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An essential public service

Date: 30/07/2019

“The channel is known only to the natives; so that if any stranger should enter into the bay without one of their pilots he would run great danger of shipwreck,” wrote Thomas More. 

Although the world that More described no longer exists, pilots with local knowledge have been employed on board ships for centuries to guide vessels into or out of port safely or wherever navigation may be considered hazardous, particularly when a shipmaster is unfamiliar with the area. 

The importance of employing qualified pilots in approaches to ports and other areas where specialised local knowledge is required was formally recognised by the International Maritime Organisation in 1968, when resolution A.159 (ES.IV) Recommendation on Pilotage was adopted.

Maltese seafarers have always had a reputation of being skilled mariners throughout the Mediterranean. With the arrival of the Knights of the Order of Saint John, their expertise in piloting vessels in the waters of the Mediterranean was in great demand. Maltese pilots employed on galleys were held in high esteem, especially when the Order’s galley squadron was operating near the North African coasts which always presented certain navigational challenges. 

Maritime traffic increased when the island became a dominion of the British, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Grand Harbour and Marsamxett developed into important commercial and naval harbours. The British fleet and its dockyard employed their own pilots, while Maltese pilots organised themselves to give their service to commercial vessels. 

In the beginning, civilian harbour pilots did not require any qualifications to achieve a pilot’s licence and the pilot’s job was handed down from father to son, granted on a closed-shop basis. Gradually, regulations were introduced to make the pilotage service a professional one culminating in the Maritime Pilotage Regulations of 2003. These regulations require that a pilot is qualified with the appropriate maritime certificate of competency that includes a considerable amount of sea service. 

In March 2003, Malta Maritime Pilots was established as a cooperative, gathering within its fold the existing licensed pilots. It was contracted by the authorities as the service provider under the Maritime Pilotage Regulations and provides efficient pilotage services to the two main ports of Malta – Grand Harbour and the port of Marsaxlokk, as well as two smaller ones of Marsamxett and Mġarr in Gozo.

Most vessels are obliged by law to engage the services of a local maritime pilot and our legislation prescribes which ports where pilotage is compulsory: Grand Harbour, Marsamxett Harbour, Marsaxlokk Harbour and Mġarr, Gozo.

Unesco describes the city of Valletta as “located on a hilly peninsula between two of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean”. These harbours have been instrumental for Malta’s economic growth and remain so today. Grand Harbour contains an interesting mix of facilities that make this port unique: wharves that accommodate cargo ships, cruise liners and yachts; ship repair facilities as well as the historical and urban surroundings that are so important to tourism. 

The port of Marsaxlokk has a different kind of environment, with the Malta Freeport container terminal dominating shipping activity. Other facilities include the various oil tanker berths, jetties and installations that include the floating gas storage tanker at Delimara. The port of Marsaxlokk is not only home to the container terminal but also provides a haven to our fishing industry while Marsaxlokk is a tourist attraction in its own right.

Maritime pilots possess highly developed ship-handling skills necessary with different ship types and sizes, as well as the communications knowledge necessary to work with local services such as tugs and linesmen. Being a pilot is also a physically demanding role, in that they are required to board moving vessels from small launches, often in rough seas and can involve climbing high ladders to access the ship’s decks.

A typical pilotage service commences with the vessel arriving at a predetermined position off the port where the vessel is scheduled to enter. The pilot, aboard a pilot boat – which is a type of craft with special features that facilitates the transfer of persons – embarks on the inbound ship via a pilot ladder rigged on one side. A pilot ladder in its simplest form is a ladder with wooden steps and natural fibre rope sides and is used to climb to the ship’s deck up to a height of nine metres. In excess of this height a different arrangement is used. 

This is the physical aspect of the pilot’s job and it goes without saying that a pilot needs to be fit to be able to do this repeatedly. When embarking or disembarking in calm weather conditions this might seem straightforward, but it is more challenging in heavy wind and seas, where there is certainly an element of risk. In conditions where transfer to or from a ship could be dangerous, the pilot carries out a risk assessment whether to proceed with the service. Once aboard, more often than not, an ascent using stairs up to seven or eight floors ensues, arriving finally on the bridge of the vessel to be piloted.

Maritime pilots possess highly developed ship-handling skills

The pilot is the first person that the ship’s master and crew encounter when entering a port and here the pilot’s personal and social skills come into play with the principal aim of carrying out the service in a professional and safe manner. Good communication skills are necessary as ships’ crews are nowadays for the most part multinational and multicultural, with English as the common language. When the pilot arrives on the bridge, he is considered, at this point, to be part of the ship’s bridge team. 

It is obvious that the ship’s master cannot be expected to be conversant with the special navigational and regulatory requirements of our ports and it is the pilot that provides this critical independent local knowledge and navigational information to the vessel. However, it should be stressed that the ship’s captain remains in command of his vessel at all times.

Conducting a ship in or out of port and then manoeuvring alongside or sailing from a berth – with or without the use of assisting tugboats – is one of the core skills that a pilot is endowed with. He needs to know all he can about the vessel’s characteristics and in return the ship’s master requires information about the port and other related issues. 

To facilitate a safe manoeuvre an exchange of information, known as the master/pilot exchange (MPX) is essential. The pilot must then consider not only the manoeuvring characteristics and special features of the vessel but also environmental factors – wind, sea, swell and at times even visibility. 

So how does one become a pilot?

The best route into the pilotage profession is through acquiring the appropriate maritime qualifications and seagoing experience, preferably in command of an ocean-going vessel. A pilot’s career starts off with more hands-on training and mentoring from qualified and experienced colleagues supplemented by simulator training. Before his first licence is issued he would have completed an intensive training programme entailing hundreds of different moves. After about five years, the authorities would require proof of cumulative experience as well as satisfying a final assessment before issuing him with an unlimited licence. This enables the pilot to handle all types and sizes of ships.

This account describes, in part, only one aspect of the role of the pilot. Besides providing an essential and unique service to the shipping industry, pilots also provide a critical public service. 

In a speech given at an international gathering for pilots in 2015, Captain Simon Pelletier, president of the International Maritime Pilots Association, succinctly put this public service obligation into words: “My primary responsibility as a pilot is to protect the interests of the State that licensed me, which really means to protect the interests of the citizens of that State. The principal customer of my services is not the ship or the shipowner or even a port but, truly, the general public. Pilots are mandated to act in the public interest. This is the fundamental reason why we exist.”

The European Union has recognised that pilotage is an essential public service and in the Port Services regulations published in March 2017 reinforced this principle by stating that pilotage should not be subject to competition and market forces. 

In reality pilotage is not just about manoeuvring vessels but safeguarding the environment, safety of life and protection of the port infrastructure.

By Capt. Jesmond Mifsud, Chief Pilot, Malta Maritime Pilots

Source: Times of Malta

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