Master and Pilot Exchange Documentation: Richard Wild

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Bridge Procedures Guide (4th edition 2007) contains in Annexes A1 and A2 two forms for communicating information between ship and shore and shore and ship respectively. The shore to ship exchange, normally supplied and completed by the Pilot, is often given the ubiquitous title of the MPX form. The suggested format in the ICS Guide could be called a best practice generic form. The form is primarily a data entry checklist with some scope to record other information, using
a diagram.

Mention is made on the ICS form of the passage plan that should be agreed. This is a connected, but different issue. Some ports such as Göteburg and Southampton use multiple page documents which incorporate reasonably detailed chartlets and the usual checklists. Such forms have two functions: elementary passage planning and the Pilot-Master exchange. Comprehensive all-encompassing documents of this ilk will facilitate effective discussion of the proposed passage by the Pilot and Master in the ECDIS era. This is because, in spite of its many advantages, ECDIS is not a particularly user-friendly tool for multi-stakeholder ‘table-top’ discussions.

In contrast, when a single A4-size MPX form is used, further reference will invariably have to be made to a paper chart or an ENC to agree the detail of the passage plan itself, regardless of how comprehensive
the document is. This article considers the function and purpose of the Pilot-Master exchange form.

What is the document for?

The obvious answer is that the document facilitates the exchange of information between the Pilot and Master. This leads to another question: what information should be recorded on the document? A more insightful answer to these two questions can be obtained if the document is considered by looking at it through the other end of the telescope. Are incidents prevented by using documents derived from the ICS generic form?

The answer is basically no. And there is evidence to support that statement. This doesn’t mean to say that the MPX serves no purpose; it does.

The form is a useful risk management tool because discussion of the UKC for example, which should prevent a grounding, is important. It is fundamental that the Master and Pilot agree on the most appropriate route and for obvious reasons are aware of the depth of water under the keel. But, using this UKC example, very few incidents occur because the incorrect route was selected in the first instance. The norm is a grounding because the ship didn’t remain in the selected channel for whatever reason; track control or turn monitoring are two obvious failures.

So can a form be designed that can help to prevent such an incident? Is it desirable to do so? The answer to these two supplementary questions is basically yes. But as described below, most of the information recorded on such forms in use today has little or no bearing on the outcome of the act of Pilotage. For example, why does the ship’s security level or the name of the ship’s agent have to be recorded? These are examples of combining an operational form with administrative and billing needs. It could be argued that such a form fulfils a modern management desire to create a checklist and admonish staff if they aren’t completed correctly and filed on time. The subsequent scrutiny and critique of information recorded on the form is of secondary importance.

The evidence


Pilot 315 MPEX tablesTable 1 is an analysis of the generic MPX form contained at Annex A2 of the ICS Bridge Procedures Guide compared to the MPX forms used at 16 UK ports (columns A to P). The information on the generic form has been conflated to seven groups or themes and then attributes identified within these themes.

Table 2 is a comparison of three significant incident report failures and UK port MPX compliance. For example, failure to discuss and agree a unified passage plan was common to all three investigations. However, only 38% of UK MPX forms in the sample direct the Master and Pilot to discuss, agree and sign-off a plan with the same detail that was recommended in the investigations. A discussion on manning requirements, such as the composition and function of the bridge team, falls somewhere between technical and non-technical issues, but only 25% of UK MPX forms direct positive agreement on this issue. And more significantly, three ports in the sample use a style of form which does not direct agreement or promote discussion on any of the serious issues identified in the three investigation reports.

What should be recorded on the MPX form?

As discussed, two types of information should be recorded: technical and non-technical/’soft issues’. Technical details are typically a UKC calculation, the depth on the designated berth, environmental conditions or vessel particulars. Non-technical details could be a record of what language should be used or the composition of the bridge team – who is doing what. Without question, almost all the information noted on the forms used today is an exchange of the technical data. But there is increasing evidence that forms can and should be used to record more than that. Indeed, the example regarding the bridge team above originates from MAIB Report 22/2013 (contact and grounding of the bulk carrier Amber). There is a phrase to describe this, and NASA coined it and developed the idea in 1993. It is called paper-engineering.

The first logical point is that documents should be designed so that they are completed logically; what is most important is, as far as practicable, at or near the top of the form. The second point is that documents can be used to trigger discussions in a number of areas. There should be a greater emphasis on the open discussion of both technical and non-technical matters. These include, but are not limited to:

  •  Organisation – who does what – conning officer, anti-collision, navigation, monitoring
  •  External communications
  •  Internal communications – reporting within the team; concept of equal voice, different responsibilities positively affirmed
  • Discussion of critical turn management and timing issues
  • Discussion of any regulatory requirements that may have decision-making implications
  • Discussion of any anomalies and unusual circumstances

The counter argument to this concept is that these trigger points are themselves yet another checklist. And checklists can stifle creativity and lateral thought processes. Furthermore, as long as we frail humans remain human, equipped with one of the most powerful and flexible computers, we will continually find novel and imaginative ways to err; to err is indeed human. In short, as one door is closed, another will open. But this reinforces the premise that it is better to consider all possible failure points and remedies with equal rigour rather than concentrating on one. And a further voice of concern with this type of approach will be the amount of time required to complete a form with this amount of new information, in addition to other important information such as berth details, route, tidal data, ship particulars and so on. Such criticism is well founded. However, if this issue is considered carefully, much of the technical and non-critical information can be completed incrementally. And modern communications and electronic devices lend themselves to the completion and sharing of documents autonomously and this should be considered as an integral component of e-navigation in the future. The caveat to this is that the face-to-face discussion and briefing by the Pilot and Master, with the bridge team listening attentively, cannot be supplanted by electronic communications and document exchange. Eye to eye contact, preferably without sunglasses being worn, is essential.

It is also noteworthy that the ship is almost certain to present the Pilot with at least one document to complete and sign. This could be a standard Pilot card, and the Pilot, by his signature, confirms that he has received it. However, many documents presented by the ship go well beyond the suggested

layout at Annex A1 (ship to shore Master/Pilot exchange) of the ICS BPG, and can be very detailed.
It is not uncommon to see ship to shore forms with UKC calculations made too far in advance so they are erroneous, requests for current, traffic and towage information and so on. These documents can require some time and thought to complete properly. This leads to questions of duplication and precedence in the completion of the documents. Is this acceptable or desirable? And if the Pilot spends a few minutes completing the ship’s MPX (if it isn’t already pre-completed), is it read by critical members of the bridge team before it is filed?

Clearly, duplication is an undesirable and unnecessary distraction. However, the counter argument to a single document presented by the Pilot, is simple: two heads are better than one. In other words, the risk assessment and appreciation of the task will be enhanced by wider discussion. Two documents with distinct purposes are required because they serve two functions. There should be a return to the original ethos of the ICS BP Guide. And it is worth noting at this point that Annexes A1 and A2 of the 4th edition of the BPG (2007) are identical to those in the 3rd edition (1998). Since 1998 our understanding of human error has increased immeasurably. This should be reflected in the documentation used.

To illustrate the point regarding unnecessary paperwork, a report into the grounding of the tanker Heather Knutsen in Canada (2013) revealed that during the critical period before the incident the OOW’s attention was devoted to the completion of the ‘bell book’. Although the critical error of excessive speed was made by the Pilot, the OOW was unable to perform any other useful function because, as the frequency of helm/engine orders increased, he had to make a sequence of rapid entries into the bell book. The argument that follows this is that if an electronic device or system can undertake an administrative function, in this case the vessel’s VDR, the human can perform a more meaningful role. In this example that ould have been monitoring the vessel’s speed against an entry profile agreed during the MPX.

To regulate or not to regulate, that is the question 

Recent research demonstrated that a very high proportion of ships’ Masters would like to see a universal regulatory approach to go/no-go decisions regarding entry or departure from a port. This question was asked in the context of difficult weather conditions, such as high winds or poor visibility, and the accompanying possibility that a poor or dysfunctional Master-Pilot exchange could result in an incident. Consider the Cosco Busan incident. This research also revealed, perhaps unsurprisingly, different cultures perceive the Master-Pilot relationship very differently. Given the reducing numbers of Officers from OECD countries and a corresponding increase in Officers from Asia and Eastern Europe it is not so surprising that many Masters indicated in the survey that, during elevated-risk circumstances, the traditional decision making agreement by the Master and Pilot should be vested with a superior authority.

This is a controversial and counter-intuitive concept. There are a number of connected and very obvious questions, such as who will pay for delays, what are the criteria, how are they measured and even Port of Refuge issues. But leaving those matters aside, perhaps this reveals two underlying and disturbing concerns. First, increasingly ships’ Masters do not want to take difficult decisions without reference to a higher authority. Secondly, there is a suggestion that port infrastructure, which includes Pilot competence and the quality of the Master-Pilot exchange, is inadequate in some parts of the world.

More of the same

The ICS generic shore to ship Pilot to Master exchange document has spawned numerous versions in the
UK and beyond. All these variants have different features and styles. Some of the differences are necessary because of local requirements. However, some uniformity, particularly critical discussions, non-technical content and style, is possible and desirable. Indeed, there is more scope for standardisation regarding planning discussions and non-technical issues than technical data because it is the former that almost universally underpins every successful act of pilotage. And taking that concept further, it is not impossible to visualise an approved MPX form, with a common skeleton design, in use in all UK ports.

Such a document would offer a cogent and powerful advertisement promoting the professionalism of UK pilotage services. And as mentioned previously, more standardisation would promote better understanding and endorsement of the concept that the discussion and agreement of the passage plan, plus all the ‘soft-issues’, are important. And as far as practicable, this should take place at the commencement of the voyage. Post hoc document completion and signatures are not only undesirable but they belittle the entire process.


To sum up, Pilots should reflect on how many times they walk away from a job, particularly a ‘white-knuckle ride’ and think “thank goodness I completed the MPX form so diligently, otherwise we were doomed”. If the answer is routinely zero, then what is the document achieving? The MPX document should have greater functionality than a ‘what-if’ insurance policy that is purchased with the hope that it is never used because the subtext is that the claim will probably fail anyway. The MPX document should be more than a record of the act of pilotage. The documented MPX exchange is a tool that Pilots use every time they undertake a job. Therefore it must be relevant, it must be credible and, above all, it must be taken seriously by everyone from the blunt-end of the operation to the sharp-end.

The motto is we should either do this properly or not at all.


Richard Wild:  Master Mariner MSc FRIN is a senior Harwich Haven Pilot

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