Is pilotage safety well handled?

Published: 11 May 2018

Pilot FloridaA new ICS survey shows that bridge teams are fairly happy with the standards of pilotage on their ships. But the body representing pilots worldwide is worried about continued pressures on services in many countries…

Ship masters and officers have given a vote of confidence in the standard of pilotage services in more than 470 ports in 123 different countries, a new report has revealed.

However, the survey has also identified some key concerns with pilotage safety – communication difficulties between pilots and bridge teams in particular – and it proposes the development of an internationally standardised approach to the master-pilot information exchange (MPX).

The report has been produced by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and is based on feedback from almost 900 shipmasters and officers, who were questioned about the quality of pilotage, towage and mooring services during port calls around the world.

The results – which have been presented to the International Maritime Organisation – showed that 84% of masters and bridge teams were satisfied with the conduct of the pilot, 82% satisfied with the conduct of the pilotage, 72% satisfied with the use of electronic navigation aids, and 78% satisfied with towage and mooring services.

ICS senior marine adviser Matthew Williams said the survey had addressed questions about the rising costs of obligatory pilotage and electronic charts, and whether the need for one of them reduces the need for the other. It also sought to evaluate the extent to which established best practice is being followed. The ICS has set an objective that wherever there is liberalisation of pilotage services, the highest safety levels and professionalism should be maintained, aided by clearly-defined areas of responsibility.

Although the ICS described the results as largely positive, it did highlight a number of safety-related issues – pointing out that communication difficulties between pilots and bridge teams are 'a commonly reported concern worldwide’. The quality of English used by pilots was a general concern in a number of countries, it added.

Pilot Bintulu

‘It is understandable that communications between the pilot, towage and mooring personnel are often conducted in a local language, the report adds. ‘However, this practice places a burden on the pilot (that may interfere with the pilot’s primary role) to translate orders and actions during towing and mooring.’

The survey found that while the MPX and associated checklists are being used effectively, the volume and form of information exchanged is inconsistent – varying from an entirely verbal exchange to a comprehensive briefing supported by checklists and passage plans.

The report points to the need for a globally standardised approach to MPX, emphasising the visual presentation of the pilot’s plan for the pilotage and discouraging reliance on a purely verbal exchange of information.

The ICS received 36 reports of incidents where pilots had failed to follow appropriate procedures or use appropriate personal protective equipment – particularly lifejackets – when embarking, and this was a problem noted in ports in 16 countries.

Some concerns were raised about last-minute requests to change pilot boarding arrangements, as well as the lack of suitable pilot vessels in some areas – with reports of tug rescue boats and small dinghies being used. There were also concerns about the level of pilot familiarity with the latest propulsion technologies – particularly electronically-controlled engines – and that some pilots are not familiar with electronic charts and are unwilling to use ECDIS during pilotage.

The findings of the ICS research were welcomed by Nick Cutmore, secretary general of the International Maritime Pilots' Association (IMPA). ‘We note the report’s endorsement of the quality of pilotage services,’ he said. However, he acknowledged: ‘It does highlight some areas which we are striving to address, such as the master-pilot exchange.’

The survey comes at a time when pressure to liberalise pilotage services around the world remains high. ‘It’s like a cancer – you kill it in one place, and it pops up somewhere else,’ Mr Cutmore said. ‘What gets lost in this are unified standards of training and certification, and in some cases, pilotage is being used to subsidise loss-making activities in some ports or to increase the bottom line in others.’

IMPA strongly opposes liberalisation and the involvement of private interests in what it believes should be a public service. ‘The involvement of liberalisation is such that costs go up and safety goes down,’ Mr Cutmore added. ‘That’s not opinion, it’s fact.’

Chris Adams, of Steamship Mutual, said the London-based P&I club is compiling a new, updated report on claims involving pilotage accidents from members. An earlier report documented an increase in claims and liability for members following accidents in which pilots were involved and where increased competition was a factor.

Countries where services have come under pressure include Argentina, Australia, and Denmark. Danish pilotage costs have gone up some 50% since liberalisation, says IMPA. This began when the monopoly of the state-owned operation DanPilot was broken in 2006 and it was extended in 2014 to bring in competition for transit pilotage services. In Argentina – where liberalisation was introduced in 1997 – costs in Buenos Aires are around double the level in Uruguay, just 60km away on the other side of the Rio de la Plata.

Mr Cutmore says IMPA is disturbed by the ‘laissez-faire’ attitude of Australia towards pilotage in the Great Barrier Reef. ‘If it is as successful as it has been claimed, why has it not been adopted by constituent states in their ports?’ he asked.

However, IMPA has recently been pleased to hear that the Danish government has decided to cease competition in pilotage in 2020. ‘It’s very rare for a government to put its hands up and admit to making a mistake, but they realised that it was impacting on the viability of their ports and acting as a disincentive to trade,’ Mr Cutmore said. ‘The 50% increase in costs is their figure – not ours.’

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