A view on Southampton Pilotage: George Livingstone

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I’ve spent the last few mornings looking out over the San Francisco Bay wondering about the far flung, wide spread scope of marine transportation. I remember as a boy my father taking us to the harbour where we would sit and watch the ships come and go for hours on end. I suppose most readers of this magazine have a similar interest in the sea and the great ports of the world. 

Readers may recall the incredible deliberate grounding of the car carrier Hoegh Osaka in January of this year. In the event you have not heard, the Hoegh Osaka was outbound for sea on Saturday 3 Jan. when commencing a turn around a known shoal area the ship experienced a near catastrophic list. With little warning and no time the pilot with the concurrence of the ship master calmly and deliberately put the ship aground on the shoal in order
to avert complete disaster.

The Port of Southampton, one of the United Kingdom’s greatest and oldest ports, lies on the south coast almost directly across the English Channel from another famous port city, Cherbourg, France. The imposing Isle of Wight lies just offshore forming an area known as The Solent – famous for yacht racing the world over. It is from The Solent that Southampton Water leads up to The Port of Southampton and where the Rivers Test, Itchen and Hamble feed in. The Rivers Test and Itchen are surely the most famous trout streams in the world, hence this makes the Port an extremely sensitive environmental area where safe pilotage contributes greatly to preserving this unique area. There are double High Tides creating 17 hours of rising tide per day, which gives unhindered access to the world’s largest vessels. The Thorn Channel with its sharp turn in cross currents at the Bramble Bank and an 80º turn at Calshot Spit requires skillful execution by the pilots. In the Solent, very heavy winter winds, swirling currents and sandbanks galore interspersed with a high density of recreational craft and numerous ferries, mark out this area as a challenging area to navigate. In contrast, the relatively sheltered Southampton Water, a linear dredged channel that leads up towards the second largest container port in the United Kingdom, which is situated beyond the Old Docks, where many Cruise Ships call to the 4 dedicated Cruise terminals that specialise in ‘Turnarounds’. (This refers to the place where the old passengers get off and brand new passengers get on)

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The Port is in an excellent strategic position and has been an important port in the UK for nearly two thousand years, since Roman occupation. Through WWll it was a centre for shipbuilding and a major departure port for soldiers going to war. Great passenger liners like RMS Titanic, Queen Mary & Queen Elizabeth, etc. were regular callers to Southampton. Interestingly, it is thought that the word ‘airport’ derives from the Port of Southampton, when it was home to International Flying Boats (e.g. Imperial Airways), which taxied into the Port to embark/disembark their passengers – up to this point in time planes flew from aerodromes! Today the port is operated by ABP Group (Associated British Ports) and is the UK’s number one cruise port (500 calls per annum), the busiest car port (import/export), and second largest container port and has within the Statutory Harbour Area one of the UK’s largest oil refineries, as well as, another major Oil terminal. Some of the largest vessels in the world call at the port including Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the 338m, 154,407 gross tons ‘Freedom’ class and the largest ULCV’s (Ultra Large Container Vessel) in the world like the 19,000TEU CSCL Globe checking in at 400m & 187,605 Tons.

There are 42 pilots operating at the port; given where they work and the size of ships piloted, they are highly regarded in the international piloting community. All the Pilots are Master Mariners with comprehensive sea-going experience and usually commence their pilotage career in their early thirties and follow a five to six year training program from start through to handling the world’s largest vessels. Pilots in Southampton report via the Pilotage Manager (also a pilot) to the Harbour Master. Pilots are self rostering and there are a minimum of 9 pilots on duty at any one time. The Harbour Master heads a department of 120 persons including pilots, pilot launch crews, VTS staff, patrol launch crew, hydrographic staff, administration personnel and others.

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There are two ‘direct boarding’ fast pilot launches (each manned by two crew) on a 24/7 basis. The pilot launches operate from just inside the Harbour entrance in Gosport. The Southampton Patrol Launch is also a pilot boat and often works the western limit of the piloting area.
The largest vessels (ULCV’s) to and from the container port take two pilots and would leave Gosport aboard a pilot launch (a trip of approximately 40 minutes in fair weather). The launch meets the ship at a designated pilot boarding area and ensures the ship provides a good lee prior to the pilot(s) climbing the pilot ladder up the ships side. It may then take a further three or four minutes for the pilots to reach the bridge where they are straight away called into action. In bad weather the launch ride can leave the pilot feeling a bit nauseous but he still has to get aboard and perform his duties. After a Master/Pilot exchange he will concentrate on transiting the Nab channel prior to a long run through the Solent. Highly accurate positioning equipment is taken aboard and operated by the second pilot, which assists with situational awareness throughout the pilotage passage. The Pilots liaise by radio with VTS Southampton and also QHM Portsmouth as naval and commercial traffic also share this part of the Eastern Solent. The planning of such large vessels entering the Port requires careful coordination with other traffic movements to enable safe passing as some parts of the passage require ‘Clear Channel’ status. After an hour or so the vessel makes its approach to the Thorn Channel. Positioning is critical as the ship has to enter a narrow channel making due allowance for wind and a cross tide. The pilot will be aware of the depth underkeel at all times – these are pre-calculated for the passage in. Once clear of the Thorn Channel the ship passes the oil terminals at dead slow speed before making her final approach to the tugs and into Southampton Docks. Wind and weather affect these increasingly larger ULCV’s, which typically have a lateral windage area of 18000 sq m where forces of 122t are exerted at 20 knots of wind, rising to 273t at 30 knots and in the middle of a winter’s night with a full Gale blowing, the ship’s master and bridge team are happy and relieved to have pilots guiding them into Port with an appropriate amount of towage available for a safe and uneventful docking.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Baird Maritime.Photo acknowledgments: Chris Upton

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