Interview with Marine Pilot Esil Abibula: Crossing the Northwest Passage

by - published on 18 December 2019 892 -

photos by Esil Abibula

In the footsteps of the great explorers

The Northwest Passage is the approximately 5780 km long sea route that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean north of the American continent. It crosses the Arctic Ocean and its marginal seas as well as the associated sea lanes through the Canadian-Arctic archipelago.
Roald Amundsen made his first complete successful crossing in 1903-1906 via the route discovered by John Rae through the James Ross Strait, Rae Strait and Simpson Strait on the small ship Gjøa.
In the face of climate change, the waters of the Northwest Passage are more and more frequently navigable for a longer period. Many shipping companies plan and calculate the passage. These journeys in the particularly sensitive waters of our planet are not uncontroversial, and some shipping companies have already announced that they will not use this passage economically.

Esil Abibula, a Maritime Pilot from Romania, has mastered the Northwest Passage and has talked to about his experiences:

Dear Esil, tell us something about yourself:
Hello, I am Esil Abibula from Constanta, the city of Romania with the biggest harbour in the Black Sea and the fourth biggest harbour in Europe. A port, I’ll say, that is like a jungle during the night because there are very old cranes along the operative piers that are out of order but still in position. As a pilot, you always need to be careful to not touch it. Another thing is that, at night, there are many areas where the operators do not have lights on during the manoeuvres need to have very good eyes :)

My father was working in Constanta port as an employee of the lighthouse division when I was a kid. So I was going with him to the big lighthouse and watched the big vessels enter the harbour, and I was fascinated. He was explaining to me how amazing the seaman life is. But he was telling me only the white part about how amazing it is to see so many countries and meet different cultures, so I became Apprentice Officer in 2002. Since October 2016, I’ve worked on multipurpose vessels, bulk carriers, port containers, cargo vessels, passenger vessels, and a few months as Captain of a small vessel in Constanta. After that, I started working as maritime pilot in 2014 (during each vacation since 2016 last voyage and after permanently). So, I have almost 5 years experience already as maritime pilot.

When did you first hear that the Northwest Passage exists?
I´ve heard about Roald Amundsen, who was the first person who successfully navigated the North West Passage during 1903 to 1906 as one of the most famous polar explorers in school, and when the company I used to work for decided to re-do the passage.

What are the big challenges in crossing this passage?
The big challenge for me was that I was an active part for the planning of the passage as First Senior Officer to the Captain, together with my colleague Miho (we were in 3on/3off rotation plan) and it was hard work; I can say that I put a little bit of my soul into all the team. It was a pleasure and a great honour for me; I was lucky to have the chance to participate on the passage as well from where begun in Seward from 16 August 2016 until the end in New York in 17 September 2016.

It’s very well-known that the Arctic is one of the most spectacular and virgin places on Earth, and there is no doubt people should want to see it once in their lives at least (if you don’t fall in love 😊), so after the guests saw the beauty of that area, it was another challenge for everybody — guests and crew.
Another challenge was obviously the cold weather, and to end the passage safely with no incidents. If we think about the risk for the largest cruise ship ever that will re-do the NW Passage, with a vessel that is a 250 m l.o.a and 32 m wide with 6 diesel generators 10,000 kw each that gives electrical power to the two azipods, so still — remember the description of the vessel (laughing); I was doing the presentation time to time for the guests that visit the bridge.

The final challenge for the captain and all the Officers including the two Canadian pilots (with one of them I am still in contact from time to time, Mr. Andrew McNeill; I have few photos from him, he is a great pilot — it was great for me to have met him) we had on board was to complete safely and bring the guests, crew and vessels safely into the last port of the passage, and it was done with success and I am proud that I was a part of that team!

What kind of ship and special equipment do you need?
Obviously for that kind of voyage you need an Ice Class vessel of course, and to comply with a lot of environmental requirements. You can imagine that there were more than 1700 human beings on board, so it was a very elaborated environmental plan for all the GW/BW, garbage, boxes and so on....everything was very well prepared to align with regulations. Plus, we always had Ice Pilots on the bridge that had the experience of the Passage, and very importantly, a British logistics vessel, typically used to support Antarctic researchers, escorted us the whole time. The small escort was an ice breaker, equipped with two helicopters and a few zodiacs. The navigation bridge was equipped with a forward-looking sonar, special ice searchlights, ice radars and a thermal imaging system.

Which special skills are required for you as a pilot? Which skills must the crew bring with them?
As maritime pilot, you need to have a lot of special skills, and I will try to describe just some of them in few words. A pilot needs to be fit to climb and jump, so they always need to be in good shape and good condition, and of course they need good eye-movement coordination, because sometimes, a second later or earlier can be a fatality. I’d like to add: every year, we hear about at least one dead pilot due to falling down from a pilot ladder. The many discussions about regulation, etc. are well-known. I hope and believe that these problems will be solved in the near future.

A pilot needs to be able to communicate with different nationalities and cultures, needs to be a complete problem solver, needs to be a good decision maker, needs to have a high resistance at stress, needs to be able to become one with the vessel, and needs to be a very complex thinker, because there are very different kinds of vessels with different technical characteristics (different size, different types of rudder, time responding for engine, with thrusters or without), and needs to be ready to understand — always — the wind effect and currents effect, and to take action immediately if engines stop because of technical problems. Self-control, too (some crews are very anxious): as a pilot, you always need to be ready for a different situation, so you always need to have situation awareness under control; if you lose the control, you can lose the job or your life!

When and how did this challenge become a professional reality for you?
I can say that during my career in cruise vessels, I met Captain Antonio Toledo, who is captain for Azamara Cruises now, and he is one of my mentors. He was letting me drive the vessel even on ports with strong currents like Itajai, Santos or — I can enumerate many more — so he was giving me the con and he had my back with piloting, and he was always proud of his officer (laughing).

Also, I worked with Captain Tiho or Tateo, Modafari (now they are captains for Costa and I am sure that they are mentoring other good officers), and all of them showed me this part of me and after time I applied for apprentice pilot (I was working during 3-months off period without renumeration and after, I became Pilot Class 2 and finally Class 1). I was lucky that I was the right person at the right time, and now I have a career of Maritime Pilot, and I am proud to be a pilot of the Constanta, Midia, Mangalia harbours (all Romanian maritime ports). My goals are to be safe as possible, every time. Always — from the point when I start climbing on the pilot ladder till when I get off the ship — the satisfaction comes when I have the ship safely alongside or outside a port at pilot off position.

Please describe the voyage:
Regarding the NW Passage, the entire voyage duration was more than 28 days and starts in Seward, Alaska through North American territory and Canadian territory from the Arctic Sea, passing Franklin strait and Bellot strait, going down to Greenland and finally ending in New York.
It was amazing to have met the local people and to have visited some of the most wild places on the planet, to see how simple life can be for some of us on the same planet, and to find out that no matter your culture or religion or how rich you are in that part of the world, the life is simple. Imagine how happy the locals were to show us part of their culture and — always compulsory — they were smiling sincerely 😊.
I will never forget and I am thankful to the universe that I had the opportunity to see polar bears on an ice floe, and how they were taking their lunch 😊, and fantastic they were so close…..beautiful view …to see the beauty of the wild, nature.

How risky do you think is the crossing of the Northwest Passage?
Regarding the risk, always keep in mind: that area is one of the most dangerous areas of our planet! Think about the harsh meteorological conditions (cold weather and the cold water) and wild environment this is what you have around the most! And it is a serious enemy for the human being! And do not forget the risk of pollution of such a sensitive area!

But everything was planned and studied very carefully with more than 24 months in advance: climate, thickness of ice, route, weather condition — every step was carefully studied by the entire team, and I remember that the captain had gone to that part of the world before (Ulukhaktok; I am not very sure) for a few days. All the bridge officers performed a training course for navigating in ice waters. Everything was according to plan, and I can say the good weather condition helped us a lot!

Should this route be used economically for shipping?
Obviously this route can be more economical for the shipping industry when the meteorological conditions allow, and I am pretty sure that small cargo vessel are navigating from time to time, and as the arctic area warms and ice melts and is not so thick, the entire area can be more accessible for fishing, drilling, shipping. So obviously, it brings economical benefits to local communities (trading and tourism) and to the global economy (shorter routes for vessels). But the risk to destroy such a fantastic place of our planet is undeniable, so…it can be a long discussion that is very sensitive and I don’t want to enter into subject that is not in my area.

There are not many Maritime Pilots who have crossed the Northwest Passage. What does it mean for you as a seafarer to have had these special experiences?
I am very proud to be part of this experience and I can say that I am very proud that I put my finger at planning, I participated, and I finished it safely! I have a good experience as a story to tell when I will be an old guy (laughing).

I remember the two Ice Pilots that were always with us and helped us in uncharted waters with their experience. I have learned a lot! I don’t remember the name of the other pilot now, but I hope Mr. Andrew will show him the article and on this way, I send them all the best and hope to see them again!

Would you like to cross the Northwest Passage again?
It will be a great thing to have the opportunity to cross NW Passage at least one more time in this life. At the moment, I do not know what chance I have, but you know life is so unpredictable you never know where the universe can bring us and what positive adventures waiting for us everyday 😊 Life is every day, and every day is a blessed journey.

What other goals do you have as a Marine Pilot? Is there anything special you want to achieve?
As Marine Pilot my goal is to reach the pilot office safely and with a smile on the face, always — happy that I completed a shift safely! And to see the Romanian pilotage much stronger and more stable in Romania!

On your own behalf: How do you like our website?
The website is a great opportunity to develop the idea of safety, regulation and pilot job around the world we can have access of information and always in this life we need to learn continuously from others experiences and other opinions!

Thank you very much Esil!

Thank you Frank!
I want in the end to thanks to Chief Pilot of Constanta Mr. Saricu Gheorghe and to Manager Dobre Claudiu of Black Waters Pilot Agency for the fact that they gave me trust and take me in the team, to Mooring Master / Captain Apetroaei Marius who accept me in his team from MMT.
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