Dock-day afternoon

Piloting a ship is one of the oldest, least-known professions, yet it is one of the most important in ensuring maritime safety.

STANDING on the deck of the seven-storey vessel CMA CGM Quartz, marine pilot Captain Mazhazli Jamaludin, 39, looks out to the sea. The multiple flags on the vessel are fluttering wildly, and I almost lose grip of my notebook in the strong wind.

The pilot exchanges a few words with the captain, Panagiotis Dedes, then whips out his walkie-talkie to say something to the tugboat master below.

We’re at the Westports terminal in Pulau Indah, Selangor. It’s almost 1pm and the sea is dotted with a dozen or so vessels awaiting their turn to berth – just like aeroplanes waiting for clearance to take off or land. However, these ships need a marine pilot to guide them in and out of the port.

As the pilot superintendent at Westports marine department, Captain Mazhazli, or MJ for short, has to ensure that these ships are navigated safely, avoiding submerged rocks and other hazards.

“Once the ships are within a certain distance from the shore, the engine is on standby mode (similar to being in neutral gear in a car). They then have to be navigated to shore using tugboats. Marine pilots know the local waters better than the captain of the vessel does – that’s why we are needed.

“The pilot brings to the ship expertise in handling large vessels in confined waterways and expert local knowledge of the port. While the pilot acts as an advisor, the captain of the vessel can override the pilot’s command if he feels the pilot has made a poor judgement and will jeopardise the safety of the vessel,” says MJ, who has 31 pilots under his command.

But today, MJ is here to conduct a practical test on another pilot, Faisal Hassan, 27, who is upgrading his licence from level two to three. There are five levels of marine piloting, and each level takes nine months to complete. Once a pilot completes all five levels, he is awarded an unrestricted licence, which means he can navigate ships of any size.

Before boarding the ship, the marine pilot has to plan the course of the ship, taking into account the weather, tide, size and the weight of the ship and its handling characteristics. Hence, pilots need specialist ship handling knowledge, as well as up-to-date information on the port drafts and channel dimensions.

“They need to study the chart and know, for example, if there is a sunken ship somewhere beneath. After all, the captains are relying on our expertise to navigate the vessels safely. Usually, depending on the size of the vessel, we guide the vessel 60 to 100m off the shore using a tug boat and a line,” explains MJ.

Faisal is a tad jittery and tries to conceal his nervousness. His chatty supervisor notices this and attempts to put him at ease by cracking jokes with me.

At 260m long, the CMA CGM Quartz is considered a medium-sized vessel and needs two tugboats to pull it. The ship, which had set sail from Salvador in Brazil, arrived in Port Klang at midnight. It took barely 10 hours to unload the cargo, and it’s now ready to leave for its next port in China. Every second is precious as time is money.

MJ listens attentively to what instructions Faisal is giving to the tugboat masters using a walkie-talkie.

“I have to evaluate the clarity of his instructions, how he is communicating with the tugboat master and so on,” he explains.

Faisal is still tense, seriousness written all over his face. But, he does pretty well and manages to swing the vessel around slowly before leading it out of the port. Once the vessel is safely out, a pilot boat follows along so we can jump off. Boarding is tricky, as both vessels are moving in rough seas and cannot afford to slow down.

We descend from the high ladder at the side of the vessel and, one by one, step cautiously on the slippery deck of the pilot boat. Once we’re in, MJ heaves a sigh of relief and Faisal finally breaks into a smile.

“Accidents can happen when we get in and out of the vessel. There have been pilots who have fallen into the water or on the boat. The rope can break ... the risks are there but it helps if you’re fit because the job can be physically demanding. It’s not compulsory to know how to swim but to survive it is important!” MJ says.

The crew on board the vessel is supposed to maintain the safety of these ropes and ladders. The pilots, however, have no idea how often they are checked. The ladders can go up to 12m high. In some countries, the pilot joins an incoming ship at sea via a helicopter instead of a pilot boat.

“Once you fall, you can’t go anywhere. If you swim, you’ll just get tired because you’ll be fighting the current all the time. So you just float and wait till someone comes to the rescue.”

MJ conducts these evalutation tests at least once a month so that he can sleep peacefully at night.

“Sometimes, these pilots are not confident, especially when they have to go against the current. We simply cannot compromise on safety so I have to know that they know what they’re doing,” says MJ, who joined Westports in 2001.

MJ’s father was also a marine pilot in Port Klang. When he was 15, MJ followed his father to work and that fuelled his ambition.

“I thought it was fun and decided to become a marine pilot as well!”

Life as a marine pilot can be challenging and exciting. Once trained, these pilots can choose to sail a vessel or remain on shore.

“We all have our certificates of competency but we choose not to sail. Of course, if you sail, you can earn more money and it’s tax-free but if you’re away six months of the year, it can be tough on the family. I would rather be ashore and be with my family because that’s our culture.”

So far, MJ has not had any major accidents involving his pilots or the vessels.

“There has been no collision but we’ve had cases of grounding where the vessel was navigated into shallow waters and got stuck. Then we have to wait till high tide before we can tug it out. I wouldn’t want that to happen often,” he says.

Normally, it takes at least an hour for the pilot to complete a navigation job. MJ says the longest is around two-and-a-half hours. Thunder, lightning or whatever, these pilots have to carry out their risky jobs.

With an average of 55 ships coming in daily, Westports is the 14th largest container terminal in the world. Every day, there are around 16 pilots working on two shifts, 24 hours a day but MJ says they need more pilots. All pilots are required to undergo a medical check-up once a year or biennially. Spectacles are allowed provided the power is low and can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses.

Pilots may face high-risk cargos, poor manoeuvrability and communication difficulties, so the ability to remain calm under pressure is a prerequisite.

“The biggest challenge is probably weather-related because you cannot stop a vessel from berthing. As for the contents, we don’t know what the containers contain. Only the chief officer knows that although there are some vessels that have priority to come in,” MJ says.

Old vessels, like old vehicles that emit squeaking sounds, can give problems but the marine pilot will only find out from the captain once he gets on board.

“The captain will tell you the ship can do minimal things or that it has a tilt to one side or that the engine has died. You have to know how to deal with the situation. Handling a vessel requires skill. Navigating is an art. You must know how to swing, when to push, when to pull and how to communicate with the tugboat master,” MJ points out.

While an airline pilot has first officers to assist him, only one pilot navigates a ship.

“It’s difficult to have two heads because they will definitely clash. There must only be one way to navigate the ship to safety,” he stresses.

MJ receives a report from the shipmaster if there is a near-miss, and he then investigates the complaint. His daily routine includes checking reports in the last 24 hours, conducting training programmes, solving issues and overseeing examinations. If the staff count is low, he has to help navigate the ships, too.

“I handle my car the same way I pilot the vessel – with care. I follow all the rules and speed limit. When I get in, the first thing I do is wear my seatbelt just like I wear my life jacket before going out to sea,” says MJ who is thrilled to be expecting his first child any day now.

His is a job with heavy responsibilities but MJ cannot imagine doing anything else.

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