A Commissioned Massachusetts pilot should have been on the ship according to state law. I cannot confirm there was a state Commissioned pilot on the ship, but I do know a Docking master was onboard till the ship was safely anchored at sea. The Docking master acted in the best interest of the Port of Boston.
These ships are much larger than what the piers and channel are designed for. Improvements are being made but are not completed. If the cruise ship season was in full swing greater losses could have occurred. If the tugs were not able to respond a serious grounding could have occurred along any part of the waterfront including the airport. One airport runway is very close to the container terminal. As the channel deepens to allow these New Panamax vessels to come in with drafts reaching 50feet the challenges of navigating and moving commerce safely become greater. The width of the Reserved channel is permanently fixed. Any conditions less than ideal increase navigational and safety challenges. Wind and current speed impact these large vessels much more than the ships that were navigating Boston when these channels were originally designed.
What can be done to improve the situation for these vessels? Make sure the mooring arraignment is adequate to provide bollards that will not fail and mooring line leads that allow breast leads. Tugs that are available for immediate dispatch during periods of challenging weather. Many foreign ship masters are reluctant to order tugs because it is discouraged by the ship owner. The Pilot on turn should be in the pilot office. Many of the Commissioned pilots live an hour or more away from Boston. A pilot can assist the Master in a way that he/she will not draw criticism from the owners if tugs are ordered for standby. Massport usually stops cargo operations during periods of high winds and should continue to do so.
I will add to this blog when we learn more.
Part two, navigation challenges harbor pilots face while transiting in confined waters. Boston has its physical challenges: tides, currents, hard bottom and an unmarked channel split of 35 and 40 feet. Boston is a commercial port supporting international commerce, fishing, commercial harbor passengers and a growing recreational boating community. The challenges a pilot faces when interacting with all these elements are monumental. Summer weekends bring thousands of boaters on the waters. Power, sail, rowing, fishing, and sightseeing boats are all sharing the water. Many of these boaters have no idea about the Rules of the Road and how large commercial vessels navigate in confined waters. Many a danger signal can be heard along the waterfront on a busy recreational boating days.
There are many, but they are the minority, recreational boaters who have taken the time to learn Rules of the Road, sign up for a safe boating course or hire an experience trainer in order to responsibly operate a boat when meeting a large ship. However, I have experienced recreational boaters anchored in the federal channel. A blue hulled kayaker paddling across my bow I could not see until a flash of their paddle hit the sun. Many a sailing vessel coming dangerously close ignoring warning signals because they think they have the right of way. I can count on one hand how many times during my 18+ years of piloting ships that I hailed a boater and received a reply on my VHF radio. It’s a guessing game for a pilot. Does the boater see me? Is the boater underway? Has the boater lost propulsion? Are they becalmed? Do they know the rules of the road or understand the danger signal? The USCG years ago used to have a poster of a large ship bearing down on a small vessel warning recreational boats they do not have the right of way in a narrow channel and they could be wrong dead wrong. These were posted at the local marinas and were quite effective. Also, post 9/11 there is a significant increase in law enforcement assets (Boston Police, Environmental Police, USCG) on the harbor. They have become an important navigational tool for me while piloting. I am usually able to get a hold of one of them when I recognize a close quarters situation developing. In many instances, they are able to through a line and tow a vessel or divert the boater away from danger and take advantage of a learning opportunity for the boater.
Other challenges: loss of steering, loss of propulsion, loss of visibility, loss of instruments. These are all dynamic factors that can occur when making a transit.
Loss of steering can happen at any given moment. All ships have backup steering systems. Time is of the essence. Usually loss of steering can be rectified immediately with the second power system on all ships by a flick of a switch. If power is lost to both of the systems there is a manual override in the steering gear room but it takes time to utilize this system and time is not on your side in a confined waterway. Are there tugs available? Can I drop an anchor? Can I use the ships engines? Loss of steering is serious.
Loss of propulsion is another serious casualty that can occur. I remember one of our pilots reporting loss of propulsion during an inbound transit because the ship was on high suction for cooling and the intakes were clogged with ice. The tugs were already alongside the ship when his occurred and the pilot completed the transit safely after propulsion was restored. It is not unusual for the chief engineer to have the cooling water on high suction during a harbor transit as they don’t want to be sucking up any silt that is flying around caused by maneuvering. However, most ships operating in northern climates that experience ice formations in winter have intakes that are heated. This was not the case on this transit. Also, modern diesel propelled ships have air systems to control propulsion that can fail. If this happens the bridge team has to wait for air pressure to reach a performance level. In my opinion, a pilot experiencing loss of propulsion has more options than loss of steering. Rudder cycling and anchors can be utilized to slow the vessels headway and possibly find a safe place to anchor or steering the ship out of a danger area. Also, there may be tug assets around as well. Most ships calling on Boston utilize tugs for docking and may be available if needed.
Loss of visibility, the major impact is moving targets identified on RADAR or AIS that do not respond to VHF calls. All targets during times of reduced visibility are not in sight of one another. The rub is that most recreational boaters have a GPS but not a RADAR. The GPS gives them confidence they can get where they need to go but hearing a ships fog signal does not let them know where the ship is. Pilots assume the worst-case scenario: sailboat underway no RADAR no GPS. The pilot hopefully has established a good working bridge team and the pilot more than likely has their head buried in the RADAR making sure to avoid a collision while the bridge team is feeding him other important information from lookouts forward. Most boaters don’t want to be operating during periods of restricted visibility. Ship transits by themselves during reduced visibility in most areas of Boston Harbor are a non-issue. Some pilotage areas in Boston require near slack water and daylight transits with good visibility.
Loss of instruments: On modern ships it is not likely that a pilot would lose all instrumentation during a transit. Most pilots carry their own laptop charting and AIS interface program with them. Some are stand-alone units that operate independently from the ships data. Others rely on ships data through a pilot plug. Loss of any one piece of instrumentation has little impact on a safe transit. Loss of all instruments in restricted visibility would have a large impact on a safe transit. There is always a magnetic compass that is functioning.
Piloting vessels safely and moving commerce safely is a great responsibility. Piloting is dynamic and is changing constantly. A pilot must have multidimensional skill remain calm and choose the best course of action to avoid an event. As a pilot everything is moving, time, tide, currents, wind and targets. Try to make a mental picture of all the vectors in play when a ship transits through a waterway. A vehicle on a roadway has traffic signals and fixed objects to guide them and the road does not move. The best analogy I have heard has to do with an airplane. Most of us have been on a plane. The commercial pilot of a plane has a similar skillset as a harbor pilot. The commercial pilot of a plane has all the same weather factors but they do not have to land the plane on a moving runway and they can usually utilize a favorable wind approach for landings and take offs.
This post will address some of the challenges faced when having the conduct of a vessel in pilotage waters. Pilots traditionally board and depart vessels before entering or after departing restricted waterways. When a Harbor pilot climbs up the side of a ship on a ladder made of wooden steps and rope the pilot makes their way to the bridge of the ship to assume the conduct of the vessel from the Ships Master (Captain). There is a Master/Pilot exchange where the master informs the pilot about his/her vessel particulars and the pilot informs the Master about the transit and what to expect. When both professionals agree to proceed the master passes the conduct of the vessel to the Pilot. The Pilot works with the bridge team to ensure a safe transit. In my experience as long as you keep the bridge team engaged and include them as part of the transit they can be very helpful.
Here is what the pilot has in their quiver. Weather reports and their own experience with weather conditions. Tide and current information. Vessel traffic and planed movements in the harbor. Local knowledge of all navigational hazards, bridge openings, clearances and lock schedules. Knowledge of all courses and aids to navigation including their characteristics. Pilots are tested after training and learning the local waters. Pilot candidates draw a copy of the navigation chart from memory. There is no tolerance for error and a score of at least 90% must be achieved for a license to be issued. All this knowledge and testing is not enough. There is no substitute for experience and training with experienced pilots before assuming the conduct of a vessel on your own for the first time. State regulations require this in Massachusetts. Every Pilot candidate is required by regulation to train with every commissioned pilot. In part two I will discuss having to deviate from a normal transit.
Calling all applicants. The deadline is fast approaching for submitting application for two anticipated openings in Boston. It will be interesting to watch how this process unfolds. The pilot commissioners are a public body subject to Massachusetts open meeting rules Link here: OML Judge Robert Hallissey a former pilot commissioner in Boston established the pilot commissioners procedure to comply with OML. I am only aware of one pilot who has informed his intention of retiring. I can speak for myself and say I have no intension of retiring in the next ten years. I had one more question on age restrictions. There is no age restriction on the books. Past applicants age ranges are wide. I will not comment on the age of those selected but one can certainly request that public information from the commissioners themselves. The Pilot Commissioners are a public body in the eyes of Massachusetts law and one can request information that may be helpful such as number of ship movements, total receipts for pilotage, reports of pilot assignments, rotation and history. Happy to answer any question as the process continues.
The arrival of the tall ships in Boston will feature the first parade of sail since 2000. The tall ships were last here in 2009 with no parade of sail. The challenges of moving these majestic ships and keeping the city safe have changed considerably. Ships and crews from all over the world will be experiencing our city and culture. Enjoy the experience, be safe and follow the rules of the road.
The Reserved channel in South Boston is not growing in size but it is about to grow in depth and vessel congestion. With the funding now in place for the navigation improvement project to begin, the challenge of safely navigating ships calling on two terminals within the Reserved channel in South Boston is about to become a reality. With a channel width of approximately 600ft the margin of safety is about to change when New Panamax vessels start to arrive on a regular basis. Conley terminal will be capable of accepting New Panamax 160ft beam container vessels. One can only assume New Panamax Passenger vessels are soon to follow. Today the ships berthing regularly in the Reserved channel are 106ft Beam. The cranes at Conley extend father into the Reserved channel to 135ft. The new cranes that will be built to accommodate the New Panamax beam ships will reach out 170ft. When the cruise ship season is in full swing there are times when three ship widths decrease the navigable channel to 25% and less in inclement weather. To say that maneuvering ships safely in the New Panamax era will be a challenge is an understatement. Tugs in the Reserved channel may become a regular occurrence for those cruise ships who normally do not want to utilize a tug. Most cruise ships have their own thrusters but when winds increase and the size of vessels increase the navigable channel will not accommodate a crab angle great enough to safely maneuver without Z-Drive tugs tethered to a ship.
Furthermore, the commercial strain on the working port of Boston is real. Waterfront development along Boston harbor is at a premium for real estate developers trying to find ways to develop on land designated for Marine Industrial use. Also, the third harbor tunnel (Ted Williams) has forever constricted dredging the upper harbor to 40 feet. This leaves everything south and east of the tunnel (South Boston) the only area that can accommodate a New Panamax vessel. With the loss of virtually all the deep-water ship berth space to real estate development in East Boston there is little left in the Port of Boston for ships to bring in new business. Also, the loss of rail and double stacking to the berths forces Massport customers to rely on a trucking corridor to the Alston rail yards.
The long awaited Boston Harbor improvement project has appeared to receive final funding from congress this week. Link here. What does this mean for Boston? The most significant impact is the Conley container terminal in South Boston will be able to accept the new New-Panamax vessels calling on other ports on the eastern seaboard. Project details link here. Massport also has plans to expand Conley terminal with new cranes on to be developed property along the Reserved Channel. Conley Container Terminal Expansion link here.
Mariners are subject to alcohol and drug testing by Federal and State regulations. What happens if these procedures are not properly observed and those in charge of the pilot associations D&A program fail to inform or adhere to the regulations? What happens when a boat Captain fails to report the smell of alcoholic beverage emanating from a member or colleague? There currently is nothing to prevent a coverup of drug and alcohol abuse outside of a random drug and alcohol test order. Those in charge of the D&A policy enforcement are often an employee or fellow association member. What if a member has a previous conviction or has a history of drug or alcohol abuse? What about an arrest for driving under the influence? Many courts allow DUI's to be expunged after a period of time. What happens when a pilot conceals such an event?
These are questions that exist but they are also questions that need to be addressed to ensure those commissioned to guide ships under the public interests are sober while on duty and act responsible when they are not behind the wheel of a car. Is it time to place an alco-sensor on every pilot boat? Should there be penalties for failing to report a past event? What happens to individuals or those in charge of a D&A policy are discovered to cover up an event past or present? Would the public feel safe knowing a member has a Drug or Alcohol problem has acted under the authority of there license?
It's time to take the potential or existing abuse away from those who can or actually do circumvent D&A regulations. Would you as a public member be comfortable allowing a trainee or currently licensed member who has or has had a documented event in there past to take the conduct if a ship? Should a candidate with a clear record be passed over by one who has a past DUI or conviction? What if the applicant becomes a member and it is later discovered a DUI was not reported? Should this constitute and automatic suspension and revocation?
Is it perfect? No
Could it be better? Yes, In my opinion all the best and brightest should be able to apply not just Massachusetts residents. The rules also exclude a lot of professional mariners who would qualify in other ports in the US.
What is not known about cost? You will not be making Masters wages. You will be working a lot more for less money than the currently commissioned pilots after you start piloting on your own. The Boston Harbor Pilot Association LLC has control of all money,billing and the books. Not even a retired pilot has any idea if they are receiving their full retirement share they are entitled to receive.
Does nepotism exist? There are currently two brothers who are commissioned pilots and one son of a former Boston Pilot.
What is the demographic of commissioned pilots. All are Massachusetts residents. 8 of 9 commissioned pilots are Massachusetts Maritime Academy Graduates. 7 out of 9 are members of the Boston Marine society.
Is there gender or ethnic bias? All currently commissioned pilots in Boston are Caucasian and male.
What is the business structure? There are three companies Boston Harbor Pilot LLC, Broad Sound Navigation Corporation, and the Boston Pilot Relief Society. The LLC is where the money flows. BSN owns the pilot boat the LLC pays rent to and it shareholders benefit from the rentals as well. The BPRS is used for those in need. The commissioned pilots receive money from the LLC and BSN. The retired pilots are supposed to receive 20% of a pilots share after 20 years of service.
How does it all work and function? The Boston Pilot office is contacted by the owner or owners agent for all arrivals and departures. Pilots take a rotation turn as jobs come in. It is required by state law that pilots be in rotation in order to perform their fare share of work. Link to Boston Pilot Commissioners Regulations
How much does a Boston Harbor Pilot earn? A fully commissioned Boston harbor pilot earns in the neighborhood of $500,000/year.
Do retired pilots receive benefits? Yes, When leaving a retired pilot is supposed to receive 20% of all monthly profits. Also, The retired pilot receives a departure good will bonus of a formula of the average of the last three years total compensation multiplied by 1.5. Also, three months pay after leaving is paid to the retired pilot.
Does the Commonwealth of Massachusetts charge for pilotage service? No, The pilots are the only entity who bill for pilotage service. The Boston Marine Society receives %2 link here
How does the money flow? The LLC does all the billing and receives all the funds. Broad Sound Navigation receives rent from the LLC and disperses on a quarterly bases to the shareholders only. Boston Pilot Relief Society is self sufficient and receives yearly benefit from a trust.
So, you have made it through the initial qualification process. Your application to the pilot commissioners has been placed in the qualified pile with other applicants. Next is the interview process. The commissioners have their interviews in an open public meeting. The Commissioned Boston Harbor Pilots should reach out to also. If you do not here from BHPA, I would reach out to the office. Contact info: 617-569-4500 office. The Principle contact is Richard Stover. There are currently nine Commissioned pilots for Boston harbor.
The committee will ask questions about your work history etc. My advice is to ask a lot of questions. Ask to go for a ride on a ship and observe. See if it is right for you. Also, ask about the pilot structure. Find out about compensation while training. If you are not financially ready to take a hit for your first few years you may want to consider other options. The most important piece of advice I can give is do not sign anything financially. Pilots cannot sell their commissions. There are other options just ask me.
The Commissioned pilots in Boston have three operating companies. The Boston Harbor Pilot Association LLC, Broad Sound Navigation Corporation and the Boston Pilots Relief Society. To date every commissioned pilot is a member or shareholder of each entity. BHPA is an LLC and all commissioned pilots are members. BSN corp. owns the Pilot Boats and the pilots are each a shareholder. BPRS is a benevolent corporation to provide relief in time of need. I will answer more questions on the next post.