Who's navigating? Piloting the Amazon river

01 Oct 2017 The Navigator

Harbour/River Pilot, Thiago Serra relishes the challenge of guiding large vessels along his stretch of the Amazon river. He talks to The Navigator about why he chose to become a pilot and the skills he has had to pick up along the way.

What career path has led to your current position?
After graduating from the Brazilian Merchant Marine Academy, I became a junior cadet in 2002. I gained experience working on tankers and off-shore vessels. After that I worked as a Third Officer on an AHTS Maersk vessel, then as Third Mate and DPO at Noble Drilling before joining Transocean as a Second Officer and Senior DPO.

Why are you interested in pilotage in particular?
When I joined the merchant marine academy, I realised how fascinating being a Pilot is. I was driven by the challenge to take control of a merchant ship and manage it in the face of all the environmental variables. To imagine that something as powerful as a ship could be gently berthed with the assistance of just one person representing the interests of the state of Brazil thrilled me.

What is different about pilotage as opposed to life at sea in other roles?
As a Pilot, I can really make a difference to navigational safety. During my training to become an officer, I learnt how to identify hazards and avoid them when operating under commercial pressure. In my pilot training, I found out how to deal with all the risks involved in negotiating shallow waters, confined spaces and heavy traffic, as well as how to achieve the safest result for the vessel and at the same time, enable efficient operation in our ports.

What particular skills have you had to learn and what strengths have you had to call on in your work?
To be a Pilot on the Amazon river brings challenges every day. The river bottom changes often and our goal is to avoid any groundings. Manoeuvring a vessel demands a lot of training, but learning how to ‘read’ the river and navigate along the 1.300 nautical miles of our pilotage area was an even more challenging issue that I had to deal with from the start. There is always heavy traffic to manage. Loaded barges, fishing boats and other small vessels force us to maintain an incredible situational awareness at all times.

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Pilots right now?
Crime prevention is a huge issue right now, together with constant surveillance to ensure everyone’s safety. Especially when we are dealing with tankers and ultra large container ships. Just one of these types of vessels grounding could interrupt main ports all over the world. Today, a billion dollar loss scenario is already predictable and it would take about two years to remove all the containers from a vessel this size.

Name: Thiago Serra
Current position: Harbour/River Ship's Pilot at Bacia Amazonica Praticos, Brazil
Training: Brazilian Merchant Marine Academy, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil