Playing a supporting role

ABP's refit of the Beaufort could extend its service life by 10 years. Credit: ABP
ABP's refit of the Beaufort could extend its service life by 10 years. Credit: ABP
Alan Goodchild, managing director of Goodchild Marine, and PLA chief executive Robin Mortimer celebrate the order of a hybrid pilot boat. Credit: Port of London Authority
Alan Goodchild, managing director of Goodchild Marine, and PLA chief executive Robin Mortimer celebrate the order of a hybrid pilot boat. Credit: Port of London Authority
ESL's ORC 171 could save the company up to £100,000 in reduced fuel costs per vessel per year. Credit: Goodchild Marine
ESL's ORC 171 could save the company up to £100,000 in reduced fuel costs per vessel per year. Credit: Goodchild Marine

Revamped and refitted pilot vessels offer a means of ‘greening’ port operations. Alex Hughes reports on the options available

In many parts of the world, there is an inexorable drive to make ports greener. Not only is shore-side machinery becoming ever-more efficient, quieter and less polluting, but vessels, too, are benefiting from initiatives such as cold ironing to keep emissions down to an absolute minimum.

Now, for the first time in the UK, a battery-powered pilot vessel has begun trials, courtesy of a co-operation between the Port of London Authority (PLA) and vessel designer and builder Goodchild Marine.

The company's business development manager Tony Birr notes that while many companies have offered hybrid power systems for pilot vessels, many have been little more than theoretical designs. However, in April 2019 Leader, an ORC 136 design, built by Goodchild Marine and featuring a hybrid diesel and electric power system, took to the water to undertake proving trials on behalf of PLA. An official handover is expected to take place in early June.

According to Mr Birr, it will probably operate under electric power for at least 85% of its duty cycle, although it’s expected to operate at 100% electric power for the majority of its work. Leader is expected to reach speeds of up to 15 knots under hybrid power and will be primarily used by the PLA for the transfer of pilots to and from vessels at Gravesend Reach.

“Only on some of the infrequent, longer journeys will the new hybrid boat have to resort to diesel power,” Mr Birr says, conceding that the hybrid option has meant having to make compromises in terms of both range and speed, which will mean that it will not suit every port. “This compromise of speed may be too great for these longer duty cycles with current battery technology,” he adds.

The order for the hybrid boat was placed as part of PLA's commitment to promote the adoption of new, greener technology as part of its recently published Air Quality Strategy for the Tidal Thames, which is the first of its kind for any UK port. The strategy aims to reduce river-based air pollution, while facilitating future growth of waterborne freight and passenger transport.

Horses for courses

Hybrid vessels are said to be best when there is a short distance between the harbour entrance and the pilot embarkation/disembarkation point, and/or long periods of patrol work at below eight knots, Mr Birr says. Ports with this type of duty cycle tend to be smaller and therefore cannot justify the extra cost of a hybrid, since this would not make financial sense. Larger ports, which have high pilot vessel usage, also tend to have pilot transfers in excess of 20 miles per round trip, also negating the benefits of hybrid.

For some ports, therefore, this means that the disadvantages of hybrid power outweigh the advantages, but “only a detailed analysis of the duty cycle of a port's pilot vessel will clearly identify the potential benefits of hybrid”, says Mr Birr. “Clearly, when the vessel is operating in electric mode, emissions are zero, thus reducing carbon footprint and fuel burn while increasing service intervals on the engines. Naturally, electric motors potentially increase the life span of the engines, too,” he says. However, the faster the boat goes, the more battery capacity it uses.

Nevertheless, there are other vessel designs that pilot boat operators can trial for other benefits.

For guidance, Mr Birr cites operational data generated by pilot vessels operated by Estuary Services Ltd (ESL), which undertakes some of the busiest pilot services in the UK. Its fleet consists of the 48/50 Halmatic design – whose oldest units entered service in 1992 – and brand new ORC vessels, which were built by Goodchild Marine and began arriving in 2012.

In comparison, the ORC 171 is 27% faster than the Halmatic units, has 38%-42% better fuel economy and is 20% more efficient in terms of pilot duties per run.

For ESL, this means a £100,000 fuel saving per vessel per year when comparing an ORC171 to a similar sized vessel. Furthermore, thanks to the wave piercing bow of the ORC design, there is a reduced risk of wave impact damage, while other innovations mean that maintenance periods are minimised, allowing vessels to work for longer.

As a result of its lower fuel burn, the standard ORC is also a much greener option.

“Due to the overall design features of the ORC, noise levels are significantly reduced, with our last vessel commissioned measuring 65 decibels. Furthermore, with a legal requirement to mitigate against whole body vibration, the ORC design, with its wave piercing beak bow cutting through the waves, reduces slamming and thus sudden large impact on the vessel and the body,” says Mr Birr.

So impressed has ESL been with the new ORC design that it is to phase out all its Nelson 48/50s within the next two years, replacing them all with ORCs. The Port of Southampton, for its part, took delivery of its first ORC pilot vessel in 2003, while the Humber was the last, putting its ORCs into service in 2011. However, ORCs have established a proven track record as pilot vessels in the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea.

Improving resilience

Other new innovations for pilot vessels include improved pilot safety through upgraded recovery platforms as well as more resilient, mounted wheelhouses, which are being incorporated to reduce vibration. Reduced emissions Tier 3 engines are also now coming into the marine sector market.

New technology is also seeing the fitting of monitoring systems to enable early identification of faults and also to track vessel usage; this comes in a whole variety of options from online live feed to a simple data download.

“Navigational equipment is also constantly evolving,” adds Mr Birr.

Of course, not all pilot vessel operators can afford to buy new, but this need not keep them from benefiting from upgrades. Pilot boats tend to remain in service for 20-25 years, although one vessel built by the company has been operating out of the Port of Great Yarmouth for 38 years.

“Without exception, I would say all pilot boats go through one or more refits during their time in service. The regularity and the level of refit depends on how many hours the vessel has worked,” says Mr Birr.

Take the case of the Port of London Authority (PLA), which has considerable experience in this sector. Not only does it operate a pilot boat service on the River Thames at Gravesend, it also owns ESL in partnership with the Port of Sheerness, providing a boarding and landing service for pilots joining and leaving ships operating in ports on both the Thames and Medway rivers. Furthermore, fast pilot launches based at Ramsgate and Sheerness also serve ships at the N.E. Spit Buoy, Margate Roads Anchorage, and the Warps/Oaze Deep as well as the Anchorages at Southend and the Great Nore.

Ian Lord, general manager of ESL, agrees that pilot vessels usually remain in service for a minimum of 20 years, although many continue on to their 25th or even 35th year. Given this, vessel refits are common, with ESL carrying these out on each vessel every five years.

“It should be pointed out that ESL's operating area is a particularly arduous one and the boats consequently require a high level of maintenance. Regular refits are therefore part of that process to ensure continuity of service,” says Mr Lord. However, he stresses that refits are not carried out to improve things like energy efficiency – they are primarily to ensure reliability and service continuity and to make sure vessels have a long working life. However, if efficiency and/or environmental improvements can be made during a refit they are always considered.

As to whether it is cheaper to refit an existing boat rather than buy new, Mr Birr says that is the question that every operator and finance director asks themselves every time they consider a refit.

“Much of their decision making will depend on available capital budgets compared to operating budgets, and not whether it is cheaper to buy new or refit,” he says, adding that the final calculation will take many factors into consideration, include historic use and future projections.

“Advances in design and technology mean that our modern vessels are more efficient; however, whether they warrant the expenditure has to be looked at on a case by case basis,” he says.

Innovation by design

Other than hybrid power systems – which the PLA thinks could well become a regular feature on future orders – other innovations in the pipeline are looking at new hull forms and low friction below the water line coatings. Significantly, because pilot vessels are usually bespoke and expected to remain in service for a long time, operators are usually cautious in their hull choices.

“Seminal pilot vessel hull designs are rare, and criteria are governed by operational requirements,” Mr Lord says. “Consequently, design improvements tend to be more in the equipment field, rather than hulls,” he says.

He adds that each port around the UK will have differing requirements. For example, pilotage runs may be longer or shorter, and prevailing weather and sea conditions will differ from port to port.

“So, there is no ‘one-size fits all’ solution for a pilot boat. What works for PLA or ESL, may not work elsewhere and so on,” he says.


ABP's Beaufort is a good example of a mid-life refit of a pilot vessel. It was initially built for the Swansea Pilotage District by Halmatic, in 2001, and had an expected service life of 25 years. However, according to Dan Brown, marine maintenance manager for ABP South Wales, the company is aiming to extend this for a further ten years, meaning it will remain in active service in South Wales for approximately a further 15 years.

“She may then go into standby boat duty or even to one of our other smaller ports where she may have a further useful operational life,” he says.

Mid-life rebuilds are fairly common at ABP. Most pilot vessels at the larger ports are routinely refitted half way through their life. For example, ABP South Wales refitted its Providence in 2015 and ABP Southampton, which leases its pilot vessel, has also used a mid-life refit to extend the working life of its boat.

“We have now completed major refits for our South Wales fleet and, as a result, have pushed the need to acquire a new build out beyond the present five-year capital expenditure plan,” says Mr Brown.

He explains that the refit cost for the Beaufort was just 20%-25% that of a new build like-for-like replacement vessel. Furthermore, he adds that the Beaufort is well proven and has a good history of safe operation in South Wales, which is another good reason to hang onto it for as long as possible.

“As part of the refit, we were able to install more fuel-efficient power units, which should result in a 5%-10% reduction in fuel costs going forward,” he adds, which helps drives the overall return on investment.

During the refit, a new hybrid power system was installed which powers the 240V systems at sea. In total, the vessel has been fitted with two generators, one of which needs to run permanently when the boat is on active duties. The current hybrid system is powered by 2.5kw alternators, which run the main engines. These charge a battery bank, which powers a pair of 5kw inverters to provide power to the critical systems whilst the vessel is at sea.

“In addition to the power upgrade, we also opted to update the man-overboard recovery system during the refit. This involved fitting a Goodchild marine system, which is both proven and is also the leading solution within the industry,” says Mr Brown.


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