Charting a Course - Operating With a Pilot in the Channel

By Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

It always is best to have a brief chat with your pilot regarding your thoughts and desires. The stage-setter could be: “Captain, until we make up tugs a thousand yards before the pier, I’d like for you to exercise a hands-off approach, and let the OOD [officer of the deck] work with the conning officer.” Or the approach might be: “Captain, I’m unfamiliar with this port; may I ask you to work directly with the conning officer to give orders?” The key is to set the stage for cooperation and success.

From the pilot’s perspective, different types of ships have their own cultures. Cargo-ship captains generally provide data about their vessels, then stand ready for orders. Cruise ships are a step closer to Navy ships—a much more formal bridge and excellent bridge resource management (BRM). These captains typically take over from the pilot a thousand yards before the berth and execute the docking using their auxiliary propulsion units. Navy ships are always seen to be training engagements, and that requires exceptional patience.

When a Navy ship presents itself in the channel, when it meets a merchant ship in a channel, everyone is—and should be—at an elevated state of attention and professionalism. Communications have to be immediate and clear. In a merchant ship, the decision-maker is speaking on the VHF radio. Unfortunately, in a Navy ship it is much like the old game of “telephone” between the green ensign working the VHF and the OOD, who may or may not be speaking for the captain.

Another problem lies in the unique Navy protocol of calling on VHF and then requesting a switch to channel 10 before beginning the conversation. On merchant ships and tugs, the crews simply call on channel 13 and get to the point. These communications are complete in less time than it takes to establish them with a Navy ship. The use of channel 13 also gives all other traffic the opportunity to monitor the communications so they can make their own adjustments while gaining valuable, local information. In fog, this situation awareness can go from helpful to critical in a heartbeat.

Take advantage of what’s right there for your use.

Author’s Note: Captain Bill Bartsch is the senior civilian pilot in San Diego and has piloted more than 7,500 ships. A graduate of SUNY Maritime College, he began his career in bulk carriers before becoming a pilot.

Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).


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