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Harbour Pilots

When masters and pilots work together...

‘Bridge team’ philosophy vital for ship safety“


Let go the port anchor!”  bellowed the pilot as the ship’s engine failed to go astern for the third consecutive time. His advice fell on deaf ears as the ship’s master was too busy trying, without success, to restart the ship’s engine and, in panic, telephoned the ship’s engineers to get information on why the engines had failed.

The pilot’s protestations to the captain to drop the port anchor continued to no avail and, having been completely ignored by the master, the pilot shouted from the bridge wing to the ship’s crew located on the forecastle to let go the port anchor. Unfortunately, the well-trained crew would not let go the anchor unless directly instructed by the ship’s master, who was in too much of a state of shock to manage the developing emergency situation. In the end, the small island coaster struck the dock head-on, resulting in significant damage to the dock’s wooden fendering system but with little damage to the vessel.

The foregoing, although it may sound like an excerpt from a new blockbuster movie, is an account of an actual accident that occurred at a small port in Trinidad and Tobago on board a vessel which called regularly at the port. The old owner and master of the vessel usually manoeuvred his vessel into port, with a pilot on board, without incident. In this instance, however, as the vessel was approaching the dock, an astern engine movement was called for on the ship’s telegraph in order to arrest her headway, but the engine failed. The master, in disbelief, kept trying the ship’s telegraph, hoping that the engine would go astern; while the pilot, trained for these circumstances, advised the master to drop the anchor, which would have considerably mitigated the damage.

In close-quarter situations where vessels are manoeuvring in restricted waters, the shipmaster does not expect failures aboard his vessel and, in many cases, is ill prepared to manage these emergencies when they do occur. The pilot, however unfamiliar with the vessels on which he is engaged, is trained to manoeuvre in anticipation of a failure of some sort and, as such, is better prepared to take evasive action to rescue the operation.

critical role

The marine pilot, sometimes referred to as the harbour pilot, has been a trusted member of the ship’s bridge team for many centuries. Indeed, so critical is the role of the pilot, who is required to be an experienced, highly trained mariner with superior ship-handling skills and a thorough knowledge of his area, that by the 13th century European maritime law as indicated in the ‘Admiralty and Law Guide’ ( stated:

“A pilot who was deemed by a ship’s crew to be responsible for her damage or loss and was found to be unable to pay compensation for the damaged so caused, could be beheaded by such crew, who would be exonerated for their actions.”

The role of the marine pilot has remained unchanged over the centuries. According to William Falconer (1732-1769), writer of the highly influential ‘Dictionary of the Marine’, first published in 1769, a pilot is: “The person charged in the direction of a ship’s course on or near the sea coast and into the roads, bays, rivers, havens, etc. within his respective district.”

Over 100 years later, Admiral William Henry Smythe (1788-1865), the noted hydrographer and sailor, defined the marine pilot in his ‘Nautical Terms: The Sailors’ Word Book’ (1867) as: “An experienced person charged with a ship’s course near the coasts into roads, rivers, etc. and through all intricate channels in his own particular district.”

ship handler

Essentially, the marine pilot is an experienced ship handler who attends vessels, advising her master and crew on the navigational transit of coastal or, in some instances, deepsea passages or berthing and unberthing operations. Pilots are expected to use their knowledge of the sea region in which they are employed, their competence at ship handling, their knowledge of the local weather conditions and communication with local tugs and berthing officials to execute safe and effective transits, anchoring, mooring and unmooring operations. Further, the pilot should not only be viewed as the person charged with the safety of the manoeuvring vessel, but also as the primary risk reduction strategy employed in the protection of port infrastructure and the local marine environment.

It must be emphasised here that, in most jurisdictions, the pilot is employed on board the vessel in an advisory capacity only. The ship’s master retains overall command of the vessel. This issue, however, remains a point of contention worldwide where damage is done to the vessel or port infrastructure and the ship’s crew has adhered to every direction given by the pilot. 

This debate cannot be resolved here and I will not address this matter in this forum. Suffice it to say that there are many issues to be considered in the determination or resolution of this argument.

Nonetheless, the relationship between pilot and master should always be cordial, so that where, in any instance, an accident occurs, it can be recorded that two professionals were working together, but despite their best efforts an accident occurred. Where a ‘bridge team’ philosophy is employed, the on-board dynamic can only augur well for the safe completion of the task at hand as the bridge team arrangement allows navigational information to be more openly exchanged and cross-checked by the pilot and the onboard crew.


As onboard technological advances in navigational aids and equipment give ship’s crew more information relating to the ship’s track in confined waters, it is imperative that pilots keep abreast of these advances and are able to use this equipment to assist in the decision-making process alongside their piloting competence. One such device that has grown in popularity among pilots and pilot organisations is the Portable Pilot Unit (PPU). It is critically important, however, that there should not be an over-reliance on such equipment, to the extent that the pilot does not even look out. Notably, there was a situation when, upon his arrival on the bridge of a large liquefied natural gas carrier, the pilot was advised by the master that the vessel was on course to proceed down the middle of the channel. The pilot, on looking out the bridge front windows, observed that the vessel was not at all set to proceed along the channel’s centre line and advised the master accordingly. The master again consulted his equipment and assured the pilot that all was correct for the vessel’s entry into the channel. At this point, the pilot recommended that the master look out the window. To the master’s amazement, the view out the bridge front bore no resemblance to his on-screen images, at which point he reprimanded the ship’s second officer, who had calibrated the equipment incorrectly.

It is necessary that individual pilot organisations not only establish minimum standards of performance for the equipment but also ensure that the equipment type is standardised throughout the organisation and that all personnel who use the equipment are competent in its use. 

This issue was recently discussed at an International User Group (IUG) meeting of pilot organisations certified in the International Standard for Pilot Organisations’ (ISPO), recently held in Trinidad and Tobago.

ISPO is a robust safety and quality management system developed by the pilots of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and designed for use by pilot organisations. ISPO is a method of self-regulation that promotes the adoption of the highest standards by the maritime pilot industry. It also provides transparency in pilotage standards to all port-related stakeholders and is audited by external auditors – classification societies such as Lloyd’s Register and Det Norske Veritas. Currently, 11 pilot organisations are ISPO-certified. The Trinidad and Tobago Pilots’ Association (TTPA) has been certified since 2011 and is a member of the board of the IUG.


Before concluding, some mention should be made of the forthcoming opening of the new Panama Canal. The TTPA has set up a team of simulator trainers and has purchased two PPUs and a ship’s bridge simulator. With this combination of personnel and equipment, the TTPA is well poised to develop the required training modules to provide efficient and effective training of pilots to handle the larger tonnage that may be calling at Trinidad. A model of the facility can be developed quickly so that training of pilots can begin without delay. 


*Kurt M. Duncan is a serving member pilot with the TTPA, where he holds the position of pilot master. He is a member of the Maritime Advisory Council of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) and is chairman of the Membership Management Committee of the Shipping Association of Trinidad and Tobago.