The Pilotage Paradigm

The following has been submitted by Paul Drouin of Safeship.ca and is a shortened version of the article that was published in the October 2009 edition of Seaways Magazine.  Click the link below to download the full version of the article.

The Pilotage Paradigm: The need for a paradigm shift

by Captain Paul Drouin and Captain Robin Heath

The long sea voyage is over and the pilot has boarded for the next phase of the trip. Soon after arriving in the wheelhouse a short conversation between the master and the pilot takes place – the pilot card is exchanged and the discussion ends quickly as the pilot looks up and gives the next course to steer. The helmsman responds and the voyage under pilotage has begun. There is a sense of relief – the pilot has the con and finally the officer of the watch and master can relax and, quite possibly, get some other pressing work done before arriving at port.

If this scenario sounds familiar to many, it is only because it happens so often on so many vessels in so many parts of the world. Whether arriving or leaving, discussions are frequently rudimentary, often limited to the ship’s manoeuvring characteristics and the odd snippet of sundry information. And regardless of whether a vessel passage plan has been prepared ahead of time, the pilot has a plan – and he or she intends to follow it. All the best bridge resource management (BRM) theories and principles, dutifully absorbed in training by the pilot, master and watchkeeper, have been sealed away more hermetically than King Tut’s mummy within its sarcophagus. This practice, which we call the pilotage paradigm (a paradigm being a model or standard pattern), takes place in almost every corner of the globe.

The shift from the present paradigm – that is, the pilot working alone, giving helm or course orders with the plan in his/her head, while the crew takes a passive role, not knowing the plan and yet trying to ensure the safety of the vessel nonetheless – is one that has endured, but not without costly consequences. In the excellent book Risky Work Environments, edited by Christine Owen, et al, (published by Ashgate, ISBN 978-0-7546-7609-6) the authors’ posit that this ‘traditional’ way of piloting is plagued by several weaknesses, not the least of which is how it frames the pilot’s performance in an individualistic way such that they ‘do not see a need to share them [the tasks] or to communicate their intentions or knowledge…’

The situation is not a simple one: there is a complex web of interconnected issues that must coalesce for a complete paradigm shift to occur:

  • Ships’ bridge teams must be ready to step up and actively participate in pilotage.
  • Ships’ bridge teams must possess the BRM and English language skills to be effective partners with the pilot and support the operation.
  • Shipping companies must realise that their navigation officers and masters cannot do ancillary tasks while under pilotage but must assist and validate the navigation process. As such, the chronic under crewing that is observed on many vessels must be reversed.
  • Pilots must engage and integrate the ship’s bridge team into the performance of the pilotage act.
  • Government and port authorities must, in consultation with their pilots, establish and publish standardised routes to which preliminary passage plans in pilotage waters can be made.

In practice, the present paradigm tacitly approves the passive role of the ship’s bridge team in pilotage and unduly burdens the pilot – yet in the event of a mishap it is the master and officer of the watch who are ultimately accountable. It is high time that the workload be appropriately redistributed and risks reduced further by not only establishing and publishing the templates – the standardised plans, the preliminary passage plans for pilotage waters, but by employing the principles of BRM while under pilotage: in a word – teamwork. Teamwork can only be true to its name if a common plan is known and monitored by all.

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