Pilotage Operations: everything shipowners need to know

  • 20/06/2024
  • 29 minutes

Have you ever heard of Pilotage? Do you know what a ship pilot does? It’s an activity that is essential to ensure safety in navigation, as pilots are the professionals responsible for docking and undocking vessels in ports.

Without the pilots in this operation, the risks assumed are incalculable and unacceptable. That’s because any error in the docking and undocking activity can cause losses to the entire society.

For you to deepen your knowledge on the subject, we have prepared this article in which we present all the information that shipowners need to know about Pilotage operations.

Therefore, we spoke with Priscilla Araújo, Operations Manager at Wilson Sons Towage, who contributed to providing information about maneuvers in restricted waters, essential for the country’s economy and sovereignty.

Keep reading and check out the details.

What is Pilotage?

Pilotage is a service offered to navigators, generally available in restricted waters and locations that present difficulties for the free and safe passage of vessels, especially large ones.

These difficulties can be related to various factors such as sea conditions, winds, lakes or rivers, currents, tides, sandbanks, wrecks, restricted visibility, among others.

The role of the pilot

Available every day of the week, 24 hours a day, depending on the demand of the vessels, pilotage is an activity carried out by pilots, who are professionals responsible for maneuvering ships, since it’s not possible for captains to know each port they dock at. After all, they visit several ports around the world.

Therefore, in general, commanders do not usually have depth information and do not know the bathymetry of the place, for example. Thus, the pilot is responsible for ensuring the safety of docking and undocking in ports.

While the master knows his ship well, the pilot has a lot of knowledge about the port region in which he operates. Thus, he assumes control of the vessel at the time for the maneuver to be performed. After docking, control of the ship is handed over again to the master.

On departure, the same process occurs; the pilot takes control, and after completing the maneuver and guiding the ship out of the port, the professional disembarks, and the captain continues the journey in open waters.

Partnership between pilot and master

It is possible to say that there is a partnership between the pilot and the captain of the ship. The pilot helps with the maneuver and the captain assists with the ship.

Legislation provides that the captain may act as a pilot on certain occasions, but this does not usually occur in practice. This is a very rare situation due to the characteristics of the vessels themselves, which generally spend a lot of time away and, when they return to port, are no longer familiar with its characteristics

Commanders themselves do not like to take on this role because it is too much responsibility. In addition, they are not always trained to navigate in restricted waters and, therefore, accidents may occur. This is what everyone wants to avoid, as society, in general, will suffer losses if this occurs, since a poorly done maneuver can cause delays in the logistics chain, destroy ports, generate losses of millions of reais and even cause an environmental disaster.

Each maneuver usually has a pilot involved in docking and undocking, by default, but depending on the size of the ship, it is possible to have more than one pilotage professional. The tugboats act as a group to be able to maneuver a ship. There are at least 4 masters in tugboats always in contact with the Pilot, who is inside the ship during the maneuver, passing on all instructions.

All activities of the tugboats, according to the operations manager, depend on the orientation of the pilot, including the position of each of them on the ship. They are not very fast vessels, but very powerful.

“The tug is responsible for getting the ship out of unsafe conditions”, 

Priscila Araújo
Tugboat Operations Manager Rio de Janeiro

Each location, depending on the types of ships operated, has different rules for the operators of that port. It’s the tugboat captains who receive information from the pilots about the capacity of the mooring bollards, such as the location where the cables connecting the ship and the tugboat should be passed.

Tugboats can apply tons of static traction, and it is the Pilots who indicate whether it is 100% of the power or less that the bollards of each ship are able to withstand.

Pilotage: what is its importance?

Pilotage is over 200 years old in Brazil. Initially, the professionals were called “practical pilots”, as they knew the practice and had local knowledge. But over time, the word was shortened to just “Pratical.” In the rest of the world, the pratical is often called a “pilot”.

Maritime transportation in Brazil is highly relevant, as over 85% of the country’s cargo is moved by ship, given that this means of transport is capable of carrying large quantities of goods and is also more economical. As we mentioned, even during the pandemic the Pilots’ work continued to be done.

Therefore, the pilot is always the first professional to board the ship in order to advise commanders who are unaware of the draft restrictions in the region, to provide more security for everyone.

“Without a pilot on board, ship maneuvers pose unacceptable risks. For this reason, tugboat pilots always ask who the pilot on board is, and if they don’t have a pilot, they don’t do the maneuver, ” 

Priscila Araújo
Tugboat Operations Manager Rio de Janeiro

Pilotage and safety

Pilotage is essential to moor ships safely, especially foreigners, as the commanders do not know the place. In fact, tugboats and Pilotage need to have very clear communication so that everything goes as planned.

The pilot is obligated to carry out the maneuver even if they don’t receive payment for it, as it is considered an essential service. Therefore, the legislator, knowing this importance, predicted that in case of price disagreement between service taker and service provider, the Navy could arbitrate a price.

This is a fundamental point for the country’s economy because if goods do not reach the port, a significant financial imbalance may occur. For instance, if the importation or exportation of a particular item does not occur, its commercial price increases considerably due to supply and demand.

“Pilotage is also important so that the ship does not run aground, since each port has its specific rules and conditions. It is necessary to observe, for example, the draft, which is the depth of the ship below the waterline”

Priscila Araújo
Tugboat Operations Manager Rio de Janeiro

There are ships (especially larger ones) that, depending on the port they are going to dock, need to consider tide maneuvers, meaning it’s only possible to maneuver the vessel during high tide to ensure it’s done safely. In practice, there are several factors that should be considered that are known to pilots.

There is a rotation among professionals, meaning there is a service schedule that respects a single queue in order to maintain the qualification of the professional. If the pilot does not fulfill the minimum number of maneuvers determined by the Navy during the four-month period, they must undergo requalification to return to the schedule. Meanwhile, he is accompanied by another professional who is up to date with his obligations.

What is the role of Pilotage in International Logistics?

Pilotage is essential for International Logistics, since, in the case of foreign ships, it is impossible for masters to know the ports. It is the pilots who need to do the maneuvers in order to ensure the safety of the ships.

The tugboats, in turn, participate in the maneuver together with the Pilotage, and communication between them and the pilot (which occurs via radio) is fundamental for everything to proceed as planned.

What should be the qualification of a pilot?

To become a pilot, it is necessary to take an exam applied by the Brazilian Navy and also keep in constant training.

Also, according to the National Security Law in Brazil, only Brazilian pilots can exist because in the event of war, these are the professionals with knowledge about the country’s coastline.

What knowledge is needed?

To act as a pilot, it is necessary to have the minimum of nautical or maritime knowledge. For this reason, most professionals working in the area attended the Merchant Marine School or the Naval School.

However, if a person has an academic background that is not naval but is interested in working in Pilotage, they should go to the Port Captaincy and take the required courses demanded by the Navy.

They are done in the classroom at the National Pilotage Council. After taking the Navy exam, it is necessary to pass a title test and practice in a simulator, which imitates a ship structure. During this stage it is possible to train, for example, maneuvers, emergency procedures and various situations, such as night navigation and low visibility.

The pilot must also carry out at least three years of practice supervised by a trained professional. In Rio de Janeiro, there are currently 71 pilots. Thus, after this period, the one who was in training must provide the Navy with proof that they have performed maneuvers with all the pilots who are in operation.

Many pilots lose their professional qualification because they are away from work. To resume their activities, they need to resume the training process. In addition, even those who remain active need to take refresher courses every 5 years.

It’s worth noting that a pilot cannot be transferred or undergo exchange between regions, as their training is tied to the region they serve. This is necessary, according to Schimidt, because factors such as tides, weather, and sea currents alter navigability. Therefore, the professional needs to know in depth the region in which he operates to maneuver all types of ships in all ports in the region.

On the same day, the same pilot can maneuver several ships. In this way, in his daily life, a pilot can fly more than a thousand vessels per year.

For this reason, a pilot who works at Tecon Salvador and wishes to start working at Tecon Rio Grande do Sul, for example, must go through the entire training process. This includes taking a new exam where he must pass and take the supervised practice again to get to know the new location.

Is the pilot a crew member?

Another relevant point is that the pilot is considered a seafarer, a crew member not on board, but he does not necessarily belong to the Navy. In this case, the Navy acts as a Regulatory Agency for Pilotage activities. Thus, it makes the Pilotage service more efficient and safe.

Pilots even undergo physical tests periodically. After a certain age, the professional must undergo an annual evaluation with doctors registered in the Navy to attest to their capacity to revalidate their qualification since physical fitness is necessary to leave the launch and board ships at sea.

Additionally, there is an internal updating course that takes place every 5 years in a classroom setting, taught by Pilotage themselves in a simulation center covering topics such as new techniques, emergency procedures, legislation, case studies, among others.

The completion of this course is mandatory, under penalty of the professional losing their license and leaving the profession, even by the force of international treaties signed by Brazil.

In the case of tugboats, there is no specific training. However, the port intelligence  of Wilson Sons has a training course that features a realistic simulator so that professionals can put into practice what they learned in theory and become more proficient.

What are the main inputs and services used in Pilotage?

The activities carried out by a Pilot require extra care with safety. Since it is necessary to leave the port and go towards the ship that must be docked. The ascent and descent of the ship is a delicate moment, in which accidents can occur. Therefore, safety equipment is essential.

State-of-the-art rescue-ready speedboats are required that have redundancy in all essential equipment. Among them are:

  • Rescue equipment,
  • Speedboat engines
  • GPS devices
  • Among other essential items for navigation.

The boats used in the Pilotage are the first to be activated in case of occurrences at sea, such as drownings and shipwrecks. This is because the boat crew is 100% on board, 24 hours a day. Unlike what happens with the firemen’s speedboat, for example, which still needs to be placed at sea and, therefore, takes longer to reach the site.

The tugboats need to have, for example, cables (high capacity ropes) so that it is possible to guarantee the safety of the maneuvers.

“There must be a careful inspection of the tugboats. If one of the cables breaks, it can cost the life of a crew member. Therefore, Wilson Sons has all the necessary structure to ensure the safety of operations”.

Priscila Araújo
Tugboat Operations Manager Rio de Janeiro

According to Wilson Sons’ operations manager, the shipyards themselves guarantee an advantage when it comes to maintaining safety in the operation of tugboats. In addition, there are surveillance cameras on all vessels. Thus, it is possible to analyze occurrences and take preventive measures.

How to hire a Pilotage service?

In order to have a Pilotage service, the shipowner must hire a maritime agent who, in turn, makes contact with the Pilotage services. If there are divergences in prices, as we have seen, the Navy is responsible for arbitrating them.

It is also necessary to choose tugs that operate safely because ensuring there are no risks of failure is a complex task that requires various equipment and an extremely qualified crew prepared to take the necessary emergency actions depending on each port.

What are the benefits of Pilotage strategic planning?

Private pilotage companies have more capacity and planning to meet logistical demands. This means they are ready to meet peak demand, ensuring that no ship is left without docking and undocking safely.

In addition, professionals in the area must follow certain rest and stopover rules. One of them is that you need to rest at least every 6 hours. In this sense, technology is able to help do this management and planning.

An environmental disaster caused by an incorrect ship maneuver, for example, can take catastrophic proportions and affect the entire society, violating sustainability best practices.

How should worker safety be ensured in Pilotage?

There have already been some accidents with pilots. Therefore, to ensure the safety of workers in Pilotage, it is essential for professionals to have the necessary inputs and equipment for the exercise of their profession.

The boat that transports them to the ship, for example, has a high cost, around R$4 million, because in addition to equipment redundancy, it is designed to facilitate boarding in case of people falling overboard.

The history of Pilotage in Brazil

Initially, Pilotage in Brazil originated because of Prince Regent D. João VI who, in 1808, together with the Secretary of State for the Navy and Overseas Domains, signed the Regulations for the Practical Pilots of the Port Bar of the City of Rio de Janeiro, due to the necessity generated by the Opening of the Ports.

At that time, characteristics of the profession that are preserved to this day were already presented, and the link between Pilotage Services and the free circulation of goods through Navigation Safety in restricted waters became explicit.

As early as 1889, a Decree was instituted that defined a comprehensive and detailed conception of Pilotage Services. In 1926, Pilotage became subordinate to the Maritime Authority. Therefore, each locality has its own regulations determined by the Directorate of Ports and Coasts.

In 1940, a new Regulation for the Port Captaincies began to include all the regulation of Pilotage Services and classified the activity as of interest to National Security, public utility, and under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Navy.

Only in 1959 did the Maritime Authority start to concern itself with adopting the necessary resources, according to the parameters and performance, that would meet the needs of Navigation Safety.

In 1961, Pilotage services began to be defined as the professional activity that is exercised by pilots. During this time the execution of the activity passed to the private regime, being configured as the provision of a public service delegated to the individual.

In 1986, the regulation determined that the Maritime Authority has the following purposes:

  • Request for Pilots to attend to maritime search and rescue activities;
  • Supervision of the technical and professional aspects of the exercise of the profession;
  • Compliance with the work rotation approved by the Port Captain.

In 1991, during the self-management period of the Pilots, the Maritime Authority ceased to participate in the administration of the Pilotage entities, while in 1997 a law came into effect regarding the Safety of Aquatic Traffic in waters under national jurisdiction and provides for other measures, such as:

  • to delineate the relationship between the Pilot and the Ship’s Captain;
  • impose requirements for the training of Pilots, examination and qualification internship, and limiting their registration in only one port area;
  • condition the maintenance of the Pilot’s qualification to the execution of a minimum number of maneuvers;
  • guarantee every Pilot the free exercise of the service.

Furthermore, the aforementioned legislation began to classify Pilotage as an essential activity, stipulating that the service be permanently available — hence, the Pilot is obligated to attend to all services that arise, under penalty of cancellation or suspension of their certification.

In 1998, a new regulation stipulated that the price of the pilotage service could be freely negotiated between the interested parties, but in the absence of an agreement, the Maritime Authority is responsible for setting a value to ensure the availability of the service.

Now that you know the main information about Pilotage operations, you must have realized the importance of this activity, right? For this reason, be sure to count on the services of pilots and tugboats when docking and undocking vessels in order to ensure the safety of all.

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