Maritime Pilots: Pilots over Troubled Water

Reporters/Chia-Ying Lin, Chih-Wen Lin, Chen-Rong Wu

Taiwan is strategically located at the intersection of Mainland China‭, ‬Northeast Asia‭, ‬the Pacific‭, ‬and Southeast Asia‭, ‬with a vast coastline and natural harbors‭, ‬making its geographical location important‭. ‬The Taiwan Strait is also one of the busiest shipping routes in the world‭. ‬Countless ships enter and leave Taiwan’s ports every day‭, ‬and the complex terrain presents many challenges for ships from other countries‭. ‬Thus‭, ‬maritime pilots also known as‭ “‬harbor captains‭” ‬play a crucial role as port guardians‭, ‬ensuring the safe entry and exit of ships and avoiding accidents‭.‬

Maritime pilots are mainly responsible for guiding large ships in and out of ports‭, ‬rivers‭, ‬or canals‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬they need to have professional skills and knowledge to monitor various weather conditions‭, ‬water flow conditions‭, ‬and tide changes‭, ‬so as to make accurate guidance decisions‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬they need to be familiar with the characteristics of various ships‭, ‬such as their‭ ‬length‭, ‬width‭, ‬and draft‭, ‬to provide ships‭’ ‬captains with correct guidance‭. ‬In other words‭, ‬it is the duty of the maritime pilots to navigate ships of all sizes through busy ports to dock‭. ‬One tiny mistake could lead to an irredeemable disaster‭.‬

Maritime pilots are gatekeepers of Taiwan’s economic lifeline. Photo/Capt. Sun

Certificates are Difficult to Obtain

To become a‭ “‬maritime pilot‭” ‬or‭ “‬harbor captain‭” ‬in Taiwan is a far more arduous process than one could imagine‭. ‬According to the pilot exam regulations‭, ‬there are two types of exams‭ (‬A and B‭), ‬which include written and oral tests‭, ‬physical fitness tests and a bilingual interview‭. ‬The five subjects tested are local port details‭, ‬maritime regulations‭, ‬pilotage‭, ‬ship handling‭, ‬and professional English‭. ‬However‭, ‬there are no relevant books for‭ “‬local port details‭,” ‬and pilots must rely on information collection or they have to ask local pilots to gain an understanding of the conditions of a specific port‭. ‬In addition‭, ‬once a port is chosen for examination‭, ‬it cannot be rescheduled to another one unless there is a retake‭. ‬Familiarizing oneself with the terrain and climate of a port requires a lot of time and effort‭. ‬Arbitrary rescheduling can result in the maritime pilots not being familiar with the port‭, ‬leading to pilotage errors‭.‬

Physical test requires climbing a 9-meter rope ladder within 60‭ ‬seconds to test the maritime pilots‭’ ‬boarding skills‭. ‬The final‭ ‬stage is a bilingual interview in which the examiner will test the applicants of their familiarity with the specific port they are applying for and whether they possess professional English oral skills‭. ‬Additionally‭, ‬maritime pilots must be under 50‭ ‬years‭ ‬old and have at least three years of experience as ship captains on vessels of 3,000‭ ‬tons or more‭.‬

Pilotage from pilot boat to large vessel. Photo/Capt. Sun
Pilotage boat needs to be close to the large vessel. Photo/Capt. Sun

Guardians of Harbor Security

Maritime pilots or harbor captains take the ship safely into and out of the port in accordance with the application of the ship‭ ‬agent every day‭. ‬When receiving the order‭, ‬maritime pilots will first take the pilot boat to the side of the big ship‭, ‬climb the‭ ‬pilot ladder to the ship‭, ‬and then go to the bridge to guide the ship into the port smoothly‭. “‬Our work is actually very simple‭, ‬but there are countless tricks‭. ‬It goes without saying that the job of a maritime pilot is not without swells and waves‭. ‬The size of vessels and weather conditions are variables that make no two days alike‭,” ‬said Capt‭. ‬Sun of Mailiao Harbor based in Yunlin County‭, ‬southern Taiwan‭. ‬According to Sun‭, ‬the number of boats varies every day‭, ‬ranging from three or four to seven or eight‭, ‬and the size of the boat will also affect the distance to the sea‭. ‬The larger the ship that enters the port‭, ‬the higher the risk‭, ‬and the distance to the sea will be farther for the maritime pilots to reach‭. ‬Sun added that boarding a small boat is more dangerous than that of a large ship‭, ‬because a small boat cannot keep off the wind‭, ‬and the more swaying the hull‭, ‬the more difficult it is for the maritime pilots to board the boat‭. ‬After boarding the ship‭, ‬maritime pilots serve as advisors to the captains‭ ‬of the ship or boat‭. ‬Sun underscored‭, “‬Our job is to give advice to the captain‭, ‬we will not touch any equipment on the ship‭. ‬The captain has the final decision‭.” ‬Although maritime pilots must bear criminal responsibility‭, ‬not compensation‭, ‬in the event of a ship grounding or a collision‭, ‬they work closely with the captains to ensure a smooth port entry‭.

Process of becoming a maritime pilot. Chart/Wu,Chen-Rong
Maritime pilots need to be concentrated at work. Photo/Capt. Sun

Taiwan not Protected by International Law

Every country has its own water diversion systems and thresholds for those who aspire to become maritime pilots‭. ‬Take Taiwan as‭ ‬an example‭, ‬Taiwanese maritime pilots require years of experience and have to take rigorous national examinations before they are eligible to become maritime pilots‭. ‬Japan and Australia have pilot schools‭; ‬thus‭, ‬people who are willing to do this job‭, ‬regardless of nationality‭, ‬can directly take the tests and obtain certificates‭; ‬while Hong Kong allows seafarers to take the maritime‭ ‬pilot exam when they are chief mates‭. ‬In Singapore and China‭, ‬maritime pilots are public servants who have to take the national‭ ‬examination‭. ‬Compared to other countries‭, ‬Taiwan’s threshold is much higher‭, ‬but the experience of maritime pilots and the system are relatively sound and complete‭.

In addition‭, ‬although there is a set of international legal norms to protect maritime pilots and maritime business in various countries‭, ‬since Taiwan cannot join the United Nations due to sovereignty issues‭, ‬it is not protected by international maritime pilot laws‭. ‬In this regard‭, ‬Sun said that although Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations‭, ‬in order to follow the international footsteps‭, ‬when a new system is formulated‭, ‬Taiwan will adjust its internal regulations‭, ‬so as to protect the rights and interests of its maritime pilots‭.‬

​​Distribution of Taiwan’s maritime pilots. Chart/Lin,Chih-Wen

High Risk Job

Although maritime pilots enjoy commendable salaries‭, ‬they often find themselves in a working environment with high pressure‭. ‬Sun‭ ‬pointed out that if a maritime pilot who led the freighter to enter or clear the port made a wrong judgment call and the freighter got stranded or hit the harbor wall by accident‭, ‬even causing an oil spill‭, ‬he will not only be punished by administrative law‭, ‬but will also be afflicted with conscience for causing a marine ecological catastrophe‭. ‬Immense pressure also exists during‭ ‬the maritime pilots’ boarding time‭, ‬even to the extent of endangering their lives‭. ‬Sun added that sometimes the gale was too strong for him to grab the ladder tightly‭. ‬He recalled there was a pilot who lost his footing‭, ‬broke his leg‭, ‬suffered from hypothermia because of falling into the sea‭, ‬and died eventually in the fatal accident‭.‬

Environmental factors also greatly increase the danger of work for maritime pilots‭. ‬Usually‭, ‬winter is the season that blows the‭ ‬strongest wind in Mailiao Harbor‭, ‬but because of floating on the sea‭, ‬maritime pilots aren’t aware that the vessel is being pushed by the wind unconsciously‭, ‬such that it could drift and get stranded or hit the harbor wall‭. ‬On the contrary‭, ‬typhoons in summer could trigger the swell‭. ‬When the swell approaches the bank‭, ‬coupled with the submarine topographical change‭, ‬it would turn into huge waves‭; ‬thus‭, ‬the risk of maritime pilots boarding the ship would be increased‭. ‬Fortunately‭, ‬with enough experience‭, ‬Sun knew how to predict the size of the wind‭, ‬and help make the vessel stay on an accurate spot in case it was pushed into the wrong place‭, ‬leading to an irreparable consequence‭.‬

Maritime pilots are important figures in maintaining port operations. Photo/Capt. Sun

Sun has worked as a marine pilot or harbor captain for many years‭. ‬But in fact‭, ‬he has been prone to seasickness when he was a child‭, ‬so it’s a big challenge for him to work on the sea‭. ‬He not only has to stay concentrated all the time‭, ‬but also has to overcome physical illness‭. ‬Sun said‭, “‬I told myself I need to adapt and get used to seasickness‭.” ‬He refused to take any seasickness medicine‭, ‬so as not to rely on medicine‭, ‬which will inevitably lead to some side effects‭. ‬Eventually‭, ‬he adapted to the environment and overcame the nauseous feeling by his strong willpower‭.‬

Despite the pressure and risks as marine pilots‭, ‬harbor captains are well compensated and well acclaimed by many‭. ‬With the support of his family‭, ‬Sun was able to persevere and devote most of his time to perfecting the skill as a maritime pilot over troubled water for years‭. ‬Since pilotage operation is relevant to Taiwan’s overall economic and trade interests‭, ‬as skilled professionals in navigation‭, ‬maritime pilots assist the captains in the smooth import and export of domestic and foreign products‭. ‬This job requires precision in pilotage‭, ‬quick decision making‭, ‬and minimum human error‭. ‬Even a small collision with other vessels at the harbor can damage the side of the vessel and cause huge environmental damage‭. ‬Thus‭, ‬one can say that the job of a maritime pilot is both fulfilling and fraught with danger‭.‬

Maritime pilots need to be vigilant at all times to ensure smooth entry and exit of vessels. Photo/Capt. Sun
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