Business in Narrow Waters
By “Awake!” correspondent in New Zealand
THE hour is early and daylight has not yet crept across the still waters of Auckland Harbor, as a solitary figure walks along the jetty to the waiting launch. As he steps aboard, the launch master says: “The signal station has just reported that she is nine miles outside the fairway buoy. We had better get moving.” With a muffled drone of diesel engines, the pilot cutter moves out into the darkness.
With her crew of three, the cutter proceeds down the channels to the vicinity of the fairway buoy at the entrance to the harbor. It is a strongly built vessel, some sixty-five feet in length and capable of exceeding ten knots. “I can see her lights now,” says the launch master, and a radio-telephone message confirms that the pilot ladder will be on the port side, which, tonight, is the lee side. (The lee side is opposite to the weather side.)
The night is quiet, with a slight swell, and very soon the dark shadow of a big freighter can be discerned beneath her navigation lights. Soon the cutter comes quietly alongside. The two vessels are still moving at perhaps five to six knots (or, nautical miles per hour) when the pilot steps onto the rope ladder suspended from the ship’s rail and commences a climb that may be anywhere from ten to thirty feet or more. Over his portable radio-telephone he asks the deckhand below to “be sure to send up the mail,” which is hoisted up the side by means of a light rope. It is traditional in most ports for the pilot to bring out the mail addressed to the crew.
Not always is the boarding of this harbor pilot carried out under such ideal conditions. In gales, with a big sea running, a high degree of seamanship is called for in choosing the right moment to leap from the heaving deck of the pilot cutter to the ladder.
The third officer and an able seaman help the harbor pilot over the rail and escort him to the bridge. The bridge and wheelhouse are in darkness so as not to impair the vision of those in charge, but a face illuminated by the light of the binnacle (the fitting that houses the compass) is the face of the man at the wheel, the quartermaster, as he is usually called on merchant ships. He is steering a compass course that has been given him by the master of the ship. The pilot now steps over to a silent figure standing against the windows and looking ahead. He introduces himself to this shadowy figure, the captain or master of the ship, and the pair shake hands.
This captain is Greek and he has brought his ship out to New Zealand via the Cape of Good Hope. He speaks fluent English, so, on this occasion, there is no difficulty in communication. But of the more than two thousand vessels employing pilots in the port of Auckland each year, virtually every maritime nation is represented—Russian, Scandinavian, American, British, Japanese and numerous others.
This ship has encountered heavy weather in the Great Australian Bight after running east across the southern Indian Ocean. The captain advises that some damage has been done to the windlass, the apparatus for lifting and lowering the anchors. “if it is necessary to anchor,” the captain tells the pilot, “would you please use the starboard anchor only. Our draft is 32 feet aft and 29 feet forward, approximately. Our engines are single screw diesel . . . a little slow in reversing, but I do not anticipate any undue problems . . . she is usually good steering in this trim. What about Customs formalities and port health officials? I have not been to this port before.”
With these exchanges the ship is handed over to the pilot, in this instance a perfect stranger to the captain, and as yet scarcely visible in the darkness of the wheelhouse. Such is the confidence born of tradition and a remarkable accord in international regulations and protocol between nautical men.
“Steady as you go,” the pilot says to the man at the wheel, meaning to continue steering the same course. Then, “Full ahead,” he says to the third mate, who has remained on the bridge and whose further duty it is to record all engine movements given by the pilot, in the event of subsequent casualty.
Conning the Ship
The ship is now entering the channel, and the fairway or sea buoy is close on the port side. “Hard aport,” says the pilot to the helmsman. This man responds by simultaneously repeating the order and turning the wheel as far as it will go to the left. He has really actuated a large steering engine connected to the rudder, which engine has turned the ship’s rudder to the left. It is only in quite small ships that manually operated apparatus is sufficiently strong to turn the rudder. This ship is 550 feet overall and, at this draft, displaces about 25,000 tons, which, if we remember the principle of Archimedes, equals the weight of the ship and everything in her. Slowly at first, the ship responds to this rudder action. Interestingly, a ship pivots on a point about a third of her length from the bow so that her stern is sweeping over an area that is enclosed by the perimeter of a circle, whose radius, in the case of this vessel, is nearly 380 feet. This fact is not always appreciated by small pleasure-boat owners operating in the vicinity of oceangoing vessels. Such craft should keep well clear of maneuvering ships, particularly when they are turning.
As the direction of our ship changes and comes toward the direction in which we wish to go, the pilot says to ease the wheel to 5 degrees port, then, after a pause, he says, “Amidships.” The rudder is now fore and aft with the ship and, although she continues to swing to port, the movement is slowed, and at the further order, “Steady as you go,” the helmsman applies compensating rudder to arrest the swing and finally settles her on the new course. Meantime, we are moving into shallower water and her every response must be watched carefully. There is only four feet of water under her now, as it is low tide. We are in narrow waters as the channel constricts. There are “leading” lights that must be kept in transit and it is not prudent to deviate far from the narrow line indicated.
The lights of an outward-bound ship appear against the background lights of the city, and careful attention to helm orders are required as the two vessels pass less than three hundred feet apart. A collision due to lack of close attention, mechanical defect or sluggish response is ever a risk in such situations. We are doing nearly fifteen knots, and the outward-bounder about the same. She is a tanker, partly discharged, but full of gas, and dangerous. If collision occurred at these combined speeds, the consequences could be disastrous to persons and property. Most of us have seen the results of head-on collisions between motor vehicles weighing only a ton or so. Even if traveling at sixty miles per hour, the combined speeds produce an impact only fractional to that of large ships in contact even at very low speeds. Regretfully, such disasters are not unknown in the seaports of the world. Such a disaster occurred during 1974 in Tokyo Bay, Japan, when a 10,874-ton Liberian freighter collided with a 43,000-ton tanker, setting her on fire. Twenty sailors from the freighter and five from the tanker were killed in that accident.
Our pilot has now completed a variety of orders and has been in radio contact with the signal station. He is informed as to availability of tugs, times of port, officials boarding, berthing times, and so forth. Meantime, he has ordered the engines to be put, first, at “half speed,” thence “slow,” and, finally, “dead slow,” as we proceed up the inner harbor. It is now breaking day and the ship’s captain, who, of course, has been present throughout, is kept informed of developments.
Medical and customs clearance have been granted by the respective officials who have boarded by launch. The chief mate proceeds forward, and the second mate aft, to supervise mooring activities and the securing of tugs. The order is now “slow ahead,” followed by appropriate helm orders and instructions to the tugs by radio-telephone as the vessel is maneuvered into a suitable position to approach the allotted wharf. The pilot using a strategy that utilizes rudder, engines, tug responses and tidal conditions, based on training and experience, and familiarity with the locality and situation, the potentially tricky operation is soon completed, mooring lines are run ashore and the ship is securely moored. “Make her fast at that,” the pilot has said, then, “Ring off the engines,” and we have arrived at the destination. A voyage has been completed, and now the ship becomes the concern of the stevedores and others involved with her cargo.
For many years the great Atlantic liners of Great Britain, U.S.A., Italy, Germany and France exceeded in dimensions and power anything else afloat. They were the biggest mobile things ever built by man. These vessels reached a peak in the “Queen Elizabeth” for tonnage, the “United States” for speed and the “France” for length. The “France,” for instance, is 1,035 feet long, almost a fifth of a mile. These huge ships were regularly conducted by pilots at the ports on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the Atlantic’s “ferry” run declined in importance, some of these vessels found their way into a great variety of other world ports from Rio to Long Beach, from the Orient to New Zealand. And in doing so they completed their calls without incident under the safe conduct of pilots of numerous nationalities. Although it was not until the nineteenth century that the dimensions of the Ark, at about 450 feet in length, were exceeded, the Atlantic liners have been eclipsed during the past decade by giant oil tankers, some of which carry up to 500,000 tons, and draw in excess of 70 feet when loaded.
Why Pilots Are Necessary
Ships of the maritime nations still find their way across the great oceans and open seas, in the main, by the sextant, the compass, the chronometer and by the position of the sun, the moon and the stars. But navigating seagoing vessels in the restricted waters of ports, channels and canals calls for another area of nautical knowledge—a specialist who knows the local conditions of the port or area in which he is licensed to operate. As a harbor pilot he should be able to maneuver a ship through, to and from places in narrow waters unfamiliar to the shipmaster, and place it at anchorage, buoys or wharves, as required.
Pilots have existed in one form or another in nautical affairs since the earliest times, but state recognition of them appears first to have been by Royal Charters in England incorporating guilds or associations of mariners equipped with appropriate powers and privileges. The old charters laid considerable emphasis on the need to prevent “indiscreet and unskilled persons” from imposing their services on the guileless mariner coming in from the high seas and anxiously searching for a safe anchorage. Evidently at this period there must have been a real need to protect shipmasters from roving would-be pilots and unqualified persons. Their activities were not without risk to the pilot or “lodesman,” as he was sometimes called, for the “black book” of the British Admiralty has it that “if a ship is lost by default of the lodesman, the mariners may, if they please, bring the lodesman to the windlass or other place and cut off his head without the mariners being bound to answer to any judge.”
Whereas today there are many international laws governing maritime shipping, yet there is no uniform code of the nations defining legal relations of pilot to master, nor the matter of compulsory pilotage. However, the opinion predominates that the pilot is an adviser to the ship’s master and that the latter never relinquishes the command of his ship to another.
Harbor pilots are the first to board incoming ships and the last to leave outgoing ones. They are often the first to learn of tragedy and may bring into port ships damaged or crippled by stress of weather or collision. And there are pilots who have conducted ships to sea that have been lost before reaching their next port.
The pilot plays a vital part in the endless drama of the sea. Every day and night in the ports, channels and rivers of the world great propellers of bronze and of iron churn up foaming wakes through “narrow waters,” conducted by these nautical guides whose business it is to contribute to the safety of maritime lives and property.