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Piloting an ultra large container ship

Date: 25/10/2018

Maritime pilot Terence Farrugia explains what it takes to enter an ultra large container ship into harbour.

In recent years, ultra large container ships have become regular visitors to Malta Freeport Terminals at the Marsaxlokk port. Ultra large container ships are those vessels that can carry more than 14,500 20-foot containers and are typically more than 360 metres long. Almost two ships of this size call the port of Marsaxlokk every single day. They deliver cargo to our port which is then transhipped to various other ports around the Mediterranean.

So what does it take for a ship longer than three football grounds to enter harbour?

Almost all vessels entering our ports are required by law to employ the services of a maritime pilot. A special boat, carrying a white and red flag and bearing the marks of the pilot can be seen leaving harbour to meet these vessels at a pre-defined rendezvous position marked on the chart as the pilot station. At this point a maritime pilot boards the vessel via a pilot ladder rigged on the lee side of the vessel, the side which is most sheltered from the prevailing winds and is escorted to the navigation bridge to meet with the Ship’s Master and the rest of the bridge team.

The function of the pilot on board the vessel is to provide information and advice to the master of the ship, as well as to assist the master and the ship’s navigating officers to make safe passage through the pilotage area.

Together with the bridge team, the pilot will discuss the master/pilot exchange during which the manoeuvring characteristics of the vessel and the planned manoeuvre are discussed in detail. A manoeuvre is a movement or series of moves requiring skill and care that will bring the vessel to its berth or once ready to leave harbour, to depart its berth.

These manoeuvres are not standard, nor off-the-shelf. They are unique to each situation, depending on factors such as the type and size of the vessel, the weather conditions – wind, current, sea wave, visibility, the traffic in the port area as well as other generic activity that could affect operations. These ultra large container ships are so big that they occupy as much space as three normal sized container vessels once alongside. The dimensions and weight of these ultra large vessels definitely requires a more modern approach for the manoeuvre to be safely carried out.

When it was anticipated that these vessels will start visiting our shores, a port safety study was carried out between the pilots and the transport authorities, where the feasibility of the proposed manoeuvres was tested in detail for the predominant severe weather conditions typically experienced locally.

In consultation with simulator experts from the Netherlands, safe working parameters were established. One of the established parameters was that these ships had to employ the service of two pilots, one of whom must be a senior pilot.

Specialised ship simulator training and training for modern electronic equipment found on the bridge of these vessels was designed for all serving pilots to undergo on a regular basis at the Pilots Maritime Training Centre.

But how does one become a maritime pilot in Malta?

Maritime pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel, and it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The oldest recorded history dates back to about the 7th century BC. The economic and environmental risk from today’s large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot even more essential. Mentoring has always been one of the pillars of knowledge transfer from one generation of pilots to another, where invaluable information is passed from one seasoned pilot to the next.

Every pilot has been mentored and thus every pilot will mentor what he knows to another. This is the way how the art of piloting a vessel is passed from the senior pilot to the junior during the time until he becomes a senior pilot himself. A senior pilot is a pilot with extensive experience in the field.

Maritime pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel

Once an experienced seafarer is selected in line with the criteria detailed in the Pilotage Act, the candidate will start serving as a trainee pilot for a minimum of four months during which they must attend at least 400 ship manoeuvres. After the training period, and a written and simulation examination, the trainee pilot will obtain a Class 6 Pilot’s licence permitting the individual to carry out pilotage on ship’s not exceeding 140 metres in length. It will take more than four years and five licence upgrades for a serving junior pilot to get the Class 1 licence, permitting them to manoeuvre vessels of any size.

This is fundamental for manoeuvring these huge vessels. Such detailed knowledge cannot be found in any textbook and can only be inherited through the good will of the serving senior pilots. After numerous hours of ship simulator training and some couple thousand ship manoeuvres, the junior pilot will have acquired the needed experience and level of skill required to be able to also handle these ultra large container ships.

In such manoeuvres the second pilot’s role is that of a supporting role. By using the ship’s electronic equipment, observing the manoeuvre from a different perspective and by questioning the actions of the manoeuvring pilot, he can assist the manoeuvring pilot during this critical period. This way the pilot in charge will not lose the situational awareness needed to handle these vessels and can focus entirely on the manoeuvre at hand. The second pilot will also check on the distances around the ship as the view is severely restricted. Due to the dimensions of the vessel the manoeuvring pilot will not be able to see what is happening on the opposite side of the vessel.

These pilotage manoeuvres involve more people and entities than just the pilots. In the case of the ultra large container ship manoeuvres to take place, the two pilots typically require three strong tug boats to be employed. These tugs are connected to the vessel in strategic positions and are used to push or pull as required, as the vessel would be unable to stop or turn in the available space on its own means alone.

Marine traffic control is taken care of by the Vessel Traffic Services operators, who make sure to keep other vessels well clear of the manoeuvring area as these vessels require considerable sea room for their approach. Finally the mooring men will be waiting at the jetty to take the mooring lines that will keep these vessels alongside and advise on the final position of the vessel in line with the berthing plan, for the cargo operations to commence.

A manoeuvre of this scale will typically take around an hour to complete depending on the prevailing conditions at the time, however the preparation behind it will take years to bring all concerned and involved to the standard of skill required for this demanding operation to take place smoothly every single time.

Source: Times of Malta

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