English Channel pilots enhance safety in world’s busiest waterway

Less than 10 percent of the ships entering the English Channel take a pilot,” said North Sea and Channel pilot Capt. Roger Francis.

At that moment, Francis was in the pilot station overlooking Brixham Harbour in the southwest of England.

Long a major seaport, an 1850 account of Brixham reports, “Many vessels are employed here in the coasting, and the Spanish and Mediterranean trades. The harbor being well protected by the bold, high promontory of Berry-head, is a great place of refuge for shipping in stormy weather; and during westerly winds, great numbers of vessels may be seen riding at anchor here and in other parts of Torbay.”

Today the port’s piers are home to a fleet of handsome Dutch-built beam trawlers, but the commercial trading vessels are long gone. The port’s role in the world of shipping is maintained by its location near the western entrance of the English Channel, which is the primary route for vessels moving between the Atlantic and the North Sea and ports along the way. To the east, the Channel narrows to the Strait of Dover, where more than 20,000 deep-sea ship movements are recorded per year. When cross-channel ferry and other traffic are included, the total exceeds 400 vessel movements per day, making this the busiest such passage in the world.

While separation lanes have been in place for more than 30 years, the fact of cross-channel traffic adds complexity to the navigational challenges.

In December 2002, the containership Kariaba collided with the car carrier Tricolor loaded with 2,000 luxury cars. Tricolor rolled on its side and sank. Two days later the wreck was struck by a German ship, Nicola, and then two weeks later another vessel, Vicky, ran into the sunken ship. Even without the 2,000 cars, this was a bit like a freeway pileup in slow motion. It took eight months to remove the wreck of Tricolor. None of the ships involved carried a pilot.

At the time, Francis told the BBC, “Any ship in the Channel should know where that wreck is. There’s a navigational telex system that’s mandatory on every ship that’s been pumping out messages with the location of the ship, that there are buoys and a guard ship around it, to keep to the south of it.”

But he continued, “In the years that I’ve been negotiating the Dover Straits, the standard of watchkeeping has plummeted. On a run I did last month, I witnessed three near-collisions because watchkeepers failed to keep a lookout.

“It’s the old business of the shipping companies trying to keep costs down when crewing the ships. That astonishes me — they run ships worth £25 million each, yet crew them with the cheapest people they can get. So our biggest problem is keeping out of the way of the idiots.”

Francis is a member of the Europilots and has his credentials as a North Sea and Channel pilot from Trinity House, the venerable British institution that traces its pilotage authority back to 1514 and a royal charter from Henry VIII. Under that charter, Trinity House was given responsibility for all pilots in British waters.

In 1988 the organization divested itself of many of the 600 pilots that it had on its roster and shifted them to the individual ports. It retained only the English Channel pilots, of whom there are currently only about 40. Of these, 22 work with an agent, George Hammond PLC, Marine Services Division.

It is in this group that Francis works. He estimates that there are an additional 20 with the Deep Sea & Coastal Pilots Ltd. out of Gravesend, Kent, as well as around a dozen French pilots who also provide pilotage in these waters.

The 24 members of the Dirkzwager’s Coastal & Deep Sea Pilotage constitute another large group of pilots. Their organization is a subsidiary of the Royal Shipagency Dirkzwager, which was founded shortly after World War II, when masters of foreign vessels approaching the North Sea ports requested the assistance of coastal pilots because of the many minefields, through which only a few narrow swept routes could be used. This was seen as a temporary measure until the mines were removed. However, as traffic increased, vessels grew in size, and sailing schedules became tighter, the service actually grew.

Today the organization provides services to a range of shippers, including Maersk Sealand, NYK Lines, NYK Bulkship, Mitsui OSK Lines, Nissan-HUAL car carriers and a number of tanker operators, for a total of about 500 voyages covering more than half a million nautical miles per year. Many of these voyages involve round trips through the English Channel and on up to North Sea ports such as Hamburg. The pilots routinely spend up to one week onboard.

While North Sea pilots can be boarded at any of the ports, the most usual point is Brixham, with a smaller number being boarded on the south side of the Channel off Cherbourg. Boarding at Cherbourg is often done by helicopter due to weather and distance. At Brixham, boarding is by pilot boat, using one of two 20-knot Halmatic Talisman 49 Pilot Launches operated by the Torbay & Brixham Shipping Agents Ltd.

Located at such a strategic point on the English Channel, this firm provides a wide range of services in addition to transporting pilots. Ships coming in from an Atlantic crossing can radio ahead for charts, repairs to navigation or mechanical components, medical assistance, provisions and stores, crew changes and in-water repairs. The waters of Torbay offer a relatively sheltered anchorage in which divers can survey hull damage or clean hulls. The company has a 79-foot-long displacement-hull tug that can take out heavy supplies or provide dive support services. A barge can supply up to 300 tons of potable water.

At the pilot station on a November morning, Francis was waiting for a call from the containership Hanjin San Francisco inbound from New York. “The majority of the ships that we pilot are operated by the better-managed companies, with good crews who recognize the fatigue problem,” he said. “This Hanjin ship is a perfect example of this, probably being from one of the best Far East ship operators, who value the added safety we bring to the bridge team, for less than £1.80 ($3.30) a mile.”

At 1130, the ship called to say that it was two hours out. Pilot-boat skipper Paul Duncumb finished up the strap that he had been splicing for fendering while explaining that this is the only privately owned pilotage service in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the Hammond group of pilots, Torbay and Brixham also routinely put up pilots from the Deep Sea & Coastal Group, Dirkzwager Maassluis pilots and Le Pilotage Hauturier.

With Hanjin San Francisco approaching the rendezvous point a mile or so offshore, Duncumb and his deck hand David Laing walked with Francis down to the pier. The pilot-boat crew brought the boat around to a stairway in the stone quay to make boarding easy. The boat idled out past the last of the beam trawlers still in port and wound its way around a wandering sailboat and through a crowd of anchored pleasure boats.

Once past the harbor light on the end of the jetty, skipper Duncumb pushed the throttles forward. As Margaret Elaine’s two Scania diesels came up to full revs, the boat came up on plane and moved smoothly past Berry Head and its lighthouse. At 16 feet, it is the shortest lighthouse in the United Kingdom, but because it sits atop a high bluff, it is one of the highest lights, at 190 feet above the sea level.

As Hanjin San Francisco came into sight, Duncumb made radio contact. Francis readied his small duffel, explaining that he expected to spend a week onboard the ship, visiting several ports before leaving it at Le Havre and taking a channel ferry back home. In a watertight black case, he carried a laptop computer loaded with navigation charts. Once aboard, he would plug the laptop into the ship’s system and begin plotting and tracking his courses as part of a project that his group of pilots is working on developing with the British Admiralty and Cosco Shipping.

It was a day of gentle seas, but the ship’s master turned the vessel to make a lee for the pilot boat, and Francis boarded easily. Laing quickly lashed the duffel first and then the laptop to a line dropped from the ship’s rail. The pilot boat swung away and made its way back into the harbor from which Sir Francis Drake once sailed to circumnavigate the world.

The little pilot boat had just completed a much more modest voyage, but if shipping in the crowded waters of the English Channel is to become even safer, it may well be that this pilotage is identified as the most practical way to meet the goal. The International Maritime Organization has already recommended compulsory pilotage as the safest option for tankers in the Channel. Others talk about it being mandatory for all ships, but with ever-increasing traffic, it seems likely that this will continue to be a hot topic along the English Channel.

Alan Haig-Brown is the West Coast editor of Professional Mariner magazine.

By Ocean Navigator