Selecting the right pilot boat

Although it cannot be said that ship piloting is the world’s oldest profession, most maritime experts do agree that pilotage does date back to antiquity. Early ship pilots were fisherman in small wooden craft that knew local waters well, and sold their services to visiting mariners who needed their fragile ships safely navigated around shifting shoals and dangerous reefs. Pilots are not parttime fisherman anymore. They are master mariners at the peak of their profession, specially trained and equipped to board deep draft ships 15, 20, even 25 miles offshore. Small wooden fishing boats have given way to comfortable, highly capable, and very reliable pilot boats. Today, one of the single most important and financially consequential decisions made by pilot associations is the selection and acquisition of the right pilot boat.

The challenge

In the case of the Houston Pilots’ recent pilot boat acquisition of the Bayou City, built by Swath Ocean Systems LLC, the association followed a fairly methodical group-based decision making process. This process consisted of assessing their current and future port environment; defining boat specifications based on their unique operating requirements; searching for viable vendors that might be able to satisfy their required specifications, and finally selecting the platform that best fit their needs. An overview of this process and its outcome with regards to the pilot boat that was ultimately selected will be the subject of this article.

Port environment and operating requirements

All vessels of greater than 20 gross tonnes bound for or departing from the Port of Houston licensed for and engaged in trade other than coastwise are required by Texas state statute to obtain pilotage from a Houston Pilot. Houston Pilots safely conduct over 20,000 ship movements every year in fulfilling this requirement. Although the Port of Houston is the number two petrochemical complex in the world (second to Rotterdam), it does handle a broad spectrum of ships and cargoes, including roll on/roll off, container, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), bulk solids, chemicals, and petroleum products.

Prevailing sea and weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico are typically benign however tropical disturbances and hurricanes in the summer months, and violent cold front passages and thunderstorms in the winter months can pack prevailing winds in excess of 75 knots or build seas with waves measuring 20 feet and above. While these conditions are infrequent and can make pilot boarding from any pilot boat impossible, less severe but nonetheless still challenging conditions frequently exists.

Because of the location of their boarding station and the volume of shipping traffic, the Houston Pilots had long ago adopted a two boat system of boarding, consisting of a relatively fast dispatch boat that ferries pilots and boat crews back and forth from a ‘bar’ boat. The bar boat stays on station 24/7 offshore and has sleeping accommodation, restrooms with showers, and messing onboard for pilots to use between jobs. It also serves as a boarding platform for embarking and disembarking pilots to and from deep draft vessels.

Defining the key specifications

Based on their assessment of port conditions and customer needs, the Houston Pilots set out to define performance-based standards against which to measure potential pilot boat designs.

Challenging offshore conditions at the Houston Pilot boarding station occur often enough that the Houston Pilots must at least have the capability of conducting pilot boardings in sea conditions of six to eight foot short period waves and with sustained winds of 30 knots in order for their business and the port to remain viable. In the case of the Bayou City acquisition, standards consistent with a bar boat (vice dispatch) were established.

Fatigue mitigation has been a concern of all responsible pilot associations for quite some time, as they seek to balance staffing, workload, customer requirements for 24/7 service, and revenue. A key fatigue countermeasure is providing pilots the opportunity for restorative sleep in between jobs. Though this capability is not as objectively defined as seakeeping ability, fuel consumption rates, or equipment service ratings, it became a priority for the new pilot boat acquisition. 

Captain Robert Thompson, presiding officer, Houston Pilots, Texas, United States of America
Edition: Edition 59

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