The feel of the ship: The essence of Piloting

by Captain Ricardo Caballero "Themaritimepilot" - published

The feel of the ship: The essence of Piloting
Text by Captain Ricardo Caballero (Panama Canal Pilot), photo by

When I was a deck officer back in the early nineties I worked on a ship that used to load grain at different ports along the Mississippi river. The name of the ship was Golden Hope, a 600 feet long dry bulk carrier with a 95 feet in beam. An average size vessel for those days' standards.

We would pick up pilot at the sea buoy and proceed up river via the South West Pass. Since I was the only ship's officer who could speak and understand some English the Captain would keep me in the bridge every time we called at a U.S port. I would act as an interpreter between the Captain, who was Greek and the American Pilots, which also meant that I had to keep hot coffee available for both of them. That did not bother me at all. It was a very low price for having the luxury of watching the pilots do their thing. Besides, being in the bridge saved me from the task of handling the heavy ropes at either end of the ship when docking or undocking. Sure that must have created some jealousy amongst my companions who were out, exposed to the elements, dealing with tying or casting off the ship's lines, while I was performing the "diplomatic" part of the job. But this piece is not about my days when I used to perform the chores of an interpreter.

Sometimes the pilot would bring a trainee with whom he would engage in lengthy chats. My English was good enough to facilitate communications between the Pilot and the Greek Captain, but not to keep track of the conversations between the Pilot and his trainee. I could pick up a few words and figure out what it was being talked about as long as they were work related matters.

In one of those occassions, I heard the trainee asking the pilot how did he determine at which point he decided to start making a turn around a bend, which are many in the Mississippi. The apprentice wanted to know, whether there were some landmarks on the river banks that the pilot was using as reference. The pilot responded yes, but that it also depended in many other factors, such as the type of ship you are on, its loading condition, the present current, and whether you've got "the feel" of the ship.

"Do you want to try?, the Pilot told the apprentice and immediately turn to the ship's Captain and said "ok, he has the conn now".

After negotiating a few curves up the river the trainee said "oh, ok I think I've got it". Got what?, asked the pilot. The "feel" of the ship, replied the novice with the voice tone of someone who was sure. No, you don't. It takes years to have "it".

At the time I wasn't certain of what the Pilot meant by "having the feel of the ship". To me, the apprentice was doing an excellent work, even though he was tipped by the pilot every now and then.

And what is it anyway?

The feel of the ship isn't something so mysterious or difficult to understand. But it is something that takes years to achieve. It could be compared as getting the feel of a new car. It takes a short period of time for you to adjust to your brand new vehicle size and handling characteristics. In a couple of days you just know how to park it inside your garage without scratching the paint or running over your golf clubs. Before you know it you have attained "the feel" of your car. Now, if this was also the first time you drove, then it will take you some extra effort to drive a different vehicle. But as you drive a variety of cars, from a truck to a sixty passenger bus, and then to an eighteen wheeler, experience will render you a professional driver.

The process is somewhat similar when it comes to piloting ships. However, cars move on hard, solid surfaces, whereas ships moves through water, which poses additional challenges.

Ships can be thousands of times larger and heavier than an automobile. ( and many more times more expensive) A car moves either forward or backwards, you can be certain that if you turn the wheel left or right, it will go left or right. And if you step on the breaks, the car will most likely stop immediately. It isn't the same with ships.

Ships can move in any possible direction on the water surface. They move forward, backwards, sideways, sideways while moving forward, or backwards while moving sideways.  They can also be turning to port or to starboard while moving sideways or while having either a forward or backward motion. 

When turning, ships tend to slide out, a problem you won't have with your car (unless you mean to do it) and of course ships don't have breaks. To stop a ship you need to reverse its engines, and depending on the type of ship, its loading condition, present speed, and engine power amongst other factors, such as wind, depth available, and current; it could take a mile or more for it to lose its momentum. We talk about thousands upon thousands of tons moving through the water, which also means that the amount of energy required to slow down all that mass must also be incredible large.

With a car you don't have to worry too much other than, perhaps only making sure of chosing an alternate route to avoid traffic during peak hours. While when piloting a ship there is a myriad of concerns that need to be looked upon by the pilot in order to keep the ship safe.

This is why to have the "feel" of a ship isn't something you learn after dealing with a few bends at the beginning of a pilot career. And that was what the Mississippi river pilot, in short, tried to convey to the trainee that night when he said "No, you don't have it yet. It takes years to have "it".

And it did take years for me to learn what to have "the feel of the ship" actually meant. It is something that goes beyond the realm of "situational awarness", which is just a fancy term that describes the level of awareness mariners should adhere to depending on the circumstances, so they can make predictions and adjust accordingly to enviromemtal elements, available space, or traffic. In other words, the alert level a mariner must be should match the current given circumstamces.

It is expected that individuals develop that "feel" faster on smaller ships than on larger ones. A good example would be tug's Captains who get to handle their boats with incredible precision, as if their boats were an extension of their own bodies. Many oceangoing Captains also get to have the feel of the ship they command, and this is often the primordial cause of conflict with the pilot. Two different feels colliding, normally at the most critical point of maneuver. " I think we are going too fast Mr. Pilot", it could be the first sign of that oncoming feels collision. But their "having the feel", normally coincide.

Once you are an experienced pilot you can for tell how a ship is going to behave shortly after taking control over it. A couple of rudder and engine orders put you in sync with the ship's handling characteristics. Somehow you and the ship also become one single entity, so to speak. You don't have to constantly be looking outside or at a screen to ascertain your ship's position in relation to the space available or to surrounding traffic. This is also possible because, as a Pilot you have that "local knowledge", which is the equivalent of perfectly knowing your way around your area of work, just as you know your own house that can you can walk inside it blindfolded. I am not advocating for such a behaviour, but if you are a pilot you certainly know when is the best time to go the toilette, prepare your own coffee, or just finish that book you have been reading for the last month.

You also know, without looking at the GPS, whether you are going a bit too fast that you need to slow down, or slow enough that you can afford "kicking" the engines ahead. You just know it. You are able to do that because you have got "the feel" of it. And having the feel of the ship also lets you know when things are beginning to detour out of the boundaries of your control. A bitter taste in your mouth and a uncomfortable sensation in your guts, the uneasiness you feel, all might make you stand up from the Captain's chair and put you on guard to take the proper action in order to make corrections before it is too late. It does not matter what the navigation equipment is displaying, having the feel would warn you anyway when something is not right. And, you can also lose that ability. Here is where the likenesses between piloting and driving a car fall apart even more. If you stay away from ships for too long of a period, chances are that you will need to retrain to get back to having the feel. And more importantly, do not abuse "having the feel of the ship", it might be catastrophic. Sometimes our senses deceive us. More often than what we may think. Our brain, as wonderful as it is, might play tricks on us. No wonder it is capable of giving birth to conspiracy theories from scratch, or lead us men into getting married (joke).

Even if you are an experienced pilot, always leave some room for doubt, to doubt yourself. Additionally, you can't have the feel of every single ship you pilot or command. There are a few of poorly designed vessels that can behave awkwardly. Their rudders are too small, they are excessively under power, or they are not designed to move on the water, but below it, like nuclear submarines. There are also other specialized equipment which are defined as being ships just because they float. You will never get the feel of it. Do not worry. No reasons to get frustrated, it is not you. It is those floating things. Call a tug or two.

The size of vessels, in comparison to the space available in harbors and waterways, have grown exponentially over the last decade, making of piloting an even more difficult profession. The Golden Hope would look very tiny if anchored next to these new generation of ships.

The scenario has changed from being one in which pilots used to turn a ship in the basin having a clear distance from shore facilities that was measured by the tens of meters to one in which that clearance has been shrunk to barely a few feet.

I mean, pilots are nowadays treading needles. If, geometrically speaking, a ship is smaller than the space available, then it can be docked. But here small refers to a ship which size, if put vertically, is taller than some of the tallest building in any major city in the world. This only shows the ability of pilots to adapt, or to be more specific, how great the human brain is, how its plasticity can work miracles. In the Panama canal pilots went from working Panamax ships through locks with locomotives, to working in locomotiveless locks ships twice or more the size of a panamax. Of course, this achievement does not belong to pilots alone, it is the result of teamwork in which tugboat Captains played a very important role. With whom we pilots also learn to have the feel. I know who the Skipper of the tug is, and I know what to expect from him/her. It works both ways too.

In Agua Clara Locks, and Cocoli Locks ships are not assisted by locomotives like at the "old locks". Pilots and Tugboats' Masters had to adapt to these new locks. In the picture a 1100 feet long by 168 feet Container is brought inside. The lock's width is 180 feet.

Most pilots around the world are moving these massive ships in and out of ports with the aid of technology ( and again, tugboats). That does not necessarily mean that they had given up to "having the feel", if anything, it only means that "having the feel" have gone up to a next level in which it binds with technology, perhaps generating an upgraded feel.

The days that ships could be piloted from a distant control inside an office are still not in sight,  those days are far, well below the horizon.  And even when that time comes, those computer geeks, the pilots of the future, would need to develop some sort of "feel". 

In Janet Maybee's book "Aftershock, The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey", Peter MacArthur, Chief Financial Officer, wrote in the Foreword: 

"The first European observers of their skill believed the Mi’kmaq ( indigenous to some of Canada's Atlantic areas ) were guided by instinct, but it surely had more to do with the people’s local knowledge of currents, tides, and navigational hazards. This local knowledge remains at the core of marine pilotage to this day"

Piloting is indeed a profession which requires specialized skills and, as Mr. MacArthur says, local knowledge. But as a Pilot I still believe, like the first Europeans to set foot in Canada did, that besides local knowledge, Piloting requires of our instincts, that sensation technology can't provide. Those signals from your guts that no one else would get. Something boat handlers and experienced pilots understand.

I'd like to think that pilots will keep alive the notion of having the feel of the ship is well into the future. To me, piloting without it isn't piloting at its best.

More often than not, I detach myself from all technological equipment and get submerged into that fantastic sensation that the first ancient pilots, like the Mi’kmaq, must have experienced: the sense of being one with the ship.

I do this, even with the discomfort of having a mask on my face, with my voice fighting its way through it to reach the Captain's ears. Because it is the only way not to lose the very essence of piloting.
Original Blog Article on "Themaritimepilot"
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