When I was thinking about leaving the deep-sea life, I thought about becoming a pilot. This was not as easy as it might appear, as vacancies seemed few and far between and newcomers had to spend an awful long time learning the trade and earning no money while doing it, in most pilotage districts with which I was familiar.
A couple of factors put me off. It seemed to me that all the pilots I knew seemed to spend half their lives in trains. But more importantly, I genuinely wondered about whether I could hack the job. Did I have the spatial awareness? The sixth sense-like ability to tell if the tide has cut in early when coming off the berth, and realising before anyone else that the helmsman, who speaks no known language, has put the wheel the wrong way?
I found something else to do with my life, and pilotage probably had a narrow escape.
But over the years I have sometimes reflected that, if I had become a pilot, I could well have developed something of a persecution complex in the endless efforts made by shipowners to either avoid taking pilots or to pay them as little as possible. If you want to make a shipowner lose his urbane manner, just say the two words “compulsory pilotage” and watch him seethe. In some parts of the world, “light dues” will have the same Pavlovian effect, but the pilotage conversation topic might be considered universal.
It is something I have never understood, having been brought up to believe that pilots were put on earth primarily as a maritime safety measure. Why would any sane person begrudge them their existence? Over the years I have spent quite a lot of time with pilots, watching them at work. As a result, I can be counted on to become quite rude when some dim shore-side operating person says something like – “why do we need a pilot – we have a master, don’t we”?
The same sort of clown will tell you that quite a lot of ships have accidents with pilots embarked, to which the correct answer is that few groundings occur in the middle of the ocean. You can almost watch their minds working as they try and figure that one out. But pilotage is important, and, probably because of the economic downturn, currently under attack from those who grudge every cent a pilot earns.
A current line of attack suggests that with brilliant communications and the facility of AIS, a pilot aboard each ship is extravagant. Just like air traffic control, an operator in a VTS tower could simultaneously direct half a dozen ships. This is a great, money-saving idea in theory, but nonsense on stilts in practice. The VTS operator, whatever his or her communication skills, is unable to know what on earth is really going on in the wheelhouse of an arriving ship.
The “bridge team” is probably composed of one spaced out shipmaster who has been awake for thirty hours and is being shouted at over his mobile by the charterer while sorting out the arrival paperwork. There may or may not be a helmsman who knows how to steer, while nobody has bothered to clear away the anchors or called the hands for stations. The VTS operator, listening to some confusing shouts and grunts over the VHF, is unlikely to make much sense of the situation, and there can be no substitute for an injection of expertise in the shape of an embarked pilot.
Some years ago, at my nearest port, the pilot boat was off the port for the arrival of a short sea ship, which failed to slow down and was heading straight for the breakwater. The pilot boat went alongside and the pilot leaped onto the foredeck and sprinted to the bridge where he found the master fast asleep in his chair, and no other soul aboard the ship awake. That’s instructive.
Pilots are important, and I think you can argue that in the history of shipping they have never been more important. There never has been a time when ships’ crews have been so stretched, so few in number, and run with such desperate intensity. Delays, for whatever good navigational reason, will occasion screams from charterers who think that ships run on rails, like trams. The pilot can take a lot of the weight off the over-stretched master at the most crucial time in the voyage.
The pilot is important because there never has been a time when there has been such intolerance of maritime accident, and the presence of the pilot can be one very useful item of insurance against this happening. Sure, pilots can make mistakes, but they can also stop an enormous number of mistakes happening. By definition, they will be experienced people with a lot of local knowledge.
But none of this will stop shipowners from grudging their pilotage dues, believing that if they are forced to take pilots, they should be paid about the same as the linesman. They want to see pilotage commercialised with competition forcing the prices down. My answer to this is that pilots are as essential to safety as the bollards on the quay, and you wouldn’t want competition for those.