Patchwork quilt leaves pilotage holes

Pilots are an integral part of the bridge team. Credit: lotsemann, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Pilots are an integral part of the bridge team. Credit: lotsemann, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Pilot have expert knowledge of their waters. Credit: 12019, Pixabay, CC0
Pilot have expert knowledge of their waters. Credit: 12019, Pixabay, CC0
It's in a port's own interests to have a skilled pilot available. Credit: Assy, Pizabay, CC0
It's in a port's own interests to have a skilled pilot available. Credit: Assy, Pizabay, CC0

The UK’s unusual port ownership structure has left pilots out on a limb, finds Alex Hughes.

A mix of models and a lack of clear standards in the UK has left pilotage in “a bit of a mess” at times, according to United Kingdom Maritime Pilots' Association (UKMPA) secretary general Captain Don Cockrill.

Back in 1987, Trinity House lost its role as the UK national pilotage authority through the enactment of the Pilotage Act which devolved responsibility to “competent harbour authorities”. While this devolved nature does “more or less work”, it can sometimes appear piecemeal and lacking standardisation.

Capt Cockrill commented: “Significantly, no other country that I'm aware of has adopted the UK model. However, while other countries run pilotage in different ways, not all of those are perfect either.”

Ownership of UK ports is also more complicated than in most other countries. Today, there are three types of port authority. None are owned directly by the state, although there are government trust ports, such as London and Dover. Then there are private ports, which can be single independent ports, or ports groups, such as Associated British Ports or Peel Ports. Finally, there are municipal ports, where the port is run by a local council, as is the case with Whitstable and Ramsgate, in Kent.

This range of ownership models means there is a lack of uniform pilotage standards across UK ports, but also results in differing ways of employing pilots.

Around 125 ports now offer some sort of pilotage provision. Large ports may employ in excess of 100 pilots, while some only employ one, the latter often working part-time or in a dual/multi-functional role.

In the Port of London, for example, pilots are directly employed on a salary basis. In other parts of the country pilots are independent (self-employed), and invariably work as part of a pilots' co-operative, providing contractual services to each port, which is what happens in Liverpool or Bristol.

Regulation confusion

However, it’s the regulatory part of the UK Pilotage Act that many overseas ports find difficult to understand.

The 1987 Act set out a series of standards that ports are encouraged to abide by, while IMO resolution A960, which dates from 2003, also gives recommendations regarding the methodology of training, recruitment and operation of pilotage services, on a worldwide basis. Since the Act was passed, each UK port has overseen its own pilotage regime that covers everything, including recruitment, training, employment and discipline.

“Government, by its own admission, effectively retains no power to intervene if a pilotage organisation is operating in a less than satisfactory way; the system is essentially self-regulating,” says Capt Cockrill.

Ports in the UK now work under the non-obligatory Port Marine Safety Code on a self-regulatory basis with no actual enforcement. However, ports are expected by inference to comply and can face official sanctions if they don't. There are inspections (“health visits”) by the UK’s Marine and Coastguard Agency, but that doesn't include every port every year. Furthermore, different ports have different ways of assessing how they see themselves complying.

“[Despite everything], it's not a bad system, but does have its issues and these can impact negatively on pilotage,” says Capt Cockrill.

Pilot recognition

One of Capt Cockrill's biggest concerns remains the manner in which some ports fail to understand what pilotage actually involves. This is not a problem in major ports, but senior management in some minor ports simply fail to grasp what the pilot's role is.

“They do not understand that the pilot is not simply an adviser to the master; a pilot in the UK is obliged by law to take what is described as 'the conduct of the navigation of the ship'. The captain remains in command, but the navigation of the ship is under the direct control of the pilot.”

Because of this lack of basic knowledge, some port authorities don't believe they need pilots that are highly skilled to be able to handle the ship during manoeuvring. However, as Capt Cockrill points out, UK pilots aren't just there to navigate the ship, but also to oversee health and safety, security and report observed defects.

“If a vessel collides with a berth because of poor pilotage, often the berth is put out of action and the port loses revenue, so it's in a port's own interests to have a skilled pilot available,” he says.

It used to be that serving pilots were formerly ship masters, although that is no longer necessarily the case today. Ideally, most ports do still want pilots that hold a master mariner’s qualification.

“However, some competent harbour authorities will employ anybody who has been an officer on board ship, not just a former captain or first officer. Indeed, there are other authorities that have even recruited pilots holding a powerboat certificate,” he says.

Question of role

However, the exact role the pilot fulfils in a particular port determines what level of pilot is needed. In the Port of London, for example, the pilot spends a lot of time on board vessel, so it makes sense for a pilot to be highly familiar with how vessels operate, and also be able to relate to the ship's captain and first officer.

In much smaller ports, it is arguable that the bar can possibly be set somewhat lower; if someone can demonstrate an aptitude for the task, they can be taught how to be a pilot, suggests Capt Cockrill.

“Bringing a vessel into a small, enclosed harbour has its own peculiar challenges that don't necessarily require the skills of a deep sea ship's captain,” he says.

Another area where devolved pilotage responsibility can give cause for concern is in the field of continual professional development. As vessel sizes grow, it is vital that pilots keep abreast of the technology involved.

“The information is available, but it often comes down to the employer understanding that extra training needs to happen. All pilots also need to understand that they have responsibility for their own continual professional development process,” he says, adding that some ports are better than others at helping to provide this.

Accident zone

In spite of the changes to pilotage in the UK, there appears to have been no overall increase in accidents, although Capt Cockrill insists that, overall, pilotage remains a physically dangerous profession, wherever it is carried out.

The most obvious danger is that of getting on and off a ship. For this reason, some very comprehensive international regulations and operational codes exist governing the rigging and construction of pilot ladders, boarding arrangements and pilot boats. These also cover the equipment the pilot wears, such as life-jackets.

“It's very difficult to get statistics globally, but a handful of pilots are still lost each year during the boarding and disembarking process,” he says.

In fact, while vessel sizes have grown, access techniques have changed very little. Ideally, says Capt Cockrill, pilots would prefer to use a side door set low down on the vessel that can be accessed via a short ladder. In reality, pilots are faced with a climb of six to seven metres on the pilot ladder, after which, on larger ships, they have to transfer to the accommodation ladder staircase. A climb of at least 15 metres.

Despite these increasing challenges in boarding and disembarking larger ships, incidents are more frequent on 'normal' sized vessels and there are various reasons for this.

Firstly, there might be incorrect rigging of the gear or incorrect maintenance of it. Ship owners may have unwittingly bought and installed imitation or pirated products, which have an accompanying forged certificate stating that they have been built to the correct standards.

Secondly, from time to time the side-ropes of a ladder might give way under load. Lastly, there may be training issues with the crew on the correct way to rig ladders and supervise transfer operations.


While the pilotage industry is a traditional one, steeped in history, there have been innovations to improve the boarding and disembarkation experience of these hardy individuals.

There has been an increasing use of helicopters worldwide, particularly on larger ships, to put pilots on board and later extract them. In the UK, this is only used at Sullom Voe, when very large tankers need to berth in inclement weather conditions.

Additionally, a recent Lloyd's Register Foundation and Royal College of Art joint-venture competition looked at alternative ways of transferring and recovering pilots. One of the two winners was a 3D printed polymer pilot ladder, which has an extremely light structure and doesn't require straps to stop it twisting. However, it wouldn't comply with current pilot ladder legislation.

The other winner was a patented method of securing a pilot ladder. Securing ladders is a big issue; the traditional method is to lash the side ropes to a specific point on the deck. But the deterioration of seamanship skills among ships' crews means that many weird and wonderful techniques have evolved to do this.

“What you need is to secure the ladder using the load-bearing side-ropes of the ladder, not the steps or spreaders. The innovative award-winning design provides a foolproof way of securing a ladder in the appropriate manner by clamping the side ropes. It has now been further developed by a company working with the original designers,” says Capt Cockrill.


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