Passage Planning & The Pilot : Don Cockrill


Pilotage Passage Plans: “Additional information can be exchanged as the operation proceeds” Photo: JCB

The following article is edited from a presentation on the “Advantages in forwarding the pilotage plan to the vessel in advance of arrival & Investigating the view of earlier contact between the pilot and crew” given by UKMPA Chairman, Don Cockrill to the “ECDIS Revolution 2011” Seminar.


What is a Passage Plan?

The Passage Plan can be defined as the collation of all pertinent information relating to the navigation of a vessel through a particular waterway.

The Role of the Navigational Chart and ECDIS

The chart is the most suitable medium on which to plot the intended track, highlighting dangers and areas to be avoided, distances to maintain off shoal areas, distances to the next course change, destination etc.  ECDIS in its current form is limited to the definition behind the acronym (Electronic Chart Display Information system). It is thus in reality only able to present the intended track, record automatically the GPS determined position, potentially (though rarely used in practise) permit the plotting of manual positions, indicate “no go” and simplify the appearance of presented bathymetric data.  Other information that’s easily plotted on a paper chart is not so easy to do on the ECDIS, parallel indexing, wheel over positions and turning radii, notes on relevant features, reporting points etc. are just a few examples.

“information that’s easily plotted on a paper chart is not so easy to do on the ECDIS”.  Photo Walter Shinn USCG

 Passage Plans and ECDIS

When talking about the pre-boarding exchange of passage plans between the vessel and the pilot with regard to ECDIS, such exchanges are effectively limited to that data which it is realistically possible to plot onto an ECDIS such as waypoints and the track between them and no go areas.

The Master, the Pilot and the Passage Plan

Under SOLAS regulation V/34, The STCW Code and IMO Resolution A.893(21), the master of any SOLAS compliant vessel is required to fulfil clear obligations with regard to passage planning.

For pilots, IMO Resolution A960 (23) requires that:

5.1 The master and the pilot should exchange information (MPX) regarding navigational procedures, local conditions and rules and the ship’s characteristics. This information exchange should be a continuous process that generally continues for the duration of the pilotage.

5.2 Each pilotage assignment should begin with an MPX. The amount and subject matter of the information to be exchanged should be determined by the specific navigation demands of the pilotage operation. Additional information can be exchanged as the operation proceeds.

5.5 It should be clearly understood that any passage plan is a basic indication of preferred intention and both the pilot and the master should be prepared to depart from it when circumstances so dictate.

What exactly is a Pilot?

The status of a pilot varies depending on the national legislation of the subject port. For example in France, the pilot is very much an adviser to the master whilst in the UK the pilot is defined under the Merchant shipping Act as “any person not belonging to a ship who has the conduct thereof.” The important word here is “CONDUCT”. The pilot is not merely an adviser to the master, he has legal responsibility for the conduct of the navigation of the vessel.

In many places in the world, the systems seek to insulate their pilots from undue pressures from ship operators and bridge teams and in such places, pilots are lawfully required to exercise independent judgment. Consequently this raises some interesting legal aspects to the concept of detailed pre-arrival passage plan exchanges.

ECDIS, passage plans and the master / pilot exchange.

The safety benefits of pilots and bridge crews having a shared understanding of the intended voyage in pilotage waters is widely accepted.

The idea of a pilot’s detailed passage plan being submitted to a vessel in advance of the pilot’s arrival was discussed at virtually every meeting of the IMO’s MSC committee and its STW and NAV subcommittees since 1990 during the consideration of what became resolution A.960(23). At each juncture, the idea was rejected as impractical and unwise.

Unlike routine open-ocean steaming, navigation of a vessel in pilotage waters is a dynamic exercise that requires flexibility informed by local knowledge and experience. The route to be taken, the speed, the specific navigational manoeuvres, etc., all are subject to the demands of ever changing conditions, such as traffic, weather, tides and currents, availability of tugs, etc., and on information such as berth destination that is often not available prior to a pilot boarding a vessel.

The idea of submitting an advance detailed passage plan is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that the pilotage transit will follow a fixed route and this could potentially foster a culture of unsafe rigidity and reluctance to respond to changing conditions. This is particularly so given the ever increasing culture of ships being required by operators to submit their plans to the vessel’s management prior to commencement of the pilotage passage and I’m aware of several instances where this has already occurred in my own district (London).

The Reality v the Ideal.

The impact on the MPX of ECDIS is already being felt in a practical sense. On full ECDIS ships, it is no longer possible to have a quick overscan of the relevant charts.

“On full ECDIS ships, it is no longer possible to have a quick overscan of the relevant charts”. Photo JCB

Using ECDIS, the chart now has to be laboriously scrolled through to view the route the master has had plotted (and hopefully checked) until that section of the chart that shows the destination is reached. This in itself impacts on the bridge operation and may remove access to the chart from the OOW for some time.

You may think therefore, that the concept of early transmission of the Pilot’s passage plan electronically to the ship would offer a clean solution to this often potentially hazardous interference with the ship’s navigation.

However, this is not the case since there are many technical issues that need to be resolved. These include

Data compatibility within alternative operating systems / platforms etc.

Data contamination, either accidental or malicious during the ship / shore exchange

More important though is the reality of pilotage globally and of modern ship board operations.

Whilst there are a large number of well run ships operating on the world’s seas there are a significant larger number that are not and even on well run ships the massive administrative burden coupled with minimum manning significantly impacts on the efficiency of the bridge team.

Ships’ Masters and officers are overloaded by administrative procedures and paperwork which distract continually from the simplest of navigational safety related tasks.  (This factor has recently been highlighted by the MAIB report into the grounding of the CSL Thames: JCB)

Passage planning is no exception to this. Oil company vetting inspectors in particular as well as many port state control officers are almost paranoiac at the need to see a neatly presented typewritten, tabulated passage plan identifying the coordinates of every plotted waypoint. Completely useless information and ridiculously time consuming to produce.  Quite often, important data such as tide heights and times, sunset or sunrise, berth descriptions, sizes and depths is completely omitted!

Consider the reality for long pilotage passages  No plan developed on board from researched documentation can address all the multitude of circumstances to be dealt with on the passage and to expect ship’s staff to have the time and expertise to do so is unrealistic. This in fact why pilotage is compulsory in restricted waterways around the world.

It is a widely acknowledged fact that the general levels of competence on board ships have deteriorated significantly for a variety of reasons.

Imagine then what will potentially happen to a comprehensive passage plan transmitted to the ship from the port: Is the ship going to bother to create its own plan?
Since it’s technically possible to enter such a plan into an ECDIS, it would also be possible to save it for re-use at a future date. Such a plan could then form the basis of the future ship’s plan “exchanged” with pilots even though that original plan may not be viable for a different date / time!
It is already the case that it is possible to call up a previously saved plan on an ECDIS and reload it for the current passage.  This can potentially be done by a navigator or master who may never even have visited the port before. Contrast that with the requirements of physically plotting a line on a paper chart. The ECDIS steadily scrolls through as the passage progresses revealing what is (hopefully) to come around the next bend.  Throw the received pilot’s passage plan into that scenario and imagine the reality of what can happen.
When the navigator leaves the ship to go home what’s to stops him from downloading all the plans and using them on his next ship or even selling them to other colleagues?  This isn’t an exaggeration since I have already seen such practices in action with a purchased CD Rom of printed passage plans for port state control inspections!
So what is the acceptable, simple, safe and cost effective solution?

Pilots and port authorities in many places are already working to provide vessels with port passage information and many have information cards, chartlets, or brochures in hard copy or digital files with useful static and sometimes dynamic information about the terminals,  regulations and navigational demands.

The UKMPA, IMPA and other pilot bodies in Europe and further afield support port authorities and pilot groups examining the feasibility of making such information available in a controlled manner. Examples of where this currently available are in diverse ports such as London, Brisbane, Wellington and for small ports – Bridgewater in Somerset.  Some ports have experimented with detailed plan exchanges but after thorough trials have reverted to a more traditional controlled approach, Brisbane being a good example.

“..navigation of a vessel in pilotage waters is a dynamic exercise that requires flexibility informed by local knowledge and experience.” A departure from a fixed route can therefore enhance safety and expedite the passage. Photo: JCB

However it can not be over-emphasised that this is a completely different approach to the proposed concept of the transmission of ECDIS compatible passage plans to ships prior to their arrival or indeed departure from a port.


Providing up to date port specific information to a ship prior to arrival can only be a good thing but the concept of  implementing a standard practise of advanced transmission of detailed pilots’ plans to ships before arrival is a flawed one.

The ship is and should still be required to generate its own independent SOLAS compliant passage plan but there can be no doubt that the best place and time for gaining the shared understanding of the impending pilotage passage is on the bridge during face-to-face master-pilot information exchanges, both when the pilot boards and throughout the voyage.                  Don Cockrill

2 Responses to “Passage Planning & The Pilot : Don Cockrill”

November 12th, 2012 at 18:55

Captain Cockrill’s article and conclusions on advanced passage plans is spot on. It is not insignificant that I rarely board a ship with ECDIS that does not also have a paper chart on the bridge. When the master and I go through the Master Pilot Exchange it is the paper chart that we are standing over, not the ECDIS.

Every port is unique in partuculars be they geographical, physical, technical or enviornmental…to identify just a few. We understand the desire on the part of suthorites to see shipping ports as “Air Ports”. If certain policies and procedures work at international airports why wouldn’t broad policy and procedures work between international sea ports? The operation of international airports regarding commercial aircraft landing and taking off is very similar relatively. Not so between international sea ports. Each port in the world is unique and has significant unique challenges. That is the very reason ports have always required local qualified pilots to bring ships safely in and out. Otherwise ship’s pilots could be like airline pilots…the captain would simply “land” and ‘take off’ from each sea port on their own. As a majority of masters at sea know that would be folly. Even as a 22 year pilot I would not think it safe for me to pilot the same vessels I have for 22 years in another port I was not a licensed pilot in. That is the dramatic difference between air ports and sea ports. Sea ports are unique from one to the other.

Captain Cockrill is correct. The best place and time to gain that unique port information is during face to face master pilot exchange on the bridge.
Captain Grant Livingstone

July 24th, 2014 at 09:50

As what seems to be happening everywhere people are relying far too much on technology alone. The idea of ECDIS is fantastic and yes would most definitely be a useful tool, but it should not be the only tool. It would be ridiculous to leave a computer to make decisions based on real time events and unrealistic to provide the perfectly planned route in advance. Useful equipment to have on board, but not the only equipment.


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