An insider’s guide to piloting

01 Oct 2017 The Navigator

Ed Verbeek, a piloting consultant in the Netherlands, reveals some of the skills that Pilots must learn, as well as some of the tricks and techniques they employ to keep vessels of all sizes on track.

As an apprentice Pilot, the largest part of your education is ‘tripping’ with experienced Pilots. I found the first one very exciting and interesting, and I observed everything intently. As trips continued, they became less and less of a novelty, and somewhere around the fifteenth voyage I thought that I had seen it all… until the Pilot said to me: “How about you bring her in the lock…?”

I had been Chief Mate for five years, most of them with ‘modern’ Captains. I had been on the bridge during many arrivals and departures; I had anchored and picked up Pilots and I had seen and done some shiphandling. Nevertheless, as I was approaching that lock, I discovered I didn’t know anywhere near enough about where to reduce speed, how much to reduce at each point, where to turn and how to assess drift.

It dawned on me that these skills could not be taught in books or classrooms, but instead had to be learned through practice on board. These were skills beyond those required by officers of the watch under STCW and they had to be taught by Pilots to apprentices. In those days, skills like these were based on visual observation. Today they are enhanced by modern tools, such as ECDIS/ECS, GPS, Radar and VHF, to improve situational awareness.

Even today, using visual clues when working within narrow waters with many marks works fantastically well on most ships. Only on very large vessels, or on tight stretches with just a few marks, does the emphasis shift to suitable equipment. In all cases it is important to calibrate your ideas by developing a scanning pattern: when the emphasis is on visuals, check on a systematic basis using instruments. When the emphasis is instruments, check using visual means in an equally systematic way.

So, what do you look out for when navigating visually? The direction in which you are moving is obviously very important, especially as it might be different from the direction your bow is aimed. Moving at moderate to low speed, under the influence of wind and/or current, drift is an important issue. Don’t forget to check the wake of any buoys or objects in the water to see if there is any current.

Leading question
To see where you will end up, you need to create your own ‘leads’: use lantern posts, trees, edges of buildings or anything that cannot move, and compare its movement relative to the background. For example: “This one is moving to the right and that one to the left, so I will end up in between.” Once you have thoroughly familiarised yourself with the area, you will know what to look for and choose tracks with your private ‘leads’ in mind. Remember you are seeing your movement from your position on board the vessel: a ship is not small, so you need to work out how much of it is in front of you and how much is behind. The distance to bow and stern are vital numbers for a Pilot.

Fixing a heading on visual references is nice when you are not experiencing drift, but when a drift angle needs to be applied, you need to use a compass course. Taking the approach of the breakwater arriving in Amsterdam as an example, you check the movement of the green light against the dunes. The leads are only used by large vessels and/or vessels with deeper draft. Everyone else keeps to their own side, inbound South, outbound North of the leads, and uses the leads only for quick reference.

Using background bearings is only helpful when you are not turning. When the vessel has a noticeable Rate of Turn (RoT), you cannot really see precisely enough where you will end up. Making a successful turn depends on knowing the right position to start – whether from experience or from working it out. You can use marks to check if you are at the right position (e.g. “Start turning when the third lantern is in line with the red building”) or look at 90° to see what the bridge is in line with.

If you have started in the right place, you can use marks to check your progress as you turn. For example, if the third rung from the bottom of the mast stays on the bank during the turn, you are doing fine. If the bank moves up, your distance is increasing and you are turning too fast. If the bank goes down, you are turning too slowly.

Visual clues
Speed is very important in all kinds of shiphandling manoeuvres. If you want to check the longitudinal speed quickly, look at 90° and nowhere else. Pilots often use clearing marks, e.g. “When I see berth 23 in line, I know that I have 55m to go until the dolphin, so my stern will turn clear”

Visually, you can check your position in the channel very easily if you stand at the centre bridge window looking down and compare the width of your vessel with the distance to the banks on both sides.

you might be used to looking at the surface of the water to assess the direction of the wind. That does not work in port. The wind on the surface tends to follow the direction of the banks and the breeze that the vessel feels might be at quite an angle. To know the direction of the wind in a port you will have to go out to the bridge wing and feel it for yourself. On enclosed bridges, you must hope that your windmeter is correct…but flags on board can also tell you a lot.

Be careful watching smoke from chimneys etc. Perspective can have a large influence on how the smoke appears to move and can lead you to the wrong conclusion. Perspective also influences how you perceive distance. For instance, when you leave a berth and the distance off forward and aft looks the same, it is a fair bet that the bow is further out. When the vessel is parallel, the distance forward should look narrower (assuming the bridge is aft).

Ship’s crews often have the tendency to think in settings: “I need so many revs; so much rudder.” Pilots do not know how a vessel should react so they do not think in settings, but rather in results: “I want to achieve this speed and that RoT, so I’ll do what is required to achieve this.” Or, “An average vessel of this class needs ‘slow’, so I’ll start at half and see how she reacts and give more or less as required.”

Ship’s crews also tend to be largely internally focussed, while Pilots have a more external outlook. This external focus extends further to take in “What is there around me, how do I influence others and how do they influence me?” However, even for Pilots, checking some instruments should be second nature: for example, checking rudder and rev indicator both before and after giving orders.

I hope I have given you a glimpse of some of the things that Pilots must look out for. I encourage you to ask Pilots about how they use visuals and instruments in their work. I know that the vast majority of them will be very willing to share their insights.