Opinion

Piloting in a Pandemic – A Personal Perspective


by William Hargreaves - published on 25 March 2021 549 -

Article and pictures by Captain W J M Hargreaves, Retired Southampton Pilot

The plus side is traffic is light. It only takes twenty minutes to complete a journey which, in normal times, take up to an hour. Furthermore, there is never a problem finding a parking space. Apart from a sprinkling of vehicles, the car park is nearly empty. Since, all the office staff are working from home, the cars belong to the essential workers: VTS staff, berthing officers and, of course, pilots. All frontline workers or, as one wag put it, quay workers. But none are more frontline than the pilots.

As the coronavirus epidemic crisis developed VTS, quite rightly, took early steps to protect and isolate themselves as much as possible. They banned visits, identified their own designated kitchen and washroom facilities. The design of the building, shared by other office staff and pilots, meant that a stairway and access was also restricted for their exclusive use. Berthing officers, the personnel responsible for the preparation of the berth and the correct positioning of the ship, could also maintain social distancing. With the government lockdown, the office emptied but until then pilots shared facilities with the rest of the staff.
The nature of a pilot’s job inevitably brings him or her into close contact with others. Just to get to and from the ship will involve a combination of taxis and launches. Who had just been in the taxi? Who had the taxi driver been in contact with? As the crisis escalated the port authority tried to ameliorate this particular risk with dedicated cars and drivers. The launches themselves are kept clean and all surfaces are very regularly sanitised. By sitting at the back of the cabin the pilot could maximise the distance from the crewmen, but it’s not two metres. And what happens when the boat is carrying two or more pilots. Some pilots choose to wear masks. Simply put, it is inevitable that the pilot boarding an inbound vessel will already have been in close proximity to at least three individuals before he or she arrives at the bottom of the pilot ladder.

For a ship with no declared cases of Covid-19, the boarding is pretty much as it has always been. Some pilots have always worn gloves climbing the ladder, some don’t. I don’t, preferring to grip the rope and stanchions with my bare hands. Where coronavirus has changed my habits is that as soon as I reach the deck I use my hand sanitiser. On the way to the bridge, I try to avoid touching doors and other surfaces. (These days I’m more than happy to step back and let the crewman open the door for me). And, of course, definitely no handshakes.
Of all the restrictions and procedures that have been introduced in the wake of the coronavirus it is, perhaps, the absence of handshakes that seems the biggest change. The international symbol of friendship, welcome and confidence has been removed overnight. While the media have talked of the Wuhan Shake and Elbow Nudges, most Captains and myself seem happier to use the other ancient symbol of friendship – the raised open palm. But that’s okay in daylight. Before lockdown, I would arrive on a darkened bridge, blindly reaching out my hand, and it was quite reassuring to get the fumbled handshake from the Captain whose eyes were already adjusted to the darkness. Now I’m left loitering at the door until my eyes adjust.

And what is the bridge team wearing? Masks? Gloves? Either? Both? Even now, a month into lockdown, there is still no clear-cut decision on the efficacy of either outside the clinical setting. Shipping companies and individual vessels have introduced their own individual requirements. An Italian tanker company, perfectly understandably, has introduced a quite stringent procedure. Before entering the wheelhouse I’m required to dip the soles of my shoes into disinfectant and don surgical gloves and mask. But none of the ship’s staff wore gloves or mask. A few ships have managed to acquire electronic infrared thermometers, so my temperature is checked before entry, (invariably, if the design of the ship allows, I now always taken up the external stairway). On other vessels all the bridge team were also wearing gloves and masks. But they removed the masks to smoke on the bridge wing and to drink their coffee. At no point did I see them sanitise their gloves, though they were all using the same equipment.
Wherever possible, (and I’ve successfully argued this on a number of vessels), rather than wear gloves, I prefer to frequently sanitise my hands and – as previously mentioned – try to touch any parts of the bridge as little as possible. Consequently, I find myself using my personal VHF radio in preference to the ship’s set. Similarly, the pilot’s personal unit, (PPU – a pilot’s own electronic chart system) has the advantage that only my (sanitised) fingers have been all over it. Wearing PPE also has serious consequences on a pilot’s eating and drinking; it is impossible to drink a cup of coffee through a mask or eat a meal. So, with an apologetic shrug, on most ships it is not offered. Who knows, maybe they’re smiling under their masks. So, I content myself with a surreptitious sip from my own bottle of water – well away from others).

What is clear is that nearly all vessels are taking the crisis seriously. But not all. I will still board a vessel where life seems to have passed them by. No protective equipment worn,or expected to be worn by anyone. I’ve even had to refuse the Captain’s handshake. Though I have yet to meet the Captain who greeted a Cork pilot with the cheery welcome: “What’s the fuss, and why did you close all your pubs!”
While it might appear that the response onboard most vessels is somewhat piecemeal, this is certainly not the case on a ship that has declared that it has COVID-19 onboard. The pilot will wear full protective gear: gloves, mask, goggles and a protective oversuit. Wearing this level of protective gear generates its own problems. Just wearing a mask muffles speech, particularly difficult for the recipient whose first language is rarely English. Wearing gloves makes operating bridge equipment, especially touchscreens, awkward. Goggles have a tendency to steam up making compliance with Rule 5 of the ColRegs problematic! The oversuit inhibits movement. Overall, the general consensus is that the very necessary PPE is quite stressful and tiring to wear. The numerous pictures on social media of pilots in PPE with their thumbs up don’t tell the whole picture! They were almost certainly taken before or at the start of the job.

This is written in the middle of the crisis, I hope. (It’s the fourth week of lockdown in the UK and I – and the rest of the world – hope there are not many, many more months ahead of us). But the World Health Organisation are now saying people’s actions will have to change once this pandemic is over. (It has been said that after the bubonic plague the British stopped greeting people with a kiss on the cheek). Does that mean the end of the handshake with the Captain before and after an act of pilotage? I hope not, and I remain optimistic. Mainly because traditions at sea remain strong. And although another tradition has at the moment been regrettably suspended, I look forward to the day when the first question I am asked when I walk on the bridge is: “How do you like your coffee, pilot?”
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.
WH
Author: William Hargreaves
retired marine pilot - ABP - Associated British Ports

Join the conversation...

Login or register to write comments and join the discussion!
RC
Ricardo Caballero Vega Panama Canal Pilots Association, Panama
on 26 March 2021, 21:36 UTC

Thanks for sharing this article. People do not always understand that because of the nature of our job we are more expose to the virus than the average worker and that, at least for now, remote piloting is not an option.
Stay safe colleague.
0

AC
Andrea Caroli France
on 25 March 2021, 20:50 UTC

Nice & pleasant reading, though with a sad undertone. Let's hope for the best.
1

Read more...

Video Look at Life - Sea Horses - Tugboats from the 1960s

published on 18 March 2021

The video is the latest Look at Life, Volume One - Transport called Sea Horses – Little Tugs, without which any big port would come to a standstill, are featured made in May 1962, UK.

0

Video Awesome video from USA: Tampa Pilotage

published on 6 October 2021

Pilotage of cargo ship in Tampa (USA).

0

Video Tanker maneuvering/unmooring, "MTM Potomac", 180m

published on 17 June 2021

The "MTM Potomac" is a 180 meter tanker, without a thruster and a fixed pitch, right handed propeller (like most).
This particular maneuver consisted of backing her about a ship´s length, then swinging to port with the help of 2 ASD tugs.

1

Video Pilot disembarkation from tanker at BAY OF BENGAL

published on 9 November 2021

Hooghly river Marine pilotage is one of the toughest and longest pilotage in the world,
pilots here face many challenges daily to enable safe passage of ships from bay of Bengal to the port of CALCUTTA and Haldia.
Pilot embarkation and disembarkation is a vital part , where the pilot climbs up or down a rope ladder ,if the free board is more than 9 meters then combination ladder is used it needs very good physical fitness practice and experience to safely embark and disembark from these...

1

Video BERGE BIMBERI to Port of Rotterdam

published on 31 March 2022

On march 24th, 2022, the bulkcarrier BERGE BIMBERI entered Port of Rotterdam via the Eurochannel. The ship had a draft of 17,6 meters and two pilots were flown in by helicopter for this job. Assisted by Faiplay tugs and KRVE linesmen she eventually berthed at EECV bulk terminal in Europoort, Rotterdam.

0

Article Pilot Boats, a Designer and Builders Perspective

by Safehaven Marine - published on 6 August 2021

Safehaven Marine build a range of vessels for many different operational roles such as patrol, survey, crew transfer to name a few, but what makes Safehaven unique is that we specialize in pilot boats, with 80% of our production dedicated to just this area, and have supplied over 50 pilot craft all around the world over the last 17 years.

0

Article Humphree AB awarded best motion controls supplier 2020 by Baird Maritime

published on 11 February 2021

Humphree motion control systems appear on these pages almost weekly. Established 19 years ago by a group of very experienced Swedish marine engineers, the company has made a distinguished name for its products in the comparatively short time since.

0

Article Civitavecchia, the guild of pilots celebrates its 150th anniversary

published on 26 June 2021

It was in fact 25 June 1871 when King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy, by Royal Decree 345, established a Pilot Corps in the port of Civitavecchia (60 kilometres north of Rome).

1

Article Evergreen Shipping’s new world record megamax arrives at Port of Taipei (incl. video)

published on 12 August 2021

Evergreen Shipping’s new 24,000 TEU container ship EVER ACE arrived at the Port of Taipei for the first time today, August 8, breaking a record for the largest ship by tonnage to dock at the port.

0