Mastering the master pilot relationship


The working relationship between masters and pilots is very complex, with pilots calling for certain actions while masters take responsibility for their outcomes. A Britannia P&I Club webinar shared advice about how to make it work well.

Most maritime people know about the complexities of the master pilot relationship, where a pilot may call for certain actions while the master takes responsibility for their outcomes.

It is a relationship with potential to go very sour. But most of the time it does work very well, we heard in a Britannia P&I Club Loss Prevention Webinar.
But there is still a fairly large number of insurance claims made due to accidents when a vessel is under pilotage. Britannia counted 1000 incidents over the last 20 years. The claims were all over $100,000 (normally the minimum to justify a claim) with an average cost of $1.74m.

The majority are classified as “fixed and floating object claims”, damage caused by a vessel to another object other than a vessel, such as docks, fenders, cranes and buoys.

The second biggest were collision claims, when a ship hits a ship. The third biggest was grounding, although this was only 4 incidents per year (80 over 20 years, or 8 per cent). Of these, a quarter took place in the Suez Canal.
One of the main causes is defined as “suboptimal bridge systems management,” said Captain Slav Ostrowicki, Loss Prevention Manager, Britannia P&I Club.

By this, the term ‘bridge systems management’ includes the pilot as a vital member of the bridge team, since the bridge team is defined as the people who are in control of the ship.

This defines ‘suboptimal’ as something which is less than the best possible, not whether it is right or wrong, he explained. For example, if someone has to make a decision under time pressure with less than complete situation awareness, that is a ‘suboptimal’ situation.

A bridge team operating in ‘optimal’ performance has capacity to manage errors.

Errors themselves are unavoidable. They can result from people’s physiological and psychological limits, such as fatigue, interpersonal problems, cognitive overload and poor communications, he said.

“Whether an incident can be ultimately avoided will depend on the bridge team’s ability to stop a developing error chain.”

The International Chamber of Shipping published a Bridge Procedures Guide, with an updated edition released in January 2022, including sections on pilotage and bridge resource management.

Relationship basics

The pilot is brought onboard because they are an expert on ship handling who also has local knowledge.

They will typically get involved during the most critical phases of the voyage, such as in confined waters, or waters with many hazards nearby, or other reasons why there is an increased possibility of getting into situations which may be dangerous, he said.

Under regulations, the ship’s master is ultimately responsible for safety of the ship, crew, environment and cargo when the ship has assistance of a pilot.

But also, the ship is only allowed to enter a port with the agreement of the port authorities, who may demand a pilot.

The pilot can be an employee of the port, and this can have implications. For example, the pilot may be perceived to be also taking operational risk into account, such as a risk which may make a berth un-usable. The master may perceive an instruction from a pilot to anchor in a certain place to be taken as an order from the port.

Good BRM

Bridge resources management (BRM) is “a team skill which needs to be continually practised and rehearsed,” he said. It involves soft skills, and as such can’t be described in procedures, or replaced by procedures.

The critical elements are allocation of [human] resources, effective communication, assertiveness and leadership, and obtaining and maintaining situation awareness. “All these rely on soft skills,” he said.

The next question is how they can be acquired, and how shipping companies can be sure they have been acquired. It could be through formal training, simulation, or experience on the job. Many flag states will only accept an approved course, he said.

The 20 10 amendments to STCW implemented in 2017 introduced requirements for officer training in areas such as leadership and managerial skills.
The company’s safety and organisational culture is also relevant, including in how it reviews incidents and claims, and cultivates the appropriate leadership behaviour.

Good bridge team management needs both good team interaction and communication, which leads to shared situation awareness and optimal decision making. It also needs people to be comfortable making appropriate challenges to colleagues when they see something which concerns them, and these challenges need to be responded to appropriately.

“We consider a meaningful challenge to any action or non-action should be considered and respected regardless of who is challenging who,” he said.

Members cultivate and improve these skills through mutual support and being open to feedback.

People should be able to reflect on their own performance, in achieving and maintaining situation awareness, effective communication and good decision making.

One problem with BRM training is that people sometimes don’t do anything differently as a result. “For many people, they go to the course, get the certificate, put it on the shelf, and continue to go as normal. It hasn’t changed their outlook,” said Fiona Al Hashimi, claims manager with Britannia P+I club and a former deck officer.

Companies decide that after an incident, the appropriate response is to repeat the training, expecting that it eventually embeds the desired behaviours. “No-one has come up with a better idea than repeated training.”

“It’s hard to make courses based on attitudes instead of courses based on skills,” she said.

The International Group of P+I clubs identified that training should be focussed on the master pilot exchange, and making sure pilots and bridge teams are aware of the limitations of the equipment, and the passage plan, she said.

Officers and bridge team members should be taught to question each other and the pilot when they have any uncertainty.






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