I watched a show on TruTV last night. It was called “One Wrong Step” and the series premier was about the Colombia River Bar Pilots. To those who might not know, a pilot is a navigational officer with extensive knowledge in both shiphandling and of the local waterways; who comes aboard the ship to assist the crew in getting the vessel into, and out of, port. The pilot will board out to sea and then conn (give the helm and engine orders; akin to “driving” the ship) the ship into the port and finally will dock the ship (usually). The pilot will also help the ship leave port.
The Colombia bar is one of the more difficult pilotages in the world because of the sand bar that develops where the Colombia River, flowing to the West, hits the prevailing swell of the Pacific which comes from the West. This makes for very rough conditions on the bar on a regular basis.
The show was good in that it showed some large ships dealing with everything from a sports fisherman who was getting in the way of a 900 foot long bulk carrier, to the difficulties in getting on an off the ship by either helicopter or boat, and the way the ships move when they encounter those seas. The visuals were very good and some of the ships rolled like mine does, a good 20-30 degrees.
The show, being a reality show, tends to exaggerate and create dramatic suspense even when there really was none. They seemed to always portray the pilot getting on and off the ladder was about impending doom, yet each transfer went off with no trouble. No pilots nearly fell, and there was no issue. I have seen better action trying to get my crew onto my ship on these same ladders.
The biggest irritation to me as a professional mariner (and you’ll have to forgive my pickiness here), is that they made it out to seem that the pilot took over command of the ship as soon as he came aboard. They said that the pilot took control of the ship from the regular captain to get the vessel into port. They even went so far as to say “Fully qualified Captain” which is something that they just made up. They also said that the pilot’s crew was checking the cargo, and other such nonsense. Let me be clear, the ship’s master, the real “Captain,” is ALWAYS in charge of these ships with only two exceptions, and clearing the Colombia Bar is not one of them. The captain has the final say, as the pilot is literally just a local consultant who recommends a course of action. There have been times that the captain has over-ridden the orders of the pilots when I was aboard a ship. The ship is the Captain’s responsibility, not the pilot’s.
Another thing that irked me was that they always called the pilot “captain.” While this may happen, it can cause confusion on the bridge. In the US flag fleet, we tend to address him as “Mr. Pilot” so as not to confuse him with the Master. In the US merchant marine, the only ones who are called captain are those individuals who have commanded a ship. There are many pilots out there who have never done so, and some who do not even hold a Master’s license. If the pilot is a known former Master of a ship, we might call him “captain” when offering him coffee or other civilities, but we always call him “Mr. Pilot” in official situations.
Other then overstating the pilot’s position, the show was good and it was a nice picture of what goes on out there when the weather gets nasty and you have to get the ship in and out of port.