Opinion

Piloting in the Corona Era - Understanding differences in COVID-19 mitigating procedures


by Herman Broers - Rotterdam / Netherlands - published on 20 April 2020 816 -

photos by Herman Broers
"The bridge wing is a place where pilot and master are required to work close to each other"


The impact on general shipping
As the world struggles with the Covid-19 virus, the maritime world is being hit hard, not only economically, but also socially and operationally. Where different countries use different ways to defeat this deadly virus, it is a challenge to deal with this in the international business of shipping. After all, in shipping there are no borders.

For a ship on a typical voyage, both the shipowner and the flag state, as well as the countries where the departure and arrival ports are located have their own procedures how to protect the crews and the ships from the dangerous virus.

Piloting in the Corona Era
The pilots who have to deal with the different ships are faced with their own challenges. Pilot boats and tenders are small ships where people often stay close to each other, on the way to and from the ship. The physical challenges of the work and limitations of the ships, such as climbing pilot ladders and moving through small spaces, do not effectively allow the use of the many PPEs available.

The procedures to prevent the spread of the corona virus that are observed locally in the ports often do not correspond to the procedures used on board the ships. It is difficult to deal with this and this can lead to misunderstanding between the pilot and the ship’s crews. This results in tensions that can affect the pilot’s relation with the bridge team, and thus his work.

As an example: The profession of pilot is referred to in the Netherlands as a “vital profession”, classified by the government under the term “shipping handling”. Just like in the rest of the country, the national standard of social distancing is used in the port of Rotterdam. It is mandatory that the pilot, as long as he is free from fever and shows no signs of corona, goes to work. He does not have to wear PPEs. As long as the pilot keeps 1.5 meters away from others, he can do his job, is the theory.

It is clear that the above practice clashes with certain measures on board ships. The pilot comes on board via a gangway or pilot ladder and is received on deck or in the accommodation by a crew member according to the rules. He has to go through a system of corridors and sometimes a lift to the bridge, where space is limited as well.

In recent weeks we have seen crews who do not have any procedures to combat Covid-19 contamination. Also, we have seen crews dressed from head to toe in protective gear, comparable to nurses in an intensive care unit. It has happened more than once that pilots were checked for fever by means of thermometers. Some pilots were asked to sign a health declaration before they could start their duties. On some ships, the pilot was not allowed to touch anything on the bridge, not even the navigation- or communication equipment with which he would have to work.


It is important for us to recognize that the pilot is the first “intruder” of a ship that has often been quarantined by nature at sea for weeks prior to arrival in port. We are the possible first source of the danger, so it is understandable that the captain and his crew are suspicious. On the other hand, it is also important to create the conditions in which the pilot and crew can successfully work well together.

It is not easy to come up with a simple solution to this procedure-gap problem. After all, there is no internationally recognized maritime standard for dealing with a pandemic. Until then, it is important for all parties to be aware of the risks, but certainly also of the social and cultural differences. The use of mouth masks and gloves by the pilots on board ships has become standard practice, even though according to the port state this would not be necessary.

All in all, the work has not become easier. As long as we understand each other and recognize that nautical service providers and the crews are doing their utmost in these difficult circumstances to keep the cargo flows going, we can bring this challenging situation to a successful conclusion.
Editor's note:
Opinion pieces reflect the personal opinion of individual authors. They do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about a prevailing opinion in the respective editorial department. Opinion pieces might be deliberately formulated in a pronounced or even explicit tone and may contain biased arguments. They might be intended to polarise and stimulate discussion. In this, they deliberately differ from the factual articles you typically find on this platform, written to present facts and opinions in as balanced a manner as possible.

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René Hartung Lotsenbrüderschaft NOK II Kiel / Lübeck / Flensburg, Germany
on 20 April 2020, 06:02 UTC

Thanks to Mr Broers for these words. In my pilotage district (Kiel Fjord and Kiel Canal) I experience exactly the same: some vessels are competely negligent regarding safety measures and on some one feels like entering a SciFi movie.
But these are the excemptions. Most vessels,I feel, are well prepared and try to minimize the risk.
I guess that when both sides - pilot and ship´s crew try to find a compromise and form a team like they used to before the pandemic, the transit through the pilotage area can be just as successful as without Covid. It just takes a bit of understanding and common sense on both sides.
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