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Use Of Mobile Phones During Pilotage

Image of somebody using a smartphone during pilotage

Seaways has an excellent article this month regarding the use of smart phones on the bridge and debates the dangers and distractions they can cause. As a seafarer who witnessed the dawn of mobile communications on board vessels it's an issue that I have seen grow since becoming a pilot 21 years ago. Whilst at sea the thought of even taking my (then incredibly clunky) mobile phone to the bridge would have been absolutley unthinkable, but then so was the idea of sitting whilst on watch or the presence of any other distraction such as listening to music.


During my 20 plus years as a pilot I have seen the growth of mobile technology. It's not uncommon for a vessels master to use part of the pilotage to make calls or even video exchanges with family and friends and generally this is something I will tolerate and indeed I use mobile technology to access port data such as tide gauges or to have a quick exchange with other port operatives in order to facilitate the operation of the pilotage.

The question is when does this interfere with the job in hand and when does the quick call, or a glance at a tide gauge begin to 'creep' into unesecary distraction and becoming damaging to the safe operation of the vessel.

Research has shown that using a smartphone while performing other tasks can significantly impair cognitive performance, including attention, memory, and decision-making abilities. This can increase the risk of accidents, especially when the task requires a high level of focus and situational awareness, such as in pilotage.

Smartphones can also be a source of psychological distraction, even when they are not in use. The mere presence of a smartphone can cause people to feel anxious and distracted, leading to reduced productivity and increased stress levels. We've all been in the situation when a friend or colleague has been constantly checking their phone whilst you are talking to them. It can be annoying for the other party to the point of feeling insulted that their presence is less involving than a whatsapp notification.

A recent grounding of a vessel under pilotage has highlighted the issue of mobile device issue durring safety critical operations. The Ever Forward, a 334m Hong Kong-flagged container ship grounded on March 13 and had to be unloaded before being refloated. The report shows the ship missed a turn in the Craighill Channel, leading it to run aground. The ship had a pilot on board and was heading to Norfolk from the Port of Baltimore. 

The U.S. Coast Guard Sector Maryland-National Capitol Region released its marine casualty investigation into the incident on 6 December. Investigators found that the in-charge Maritime State Pilot was solely relying on his Portable Pilot Unit (PPU) to navigate the 334-metre container vessel.

The pilot also made a series of five phone calls amounting to over 60 minutes of time during the course of his outbound pilotage, in addition to two text messages and the drafting of an email immediately prior to the running aground. Prior to the grounding, the pilot was on the bridge with the Master and the bridge team until 7.30 pm, when the Master headed to dinner. At the time, the bridge team was comprised of the pilot, the Third Officer, Deck Cadet, and an Able Bodied Seaman who was at the helm.

Ever Forward crossed a predetermined waypoint position that called for the vessel to initiate a turn to approximately 180 degrees from its current heading of 161 degrees.

The investigators determined that no order to turn was given by the pilot and apparently recognizing the error the third officer repeatedly called out the speed and direction of the vessel. The third officer told the investigators that the pilot was looking at his cell phone at this time. It would take nearly a minute till the pilot detected that the pilot’s electronic navigation device and the ship's Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) were showing different information.

The pilot ordered an immediate 15 degrees turn followed 20 seconds later with a command hard to starboard. It was too late and the Ever Forward grounded outside of the Craighill Channel. The master and second officer were summoned to the bridge and attempts were made to reposition the containership before they determined the vessel was aground and began the normal safety protocols. The vessel remained stuck for over a month before it was finally refloated.

Investigators reviewed the vessel’s Voice Data Recorder, which was archived by the second officer moments after the grounding, as well as other data and interviews. They found that the pilot placed or received five phone calls from his personal cell phone lasting in total approximately 61 minutes of the 126-minute voyage up to the grounding as well as being observed texting and writing an email. The pilot was writing an email when the turn was missed. 

The Coast Guard also highlights that the pilot distrusted the equipment aboard the vessels he was navigating and preferred to use his Portable Pilot Unit for all the navigation. “He was in the practice of intentionally not using any other navigation equipment while underway, citing a distrust of vessel equipment that was not his own and instances of equipment breaking while a pilot was using it,” the report states. He was unaware that there were paper charts in use in addition to the vessel’s electronic systems.

Ever Forward was a foreign-flag vessel, the pilot was operating under his Maryland license, which has been suspended and he has requested a hearing. However, the Coast Guard could not take action on his federal license because he was not functioning under his federal license at the time.

They issued two recommendations based on the finding of the Ever Forward case. First concerns vessel owners and marine operators developing and implementing effective policies outlining the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices. 

The second recommendation applies to the vessel’s operators. The investigators found that the third officer, a Chinese national, did not directly alert the pilot when he believed they were missing the turn. The recommendation is for owners and operators to ensure and promote crew awareness of policies regarding the duties and obligations of officers on watch for the safety of the ship, even when a pilot is embarked.

Clearly this was an extreme case in which the pilot fell short of what was reasonably expected of him given the complex task of pilotage and the demands this task placed upon him. The question remains though of when does a quick call or glance at a tide gauge become distraction from the task in hand. Identifying the areas of a pilotage that are 'high workload' zones and points that are safety critical is an essential part of any pilotage plan. It is unrealistic to expect that any individual could remain totally focussed for several hours but it is essential that we are able to identify what airline pilots refer to as 'sterile flight deck' periods allows us to ensure we are able to ensure everyone is focussed on the task in hand at the critical points of a pilotage operation.

It was clear that in the Ever Forward case there was no such assessment and this allowed the master to depart the bridge at a critical time and also allowed the pilot to be engaged on lengthy phone calls durring periods when his focus should have been on the task in hand.

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