Pilotage And The 6 Deadly "I's"

by Capt. Gary Clay (UK) - published on 3 September 2020 1924 -

Article by Marine Pilot, Maritime Consultant Gary Clay. Photo by Antonio Alcaraz

I was recently listening to one of my favourite BBC Radio 4 Comedy's Cabin Pressure about the exploits of the eccentric crew of the single aeroplane owned by "MJN Air" as they are chartered to take all manner of items, people or animals across the world. In one episode the crew attend a comical Crew Resource Training Course in which they learn about 'The 6 Deadly I's for a pilot'. Whilst I believe this list is the fictional imaginings of the shows creator John Finnemore it really struck a chord with me in my day to day activities as a maritime pilot.

The 6 deadly "I's" are listed as:


Something we are all guilty of, making rash decisions when impatience gets the better of us that can and frequently does lead to maritime incidents. However impatience is a very particular mental and physical process that is triggered under specific circumstances and triggers certain types of decision making. impatience is triggered when we have a set goal (for example berthing a vessel) but realise it's going to cost us more than we thought to reach it (the vessel is only making 6 knots against the tide and is taking much longer than predicted).

Just like the child waiting for Christmas, at first the child is not impatient but as they increasingly imagine the event occurring, fuelled by countless TV ads and shows the child grows impatient. Waiting for Christmas has cost more than they thought it would in terms of their ability to pay attention to other things in the meantime. The goal (Christmas Day) cost more than anticipated in the amount of mental capacity devoted to it and this triggers the impatience.

Impatience motivates us to try to reduce the cost of reaching the goal, we look for ways to avoid the additional costs. Rather than making a two stage manoeuvre in which the vessel is brought to a stop prior to completing the final stage of berthing we try to do it all as one manouevre and consequently allied with the quay or quayside infrastructure. Rather than waiting for the tug we decide we can reduce the cost of the goal by leaving the berth without one and end up parting a mooring line.

Understanding when you are feeling impatient is the key to removing such behaviour. It's that nagging voice at the back of your mind, that 'Spidey Sense' that is an imperative skill the maritime pilot needs to develop to guard against the dangers of impatience.


Being impulsive can be beneficial in life opting up new opportunities and presenting new experiences that we would otherwise miss out on. The chance meeting with the love of your life when you went out with your friends on a whim or the application you made for a job you didn't think you could ever do leads to a successful career.

Impulsiveness tends to reduce with age. Children are incredibly impulsive, and by seeing the outcomes they improve their cognitive pathways that allow them to predict outcomes in the future. As we age we tend to become less impulsive as our exposure to the outcomes of such behaviours grows.

As a pilot we board a vessel with a passage plan and a manoeuvring plan that we will discuss as part of our Master Pilot Exchange. By doing this it not only ensures inclusivity within the bridge team but ensures impulsive deviations from this plan are greatly reduced. Last minute changes without forethought or the consideration of the consequences are a major factor in marine accidents but thankfully with proper procedures such as MPX, running commentary and a challenge and response culture can be easily eradicated from the pilotage environment.


Possible the most frightening of the deadly I's is the feeling of invulnerability. Invulnerability tends to be a trait that grows over time when non-compliant behaviour results in positive outcomes that sends positive feedback to the individual that they are in some way special and exempt from the rules. They are better than their peers, they are specially talented and the more they 'get away with it' the more invulnerable they feel.

Invulnerability is a common trait in some of humanities worst individuals, the serial killers, the embezzlers, the corporate criminals however it is a human trait we all possess to some degree. A contemporary example of this would be the members of society failing to comply with COVID-19 regulations such as social distancing, the wearing of face coverings and the advice surrounding hand washing etc. The feeling of invulnerability is once again to some extent age based. Young children need to feel the pain of falling over, trapping their fingers or banging their heads to build up a healthy fear for the consequences of their actions which ensures their survival into adulthood.

I have always said to newly authorised pilots that having an incident early in your career is not always a bad thing. Hopefully it will be a small scrape of the ships paintwork but the very fact that you have had such an incident proves you are fallible, and whilst it dents your confidence and you will dwell on it for some time, it prevents this feedback loop that can lead to a feeling of invulnerability. The worst situation is the pilot that has never had an incident, or at least never admits to such. Some of the worst accidents we see during pilotage are as a direct result of the 'god like' autocrat pilot who feels he is above not only the ships crew but his colleagues, his managers and the regulations.


Sell doubt is, in my experience, not something maritime pilots suffer from greatly! Generally, in the past, as a pilot you will of have come from senior marine position prior to taking up the role and will have developed into a robust and confident decision maker.

However this is not always the case, and history tells us that some of the most prominent figures of the past were secretly racked with self doubt. In addition to this pilots are increasingly spending less time at sea and consequently coming from more junior ranks which can lead to a feeling of being 'out of one's depth' as a pilot.

However insecurity an come from many areas. Job insecurity, relationship insecurity, financial insecurity etc. All of these can have a draining effect upon an individuals ability to cope with mental stress and reduce the cognitive capacity to plan, implement and reassess.

In terms of insecurity as a pilot there are many ways to develop individuals self esteem and positivity about their professional abilities.

1. Accepting that all individual are insecure to some extent is the first step. Despite the veneer of ability and confidence your colleagues may exude be reassured that EVERYONE has some degree of insecurity at work.

2. Being objective is imperative. You have reached your position through hard work and competence, you have an equal reason to be here as your peers.

3. Focus outwards. Find a purpose larger than yourself and your targets. Realise the benefits of the relationships you develop with ships crews, the benefit your role brings to them and the wider community.

4. Accept failure. You are not a machine, you will on occasion fail, but try to take the positive from the negative. You may have negated a much larger failure.

5. Focus on excellence. Going the extra mile helps to develop your self esteem. Be the BEST at Master Pilot Exchange or at keeping the bridge team in the loop or at simply bringing a happy atmosphere to the bridge despite the weather and the ungodly hour.

6. Fake it! Appreciate that everyone to some extent is playing a part. We assimilate traits and behaviours of our successful peers to create a projection of ourselves for the world. Find a role model and learn what makes them successful and 'borrow' some of those traits.


We have all been in this situation! Plan A or Plan B? The clock is ticking, we need to decide how we are about to prevent the incident becoming a serious accident but suddenly feel like a rabbit in the headlights! Indecision is not an immediately bad thing as being able to assess the situation, work the problem through and come to a considered decision is a valuable trait however getting stuck in the moment can be fatal. Indecision is the polar opposite to impulsiveness.

A classic example of this is "The Miracle On The Hudson' in which the pilots of Flight 1549 experienced a bird strike shortly after departing LaGuardia Airport in New York. Having limited altitude they had few options, the most attractive of all being a return to the airport. However after working through the problem the Captain Chesley Sullenberger made the decision to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River. A decision that after intensive investigation and allegations proved to be the correct option.

But when does tactical thinking time become indecision. The line between being able to carefully consider your options and come to correct outcome (or at least a successful one) and getting trapped in the headlights is a thin one.

Successful decision making in pilotage comes from greater situational awareness. One can only make a judgement based on the information to hand, the more limited this data, the less we have to base our decision on, and the greater the level of indecision.

Situational awareness is the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status into the near future (Endsley, 1995).

A pilot needs to be focussed, involved and attentive in order to have the level of situational awareness required to deal with developing situations. Being able to recognise the level of focus is imperative to ensuring adequate situational awareness, generally speaking the closer the ship comes to the berth the greater the focus required and the greater the situational awareness.

Once a situation develops there may need to be a number of different responses required which will largely be time governed.

1. In an unrestricted time horizon the pilot will have the time to involve 'the team' this could involve the bridge team, VTS, tugs, other traffic, shore personnel etc. By using the additional resources and working the problem through (think Apollo 13) a better solution can be found. In synergic decision making, the leader implements the rules and has overall responsibility for the process. The leader can and should give credence to each team member’s opinion before reaching a decision. New paths to comprehension or resolution are kept open. The leader seeks consensus and checks that every team member agrees with the collective decisions (e.g., goals, Situational Awareness, course of action).

2. In a limited time horizon the options to 'group think' are severely reduced. You may be able to consult with the bridge team or second pilot (if you are lucky enough to have one) but detailed conversations with shore based personnel is not going to be possible. A leader may rely on team members for hypothesis confirmation, to define new alternatives or to resolve doubts. The leader has the responsibility to make maximum use of team resources. Team members are open to requests from the leader and have the responsibility to assist the leader whenever possible. For this, the assertiveness of team members needs to be high. The collective decision process is actively managed by everyone — leader and team members. Initiatives for beginning collective action are shared among all the members of the team. However this process must be used only by well-established teams with high levels of collective decision-making skills and where strong rules and habits already exist (e.g., education, training, experience, functioning procedures). Otherwise, the risk of poor collective decision making is high.

3. In a severely time limited event the decision becomes largely autonomous decision making by individual team members may be the only way to cope with situations containing interfering external factors such as excessive time stress and/or high workload. The need to respond quickly and to manage large amounts of information precludes communication among team members. Autonomous decision making can also occur even when there is ample available time or workload is low and is a result of the leadership style, personality or confidence level of the team members. Under autonomous decision making, the leader works almost alone, and the team members try to help when conditions permit. The leader is also open to advice from the team members. Regardless of the pressure of the situation, the leader must be open to safety inputs. Also, autonomous decision making puts a premium on the competence and assertiveness of the team members. The principal risk in this process is that the leader may become isolated and lonely. The leader communicates decisions (e.g., goals, situational awareness, course of action) as soon as the situation allows. This is an important step to keep the team members in the decision loop and maintain their activation level to perform the task successfully. When time permits, the leader explains and discusses his or her decisions in order to bolster team confidence and support for his or her leadership.

By better understanding the developing situation the pilot should be able to decide the best strategy and make the best use of their resources.

The ways we can defend against indecision start at the planning process, understanding the passage the UKC constraints, the abort points, the traffic levels etc. By fully planning we build in safety and reduce the risk of indecision.

Creating good team dynamics and interpersonal relationships within the bridge team and with external personnel creates investment. This helps to ensure that when things start to go wrong we can work better as a team to resolve them.

Finally comes experience. The ability gained through repeatedly seeing the outcomes of decisions within a pilotage environment. This is what underpins a pilotage 'class system' in that the ships with the largest negative outcomes are piloted by the most experienced individuals.

I Know Best!

The final deadly I is the classic autocratic pilot. He fails to involve anybody within the bridge team, is dismissive of input from others and can become aggressive if his actions are challenged.

We've no doubt all been there when we were at sea, the usually controlling, authoritative, confident Captain suddenly becomes a nervous, compliant, unchallenging individual unwilling to challenge the overbearing, god-like pilot.

The I Know Best pilot is possibly the most dangerous of all, they act autonomously with disregard for the ships crew, VTS and shore side input. They baulk at any suggestion and feel superior to all around them!

The problem with pilotage is that this style of pilot can slip through the cracks. Since pilotage is on large a solitary occupation without external supervision these individuals can exist within an organisation without detection until a serious incident occurs.

Better training and personality can assist in these areas. Many autocrats have little awareness of their behaviour until conducting such personality evaluations and suddenly when reviewing the results are able to appreciate their flaws. Simulator training can also be good to identify individuals with such character traits along with regular assessments where the individual can be seen in their 'natural environment'.

We are all fallible. Accepting that this is a fact and becoming better at interpersonal skills not only makes us a more effective pilot but can have a positive effect in all areas of your life.


As I said the impetus for this article came a Radio 4 comedy. However I hope it proved valuable to you. Pilotage may have been around for thousands of years in one form or another however as our understanding of risk develops and society becomes increasingly risk averse we need to change and develop with it.

By understanding ourselves and developing procedures not only can we become better pilots but I also think we can become better people.
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 4 September 2020, 05:19 UTC

Thanks for sharing!

I especially liked your pointing out of pilot being a solitary occupation. This is very true and very seldom one gets honest feedback from the captain. I for my part appreciate those few (the positive ones especially 😉).
Without that feedback there is practically no one pointing out if one starts to develop some bad routines or when you start to become „a bit special“.
[show more]

Marine Pilot Cherag Daruwalla Australia
on 3 September 2020, 14:02 UTC

A brilliant article, well written.
Thank you for sharing.


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