Turner: Here’s a low-tech solution when bridge controls are lacking


The pilot uses the sender unit from the starboard bridge wing.

Bridge controls on modern ships have improved through the years with complete control of the ship from the bridge wings. However, there are many older ships that have no wing controls at all. Whether this was from cost savings or ships designed for a certain route that did not require close-quarters maneuvering, the lack of wing controls will test a pilot’s docking skills.

Docking a ship by voice commands from the bridge wing adds possible communication errors from misunderstandings, especially when different nationalities are in the bridge team. Crew manning level reductions mean multitasking by the remaining crewmembers. The ship’s master might be assuming the mate’s position on the bridge, as the mate is handling lines on deck. The helmsman is often the only other person on the bridge team. The ship’s master is left to work the controls of twin engines and thrusters when docking.

The receiver unit allows the captain to work the engines and bow thruster.

When the master and helmsman are different nationalities, calling in maneuvering commands from the outer wing often requires hand signals and body language. The commands of “starboard” and “stop engines” are easily confused on a windy day when shouting with cupped hands from 30 feet away to foreign nationals inside the bridge. Quizzical looks from bridge staff from a misunderstood command as the ship is drifting toward peril certainly raises the blood pressure of the pilot. Of course, the use of tugboats would eliminate most of this anxiety. However, a pier full of ship-handling experts, including line-handlers, ship’s agents and stevedores, will be bewildered as to why a ship with twin screws and a bow thruster could possibly need a tugboat to help dock the ship.

The Harbor Pilots at the Port of Palm Beach face this situation, especially with the fact that ships must maneuver into narrow slips with strong cross-currents and winds at the mouth of the three slips in the port. Large boxy roll-on/roll-off ships must back into these slips all the way to the ramps with other ships already moored in the slips. Poor visibility with the boxy design looking astern means a pilot must be on the far end of the bridge wing sometimes 35 feet away from the bridge controls to maneuver the ship.

The sender unit and receiver unit are connected with 35 feet of cable.

A low-tech solution alleviates much of this anxiety. A remote set of bridge controls created by a pilot gives the master a visual request for the engines and thrusters. With the help of hobby stores, electronic shops and home improvement centers, a device was created with many hours of tinkering. Twenty-one LED lights and a small buzzer are powered by a single 9-volt battery. The buzzer gets the attention of a distracted captain. Each LED light is wired by 35 feet of doorbell wire. The 35 feet of bundled wire snakes its way into the wheelhouse from the remote control as the pilot walks the bridge wing. Lighted marine switches make nighttime use possible.

Hopefully, there will be a day when this device will be made redundant and all ships are equipped with wing controls. There seems to be a never-ending supply of vessels where the naval architect has never handled a ship with poor maneuvering visibility in adverse conditions. Perhaps after seeing this device, some more thought will be put into wing control design. 

Capt. Greg Turner is a harbor pilot at Port of Palm Beach, Fla.

By Professional Mariner Staff