Cruising has now become one on the most popular ways to enjoy some sunshine and see the world. The cruise ships are getting larger as shipping companies expand their fleets. One of the busiest stretches of waters is The Solent leading to Portsmouth and Southampton, where these ships depart from and return too. When on a Wightlink Ferry those on board will see a lot of activity in these waters. How these ships get to and from their berths is down to a dedicated group of highly qualified group of Maritime experts known as ‘Ships Pilots’. This feature explains just what is involved:
Ryan Hall is the Pilotage Services Manager for ABP Southampton and his role is to support the Harbour Master Phil Buckley in seeing that all ships are brought safely through the Solent to the port. We conduct about 9,800 pilot ship movements a year and looks after the Pilotage function in the Solent from the Nab Tower to the East of the Isle of Wight through to the Western Docks.
Wightlink has approximately 48,000 thousand sailings carrying almost 5 million passengers a year. Their fleet of ships includes seven vehicle and passenger ferries, along with two passenger-only FastCat’s, serving three convenient routes between the Isle of Wight and Hampshire. Wightlink ferry Captains have a Pilotage Exempt Certificate which requires a satisfactory knowledge of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, local regulations, Harbour Bye-Laws, Local Notice to Mariners and marine emergencies.
Wightlink passengers may well see the orange and black Pilot cutters often as they transfer their crews to the larger ships using the port. The Solent also gets very busy. What else could one see? Well the dedicated inshore fishermen who fish out of Gosport, Ventnor, Ryde and other local ports. These often fish single handed and all shipping has to be aware of their activities.
Then there are the yacht clubs whose members like to venture out for a sail. Their spinnakers show up well and at times there are club races where one can see many yachts competing with each other. The Wightlink crews keep a steady look out for these from their ferry bridge. The Solent also attracts a lot of wildlife so look out for dolphins and plenty of gulls following the small fishing boats.
We must also not forget our Royal Navy friends. With the Navy Dockyard at Portsmouth don’t be surprised if you see some nice ship movements including the new Aircraft Carrier Queen Elizabeth.
The Ships Pilots use orange painted Halmatic Nelson 48/50 pilot cutters which are based at Gosport ABP. There is a team of 47 pilots with 20 pilot cutter launch crews whose responsibility it is to get the pilots onto and off all shipping.
Mike Toogood, Harbour Control Manager and his team are the ‘Air Traffic Control’ of the Solent tracking and planning the movement of all ships. The team is supported by Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) which manages about 130,000 movements a year from their Operations Control Room based at Ocean Gate. The Harbour Master Patrol Launch is there to head off any vessel that may hinder operations. This was endorsed by Ryan who added, “There are regular Wightlink ferry trips to and from the Isle of Wight containing passengers and vehicles. Controlling the Solent so shipping can move properly is our prime safety function, and we take these ferry operations into consideration.”
Collecting and delivering the Pilots takes considerable skill and knowledge. Even for the experienced it can at times be very daunting to be alongside some of the larger vessels travelling between 8-10 knots in all weather conditions.
How do the Ships Pilots board a vessel? A set routine takes place with a radio call from the ship confirming they are ready for the transfer. Boarding by Pilot ladder is the preferred way (Worldwide). Wightlink passengers, if they are lucky may see this happening when the cutter is alongside its selected vessel.
Once alongside the 2nd Coxswain leaves the cabin and attaches himself to the side rail so he can pass from stern to the bow safely. When the cutter is in position he checks the Pilot ladder is safe and secure giving the ‘thumbs up’ for the pilot to transfer from the ship. It’s important he attaches himself to the side rail before boarding or leaving the cutter. To advise other shipping once a pilot is on board the red and white “H’ pilot flag must be raised on the ships mast.
When you are on the Bridge of a large ship you can see for miles – on the minor side you can’t see a short distance because the view is often blocked. ‘If you can’t see the ships bridge – we can’t see you’ therefore it’s important for all small vessels to make sure we know of your intention early rather than not at all. At 10 knots you are doing a mile every six minutes.”
As the ferries cross the shipping lanes visual and radio communications are used. Wightlink passengers may see the ferry alter course slightly to prevent any incident happening – safety plays such an important part and at times passengers may witness a crew safety exercise on their ferry.
Safety at sea is what it is all about and Wightlink passengers can be assure that is very much top of their list!
Feature Words – John Periam, images Geoffrey Lee.