The problem with the new pilot boats

One of the things I have noticed in the new generation of pilot boats is their tendency to insulate the operator from the working environment.  The new designs totally insulate the operator from the actual operation of bringing a boat alongside a ship and seem to make the actual boarding of the pilot into more of a video game than a crucial moment.

When I started as a pilot on the Columbia River Bar, we used a twenty-foot daughter boat to go alongside ships.  The operator was launched from the P/B PEACOCK in the small boat and went alongside the ship.  The operator was standing in the open air with one small radio, which he usually could not hear due to the noise of the boat and seas, and he maneuvered the boat with a single throttle and wheel.  This operator saw everything: the seas state, the pilot ladder, and the pilots entire trip down the side of the ship.  His reactions were so closely tied to what was going on that there was no question of his sharing either the success or failure of the operation.

Today, we see the pilot boats completely insulating the operator from the actual operation of boarding and retrieving pilots. The operator is inside a climate-controlled wheelhouse with noise levels intentionally lowered and visibility limited to the number of heavy windows and structure of the various designs. The operator is subjected to three radio frequencies, an untold number of engine alarms, video cameras, and fax machines, all while handling a boat with fingertip controls. Any external relationship with the actual seas conditions or sounds associated with the actual boarding operation is artificial, from either remote speakers or weather instruments.

With notable exceptions, the pilot boat designers have eliminated the flying bridge from pilot boats. I believe this is a major oversight in current pilot boat design. This puts pilots at unnecessary risk, and actually goes against the normal ship handling norms that pilots use every day.  It is unusual for a pilot to dock a ship from inside the wheelhouse. It is almost always done from outside on the bridge wing because, as every pilot knows, there are numerous factors of weather, current, and visibility that go unseen from inside the protected wheelhouse.

Many of the boats have an outside maneuvering station at the stern for handling rescue, but the more frequent job of going alongside a ship has become more remote in recent years. The comfort of the pilot boat operators in the climate-controlled wheelhouse has taken precedence over the need for the operators’ complete attention.  This elimination has made the newer pilot boats less safe than the older open boats.

A quick look at the Coast Guard’s 47-foot motor lifeboat shows that the flying bridge is the primary means of conning the boat. Even in inclement weather, the boats are always manned from outside, in the weather, which increases their ability to effect rescues.  Pilot boat designers need to return to this philosophy, and to put a flying bridge with simple controls and no other distractions into their designs.

The good environment for the pilot boat operators, with sound deadening and good monitoring equipment is fine during the transport phase of the boat.  However, when the boat goes into the critical maneuvering phase of the operation, an external station is needed.  This simple return may be just the ticket to reduce the number of injuries that have plagued the pilots in recent years.

Captain W. A. Worth

By Professional Mariner Staff