Coping with bigger measures

Monday 09 March 2015 Lloyds List

by Michael Grey

HOW do you get a quart into a pint pot? Of course you can’t unless you are in the shipping industry and you wish to take your enormous ship into a port that probably won’t accommodate it. You will then threaten the port authority that if they won’t let your ship in because of some specious excuse about its size, then you will take all your custom elsewhere.

The port authority, seeing financial ruin fast approaching with the loss of such a customer, will announce a programme of dredging, producing predictable shrieks from the local greens, who announce that they will fight this environmental catastrophe in the highest court available.

The port authority, who realise the programme will take years to accomplish against such opposition, then lean heavily on the harbourmaster and the pilots, suggesting that with just a little extra effort and expertise, helped perhaps by the tide and the tugs, it will be perfectly safe to accommodate the bigger ship.

Modern ships, it will be pointed out, are so very manoeuvrable, with their thrusters and clever rudders, that they can spin around with a couple of feet clearance at bow or stern. The harbourmaster will run the survey boat over the channel if the ship is fully laden. The bottom is mostly soft mud, isn’t it? Put like this, it is not really an issue.

None of this is entirely a figment of my imagination, as such a situation is likely to accompany the “cascading” of containerships displaced from their initial trade by the arrival of bigger ships. It is already a problem in one important South American port, where the pilots are cutting up rough at the longer, wider and deeper ships they are expected to handle, which they believe constitutes too much of a risk without dredging.

One would like to think that no port management would be so stupid that they would permit the entry of ships that were too large for safety. But as always, it is a matter of degree and definition and what we mean by a “safe” margin.

Who decides what is “safe” anyway? Is it the harbourmaster? Surely the pilots, who are the people who handle the ships every day, should have an important say in the matter? Or should the final word be given to the masters of the ships, who must remain responsible for their safety?

What about the port manager, or even the responsible government agency, which probably retains some sort of handle on what is meant by marine safety within its jurisdiction?

Realists will probably suggest that this has been going on for ever, and the current problems of the cascading containerships just the latest manifestation. Boundaries and port limits are there to be pushed, as they always have been.

I am old enough to recall the earnest debates in professional circles when very large crude carriers first appeared, when clever oil company executives suggested that it was perfectly safe to bring one of these babies up a 20-mile channel on the top of the tide, to sit in a dredged hole alongside the berth. The fact that it was done, mostly without incident, has probably given encouragement to port and shipping people to this day. We thought that medals should have been struck for the masters and pilots of these monstrous ships, but a letter of thanks would have probably been their only reward, if they were very fortunate.

These days we have brilliant simulators, where pilots can rehearse their manoeuvres before the new giant customers heave over the horizon. But it is still a tribute to pilots that they can seemingly extrapolate their skills to operate with bigger and bigger “envelopes” and with smaller and smaller margins for error.

At a time when this is all happening and our dependence on pilots’ skills to keep these big ships safe seems to be becoming greater, you wouldn’t think that certain ports were attempting to suggest that they could get away with less experienced pilots, presumably because they were cheaper. But this, alas, seems to be the case in a number of UK ports, which have been encouraged by a lack of government oversight to cut corners in the way that they authorise qualified marine pilots.

Many ports would not dream of seeking anything other than the very highest pilotage standards, but according to Birkenhead lawyer Barrie Youde, the fact that the UK’s Department for Transport maintains a hands-off attitude to the provisions of the 1987 Pilotage Act, leaves the harbour authorities very much in the driving seat.

Mr Youde, a former pilot himself, has been for years campaigning indefatigably for the maintenance of highest standards, pointing out that common law prescribes these, particularly where pilotage is imposed in a compulsory fashion.

His assertion is strongly backed up by the Transport Select Committee, which reported on the matter two years ago, but without any subsequent action by the Secretary of State for Transport. It is, he suggests, a conflict in which the state, which appears to wish to remain aloof, is ranged against the judiciary, which in the case of the Sea Empress disaster of 1996, ruled unequivocally, that where pilotage is compulsory, the highest standards are required.

The argument has been going on for so long that one is tempted to suggest that it has become almost philosophic, but nothing could be further from the truth as the matter is both intensely practical and very topical.

It is about competence and experience and the very real risks that arise when ships are handled with increasingly tight margins. The “cascade” of containerships should not be at risk of becoming a cascade of spilt oil, or boxes floating in the tideway, if the margins are rather tighter than they first appeared.


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