On this day, we witnessed the near grounding of two container ships in the approaches to this port.
We departed the berth at 0500 hrs and had what was a relatively quiet pilotage out, there being very little coastal traffic at this time. We had two pilots onboard, one undergoing training. It was raining, and the visibility was from 7 cables to 1 mile.
The plan was for us to arrive at the pilot station around 0730 hrs to disembark both pilots, who would then proceed to one of four inbound ships due at the time. The inbound lead ship was a large container ship, the Captain of which had been previously advised to arrive off the entrance racon at 0730 hrs.
The approaches to the port lie between a group of rocky islands, one lies to the NE and one to the SW of the channel. The entrance channel is approximately 1.3 miles wide, but gradually narrows down to about 4 cables a few miles further on towards the port. The pilot book indicates strong currents in the channel and that morning, the tide was flooding at about 3 knots. Depths range from 80 to 114 meters in the channel, so there is no chance to use an anchor should the need arise.
Prior to 0700 hrs, in consultation with the pilot, we had allowed a larger and faster container ship to pass us prior to the narrow channel outbound. He was quite fast and the pilot boat was thus not able to keep up with him. We followed this ship out and saw the boat lagging well behind.
Meanwhile, the first of the inbound ships had already arrived at the racon, the pilot boarding ground, at 0715, 15 minutes earlier than anticipated. The pilots were a little upset by this. Closely following the lead ship was another container ship, smaller than the first. Neither ship had a pilot onboard.
The first ship must have tried to stop in the channel, but with a 3 knot current from astern, there was little chance of this happening. At 0730, when he should have been at the pilot boarding ground, he was already well on his way into port and approaching the narrows quickly. The second ship passed by us in the wider part of the channel and was already taking action to stop and turn. The first ship was swept further up towards the narrow channel. I noticed from the bridge wing that she was beam on in the channel and when I pointed this out to the pilot, he went straight to the VHF and called her up. From the conversation, it was obvious that they were in some difficulty.
The second ship, meanwhile, was making a turn to port and to head back out to sea behind us. She was also swept along by the current. The pilot called up the second ship. It was obvious, again, from the Master’s reaction that they, too, were in trouble, heading towards the rocks on the SW side of the channel.
The pilot boat eventually took off the pilot from the large ship ahead of us, then had to go right back up the channel, past us, to the first ship, all of which took an awfully long time. We were left in mid channel awaiting the pilot boat, which eventually arrived at 0820.
Both the inbound ships came within a hair’s breadth of running onto the rocks and it was probably down to sheer luck that they didn’t.
So what can be learnt from this incident?
Well, firstly, never trust pilots to be there when they say they’ll be there. In this case, they weren’t. In the approaches to this port, and with the strong currents, it would be best to wait outside of the channel east of the islands and ensure your pilot boat is there first before proceeding in.
Secondly, in this instance, if you make the run in and find the pilot is still not there, what contingency is there for getting out of the situation before the channel narrowed down?
Thirdly, you can stop your ship and hold a reasonable position when heading into the current, but NOT when it is from astern, especially at 3 knots.
Fourth, why did the first ship try and stop so close to the bottleneck between the islands? Under the circumstances, it would probably have been wiser for the Captain to bite the bullet and take the ship safely through the narrows without the pilot and suffer their wrath later. There is plenty of water beyond the narrow channel.
Finally, schedules are NOT the be all and end all when it comes to a safe operation. In their impetuousness to get into port, both ships risked all.
In the view of the Maritime Advisory Board this incident highlights two main areas of concern; the first relates to passage planning and the need for navigators to allow for contingencies by identifying possible anchorages and/or the points at which manoeuvres may be safely aborted. It is not unusual for delays to occur at pilot boarding areas and a good passage plan will allow for this. Particular attention should be paid to the presence of strong currents or tidal streams.
The second aspect relates to port control and the need to plan vessel arrivals and monitor the execution of the plan, communicating changes in good time. CHIRP was unable to establish an appropriate contact in this non-UK port, so the Maritime Advisory Board decided it should be forwarded to the International Harbour Masters’ Association. The traffic management lessons to be learned from this incident are likely to be of wider interest than just one port.
The IHMA responded positively to the report and published the incident on its own membership forum and also undertook to publish further relevant incidents in the future.