Bridging the gap: safeguarding the realationship between bridge team and pilot

01 Oct 2017 The Navigator

Captain Simon Pelletier MNI is IMPA President and President of the Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association, as well as an active Pilot in the Lower St Lawrence District. Here, he explains how to ensure that relationship between the Pilot and the bridge team runs as smoothly as possible.

Having been involved for more than 35 years in the navigation of ships, dealing with Pilots in my earlier years and with bridge teams in the latter ones, I believe I have a well-rounded perspective on this unique relationship. Pilots are expected to act, first and foremost, in the public interest and to maintain professional judgment independent of anything except what is needed for maritime safety.

The safe navigation of a ship obviously involves teamwork. This is especially true in waters where risks are such that compulsory pilotage is required. Pilots are therefore expected to develop a co-operative working relationship with the Master and bridge crew. The same, of course, is also true the other way round. It is through this joint professional relationship that all parties are best served.

IMO recognises this in Resolution A960, which states that: Masters and Bridge Officers have a duty to support the Pilot and to ensure that his/her actions are monitored at all times (A960, Annex 2, paragraph 2.3).

IMO formally encourages pilotage authorities to provide Pilots with appropriate training on bridge resource management, in order to facilitate communication and information exchange with the Master and the bridge team and to foster an effective working relationship in both routine and emergency situations (A960, Annex 1, paragraphs 5.3 and 5.5.4).

Pilots support this approach. Bridge Resource Management training for Pilots, known as BRM-P, is specifically designed to take fully into account the key role that Pilots play on the bridge of a vessel. In a BRM-P course, emphasis is on adapting practices to the particular resources that a Pilot will find on each vessel. The majority of pilot groups are trained on BRM-P.

The real world
Ideally, communication between the bridge team and the Pilot would look like the illustration above. Now, when the pilot is on board and takes over the conn, most of the tasks performed by the bridge team remain the same. This will support the pilot as prescribed in IMO resolution A960. Everybody has a clear understanding of their job and actually does it. Everybody monitors the work of others and offers relevant observations. Everybody shares the same ‘mental model’ of the voyage and is communicating clearly, expressing any concern without being intimidated. Of course, we must strive to achieve this.

Unfortunately, in the real world, things don’t always look like or act like this. Many ships are built with wide, open bridges where communication and monitoring is more of a challenge. For this reason, Pilots and bridge officers need to make more of an effort.

Pursuing professionalism
When I leave home at 1am on a -25° C winter night to conduct a capesize bulker through fast-moving ice on the St Lawrence river, in a restricted channel and with virtually no floating aids to navigation, I do not necessarily know what I am going to find on the bridge. A Pilot’s first impression of the professionalism awaiting them on board is often the boarding arrangements. Climbing up a pilot’s ladder is a challenge at the best of times. However, doing so at night in rough weather and cold temperatures can put a Pilot’s life at risk. Being greeted by a well-rigged ladder (in accordance with SOLAS Regulation V/23 & IMO Resolution A.1045(27) php) and an alert and helpful crew practising good seamanship will indicate a great respect for the Pilot’s life that really helps to start a good relationship!

Of course, as we get underway and throughout my assignment, the interaction I have with the bridge team will revolve around the central notions: “What is it that I know that they need to know? And what is it that they know that I need to know?”

Sometimes, I am greeted by a Master and crew with no experience of such conditions and whose first language is not English. There may be issues of fatigue and communication and perhaps a temptation to ask me about where to go on shore leave. This is where professionalism becomes so important. We must all focus on ensuring good communications and place all our concentration on the task of safe navigation.

I don’t expect the officer on watch to have the same knowledge that years of expert training and experience have given me about navigating the very specific body of water for which I am licensed as a Pilot. There is an obvious limit to how much they can effectively monitor my work and share the same mental model of the pilotage passage we are performing, even after a proper Master/Pilot exchange has taken place.

However, the ship does have the responsibility to have a passage plan, berth-to-berth. Officers have the responsibility to monitor this. So, they must have the core competence of being able to maintain a safe watch even in pilotage waters, as per the best practice of good seamanship. The job must be done!

Key issues that are important to a good pilotage include:

  • Knowing the gyro error and having recently checked it
  • Knowing any radar heading issues
  • Knowing the theoretical speed through the water at various RPMs
  • Knowing water drafts, air draft and squat effect
  • Being able to properly manage the alarms and alerts on the bridge

Let me, however, share some examples of known weaknesses.

I have witnessed situations where no routes at all have been laid down on the paper charts or on the ECDIS for the passage to the berth, let alone the comprehensive passage plan required by regulation. Worse, I have seen one passage plan where only a single course was plotted from the pilot station to the berth, which turned out to be a single line, 120 NM long, passing over land, mountains and shoals.

Another problem; imagine an officer of the watch who is plotting a GPS position on a four-metre depth area when I am piloting a panamax vessel with 13 metres draft – and who doesn’t have the reflex to recheck its plotted position or use an alternative positioning method. The ship is still doing 13 knots and, just by looking out the window, the officer could see a set of leading lights confirming that the ship is in the centre of the channel – not on the track plotted.

Operation Safe Navigation
It is essential that the environment on the bridge supports focused attention on safe navigation. Administrative tasks, and the use of phones for private matters, are frequent distractions. These issues should be addressed as part of regular bridge procedures. It is important, too, to have good communication between the officer of the watch and the Pilot, and for the OOW to clarify any concerns they may have about the passage plan or anticipated manoeuvres.

Ultimately, my message is all about competence and about doing everything that can be done to drive up levels of competence. This is the best and most effective way to ensure a harmonious relationship between a bridge crew and the Pilot arriving on board.