Maritime Safety Blog
Marine Navigation Safety harbor pilot
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.