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Mastering the Art of Shiphandling

After the perennial favourites of; “What’s the worst emergency you have had at sea?” and “What’s the worst weather you have sailed in?”, shiphandling is a question I am always asked about. Not because it is the most important, but it seems a black art to those not in the maritime profession. Like most Captains I like to maintain this myth to enhance my status if possible and, with autonomous shipping on the visible horizon, possibly extend my use-by date. This aside, it is time to whip this veil off and share the secrets as I have discovered them; not as universal truths, but just one captain’s experiences. 

In theory I had a fantastic background to enter large yacht shiphandling. A child spent driving small boats and racing dinghies and yachts, naval training and time spent skippering tugs and offshore vessels. But that all added up to nothing when I first stood on the bridge about to take control of a large yacht as we approached the harbour. 

In the early days I often felt the ‘imposter’ as I stepped onto the bridge ready to manoeuvre. As my experience increased, this feeling reduced but there was still something missing, even though I didn’t know it at the time, which may have been a greater concern. There is a good chance that, like many of my peers, I may even have managed a career without knowing the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving true technical competence in shiphandling.  

It was not until I took a break from yachting that this missing piece was shown to me. It seems just too simple in hindsight but at no stage throughout my career had it ever been made apparent. Once I learned these shiphandling lessons I found they extend far beyond the bridge, and weaving them into my wider captaincy responsibilities also improved my performance, enjoyment and efficiency. 

I had studied berth to berth planning, which is a fundamental part of modern navigation training. To non-mariners it may come as some surprise that historically ships planned to stop near the port and then the final approach was something that just ‘happened’. There is context in that port entry was the realm of port pilots employed by the State, but nevertheless it was a clear shortcoming that ships approaching coasts around the globe never quite had a plan for how to reach their final destination. 

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To address this clear shortcoming, training was placed into the international curriculum to ensure all ship’s officers could competently plan to bring a ship to a berth, but it was taught as an adjunct. It focused on the how and not the why. It was a course in blocking out areas on a chart and making hypothetical secondary abort plans. I am not saying these are not important, but their context did not gel with me, it is always hard to focus on the how if the why is not clear. 

I sought more information and pored over the book Passage Planning Principles, it was not hard to find, it is a compulsory document and is present on every bridge. The book made sense but still I was left wondering, what does this concept truly mean?  

Taking a break from yachting to train and work as a marine pilot, I finally understood the importance of defining and communicating the metrics of a manoeuvre. Everything fell into place.  What speed, when and why need to be known at all times and this must be shared with all on the bridge. This was my why; why is berth to berth planning so important? It is so important because at all times the entire bridge team must be able to assess every action of the manoeuvring captain / pilot against an earlier briefed and agreed plan. The captain must then be able to communicate any deviation from this plan and the cause. 

By communicating this it does not limit the captain, it allows them to vary the agreed plan in response to the conditions and circumstances at the time. It also allows a challenge from another member of the bridge team if the deviation is not validated, which is of even greater importance. 

During my time training to be a marine pilot I observed several senior pilots. I was intrigued that the more experienced pilots exercised more care and concern with their own pilotage briefings than the more junior. Their sketches of the ship’s planned manoeuvre into port were precise, their briefing books had photographs of landmarks relative to the pilotage, and during execution they communicated to the entire bridge team what they were doing and why. 

I had never seen this or thought to do this myself on yachts. Up to this point I would take control at some point on the approach and while I would seek port information from the pilot, I really set my own approach speeds, headings and approach angles based on my best judgement at the time. More often than not I was monitoring my speed on the simple “ten through one method” of checking speed reductions against the ten cables of the last mile. This is an effective approach, though crude, not tailored to wind and tide and a little too cautious with modern yachts. Through all the training and good intentions of yachting mentors in my career, I was not fully communicating my shiphandling intentions to the pilot and the bridge team and I may as well have been there on my own. 

This changed with the ability to truly observe and be mentored by a professional shiphandler. New entry pilots are assigned a mentor, a more senior pilot that inducts, trains and supports them in their struggle to move from nervous shiphandler to competent pilot.  A competent pilot who is expected to step on board any ship, at any hour, in any weather, to take command and bring that ship safely into port.

In the first weeks before I was assigned my mentor, I was concerned as there were some ‘less than ideal’ role models in the pilot team. Luckily, the assigned mentor pilot was more than I could have hoped for. Ian had emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia and, with 19 years as a Thames pilot, he had learnt from some of the best in the world and had encountered all the weather that the UK can offer. 

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Ian did not come straight to my new port on his arrival in Australia, he had first spent two years in a lower-paid and remote port. Australia struggles to generate enough marine pilots to meet its needs, yet remains very restrictive to pilots seeking employment from overseas. From my own selfish perspective, this journey only made Ian a more compelling mentor - the North Queensland commercial port was a very different environment to all my yachting experience, Darwin being possibly the only Port that came close. It had large tides, strong currents, steady wind and then strong gusts in the opposing direction. It was as unforgiving as I could imagine. 

The ships were also very different, replacing my delightfully over-powered and easy to manoeuvre yachts were single screw bulk carriers that were not as reliable as the captains would have you believe on joining. 

Ian took all this in his stride, in fact, more than that, he actually expected everything to go wrong on every pilotage. He planned for it and while I would never be as bold as to call him out, I think at times he was disappointed when yet another of his ship moves went seamlessly. During one memorable departure of a fully loaded capesize (a capesize ship is 280m long and 52m wide, extending 18m deep when loaded), Ian turned to me and said, “See that?”. I didn’t, and my response in body language was enough to confirm this to him. He said to remind him after the departure. 

Ian took the ship to the port limits safely, we both departed by helicopter and walking back from the helipad after the four-minute flight I asked him what he wanted to show me. He recalled that when he had asked the question, the bow of the ship was being pushed back by the water resistance as the ship ‘cut’ across the berth pocket. 

This might need some explaining, the berth pocket was deeper than the departure channel and departing the berth channel needed the ship to move from a clearance of 5m under the keel to 90cm. This required a wall of water 280m long and 18m high to be relocated through a very small gap, pushing against the ship. In the departure we had shared earlier, Ian had observed the ship being pushed back and the bow was moving 0.2 knots in the wrong direction. This speed is almost imperceptible to the naked eye and Ian was using both the pilot’s precise navigation unit and his highly-tuned sense from so many previous manoeuvres. 

Ian increased the power on the ship astern to move the pivot point to his advantage, and the forward tug was increased to lifting off at three quarter power to recover the bow. The entire event was observed, acted upon and rectified within two minutes. Ian’s point was, if it had not been acted upon immediately, it would have been very dangerous, and with a smirk he asked, “Do you know the fastest thing in the world?” I returned the smile and let the story play out. 

“Brendan, the fastest thing in the world is a fully laden capesize bulk carrier moving half a knot in the wrong direction.” 

Ian had a laugh, but he steadied and followed through by pointing out how high a pilot’s attention must be, even at the seemingly slow-moving moments. It was a great lesson and as the months progressed and I moved from observer to the pilot executing the pilotage, the lessons flowed. I never accepted anything Ian shared without chasing him with follow-up questions to go further into his seemingly boundless knowledge. He warmed to it and my shiphandling education was accelerating at such a rate I began to surprise myself with my ability to anticipate and react to seemingly unlinked events. When I was a solo pilot, I would call Ian with a debrief on landing; he was so good, he could picture every move.  

Ian had given me tools to use and these were centered around two things: the plan and the team available as a resource. 

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The planning began well before arriving to the ship. We would do the simple things of checking the radio battery was fully charged, but we went further and put a spare battery in our pockets ‘just in case’. The portable pilotage unit never failed, but nevertheless we turned it on and calibrated it ashore, every time. We would visit the control tower to look at their weather information. We could look to reliable weather forecasting from our mobile phones but the control tower had real data from wind sensors on the docks and we could also look to an array of cameras that would also show details as great as the wavelets on the water. The actual ship movement plan included speed reference points (speed over ground), headings (over ground), abort points and, of course, final docking plan. This did not vary from the training I had received and belittled previously, my mentor pilot had just sowed it together. 

Once on board, Ian had coached me to communicate each of these references in real time during the pilotage and the manoeuvring. If at five cables to the berth the plan was to be at five knots, and the ship was at six I would now say, “The ship is above our agreed plan and I am comfortable with this but will reduce speed and report again as we pass four knots.” This narrative continued across all aspects of the plan and the ship’s captain and bridge team were not only asked to respond, but forced to engage.Ian had trained me to make sure the dialogue was both ways, as the crew’s opinions were sought to the point of being demanded.

It changed everything; I was no longer alone on the bridge, everyone was working with me. As Ian would share, if a steward happened to be on the bridge and hears your narrative, they too will be able to monitor and be engaged. You have multiplied your safety by the number of people now engaged. Transferring this to yachts, it is possible to gain benefit from any crew member, even when numbers are thin. The discipline of verbalising ship movements to anyone creates confidence and accountability. 

I was appointed a great mentor, but this might not always be the case. I knew that if there was no assigned mentor going forward, I would identify the person I wanted to learn from and ask them. I would talk to them and let them know I wanted to learn from them, and for every piece of information they provided, I would seek another two. Over time this extended beyond shiphandling to all aspects of my captaincy. 

My other great lesson transcends shiphandling to apply to life. Ian taught me to:

  1. Test and verify equipment (or ideas),

  2. Develop a plan,

  3. Communicate the plan,

  4. Amend the plan in sympathy to the changing conditions, and

  5. Engage others to support and challenge the plan. 

These lessons are wonderful when applied to pilotage, but I find that they are global. The same sense of ‘going it alone’ that I had felt on the bridge may well have spoken for my leadership endeavours too. My ability to communicate and embrace the support of a team to safely bring a large ship into port gave me a new framework for when I returned to lead a yacht crew at sea. I would not say it was a silver bullet to success, but it certainly helped, even though I still have a long way to go. 


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