Master / Pilot Relationship


That’s generally good advice, confirmed many times over, but there are notable exceptions. The classical example would be when going unassisted alongside with the wind pushing off the dock, when you need a bit of inertia to keep from losing control of the bow before getting a spring ashore.


When I talk about shiphandling, I always have in mind a regular handy size bulk carrier of 600 feet, hopefully equipped with a bow thruster. Thence, I would «never» speed up even in the case of a fresh breeze off. I would find out the equilibrium angle of approach, which could be quite large, steam very slowly toward the dock aiming for final position, requiring bow distances spot check, send 2 spring and 1 head line, heave the bow alongside on fenders then spring the stern in easy.


I’ve never seen shiphandling as some esoteric skill achievable by the rare few cognoscenti.

I don’t see some sharp divide skills / no skills, in fact it seems like learning shiphandling skills have diminishing gains. The basics should come relatively easy for most mariners with half a brain that’s paying attention.

I learned to handle a small ship after I got my third mates license. With the Aleutian freighter It was standard practice for the mate to take the ship to the pier, get underway, anchor and so forth. Alaskan ports all year round. Plus I’ve got time with tug and barge, it’s just doing what needs to be done.

This whole it can only be done by the rare few doen’t ring true to me. Over time, with experience, you get better, see more subtle techniques etc. You do what you have to do to get the job done.

The idea that an experienced ship captain can’t even evaluate a pilot is not plausible.


Ship handeling.
To some people it’s a big deal. Probably because they are not comfortable with it. To others it’s a big deal because they think it’s special therefore they are special.
Sort of like guys with fancy fast cars. They all think they are really good drivers. And will point out how bad a driver everyone else is.

It’s all down to experience. Some types of ship on some trades the ships crew rarely do any ship handeling. Even with a pilot. Ship handeling consists of stop somewhere near the dock and get the tugs to do the rest.

Other guys are on the tugs.

Work on a small coastal ship, they do it every day, like anything else practice.

I suppose I learned some ship handeling at school from a book and when the examiner asked me he got the answer straight from the book.
He said That’s interesting.
Then asked if I had ever seen it done that way.
Obviously my answer from the book had missed something
Perhaps it was having turned his toy boat short round on his desk in great detail without having actually gone up the river.

So I picked the toy boat up and said actually I would have done it up here.
Then I would have approached the dock.

It was fairly obvious I knew SFA about actual ship handeling.

He hummed and hawed and despite some of my other stupid answers about grain cargoes and containers and other stuff a tanker man would never have actually seen.

He let me pass. Fully aware I hadnt a clue what to do with a 10000 t single right hand screw ship, or how to get it anywhere near a dock.

My pals answer was even worse. He got kicked out the exam room and to to go see the Capt. of the Mearsy Ferry and not come back until he new how to dock a single screw ship between two others against the tide.

Apperntly it was a common routine in Liverpool every exam day a couple of candidates were sent to learn ship handeling on the Same Mearsy Ferry in Jerry and the Pacemakers song.

I learned a bit on a sail boat. I picked up most of the answers to the examiners questions after the exam when I went up the Lakes as a 3rd mate and actually saw a single right hand screw ship with no bow thruster come alongside without tugs.

Today I hardly ever do any ship handeling. My goal is an entire shift without doing any at all. I get my inspiration from Mark Twain.

The Old Man. I learned most from. First day I worked with him as 2nd Mate. Asked me if I had ever done any ship handeling. I said no.
He said “first time for everything” Told me a few basics. A good landing starts with a good approach. He never said much.
I knew if he put his coffee or smoke down. There was something wrong with my aproach.

Many years later. Acording to his Daughter on one of her early days as 2nd Mate. Her first with me. I came up to the bridge. On a dark windy night. With a cup of coffee. Sat in my chair put my feet up and Asked if she had ever done any ship handleing. When she said no. I allegedly said only.

“ there’s a first time for everything”
“A good landing starts with a good approach”
“And don’t make me spill my coffee”

I think I was a bit more helpful than she says and don’t remember quite as much wind, I do remember, she did just fine.

I think I was almost as happy the dat she first sailed as Master as she was.
She was only a bit annoyed when I told her I was really pleased to see she was.
The “Old Gal” now.


Back in the 70-'s or early 80-'s the QE II (IIRC) came into New York during a Tug Strike. There was a news crew up on the Bridge filming while they were docking. The Reporter was very excited about how this Captain could dock with NO Tugs. The funny thing is if you listened closely, you could hear the snapping of pilings on the dock as she landed on the corner and twisted into the berth.

Here’s a link to the article but I can’t lay hands on the video right now.
QE II docking in NY


Here’s a story. Passenger catamaran under 100 tons, twin Hamilton jets. Got my brother a job as a deck hand. He needed a couple bucks. Never worked on a boat before or since.

The captains used to approach one of the docks at right angles then crank around and put out the lines. But the bow had a long rake, so when the turn was made the bow blocked the view of the dock at dead ahead.

So I told my brother at some point at that dock they would take the boat out for practice and let everyone have a go. I told him the other deckhands would turn way to early because they wanted to see water between the bow and the dock. But that results in the boat being too far off.

I told him watch for a point on the bow that visually intersected the dock when the captain made his turn. Told him to make his turn the same place.

So he gives me a call one day, tells me the story. Everyone turned early, except him, he nailed it on the first try. They all thought he "had it’ and started letting him run the boat on a regular basis. He got good at it. They all thought he was a natural.

Just needed to make the first turn at the right spot to get in.


The pilot makes the mistake and the captain pays for it,


Here’s an easy one for the masters in command. You are instructed to proceed to berth 19. Your vessel is 300 feet in length, single propeller right handed, an ordinary… bow thruster. The channel in front of berth 19 is 650 feet in width, to give an idea of the scale. Starting from the green arrow, state your general command till all fast.


Good one. Ship handling is ship handling. With a good mentor, most everyone is capable with some practice. You get better over time as with most everything. Of course, we all have witnessed some that just didn’t have it. The differentiator comes down to decision making, not hand-eye coordination, and you dont necessarily have to be the one at the wheel. If you are skilled and base your decisions upon the 1% chance something will go wrong versus everything will always go right, you put yourself in a recoverable position. In most cases, it’s the Master that has the experience to make those decisions, but with the expectation that his/her bridge team will recognize and execute independently.
I come to learn over time, as most seasoned Mariners have, base all decisions, while acting deliberately, as if something will go wrong and a failure will be experienced at the most inconvinient moment of time.


Here is an easy one for the pilots out there.

“What is the average air speed velocity of a laden swallow?”


I can only give you an advice; it depends how far off the WC are from your conning position, hoping that the swallow is not too laden.


Golden rule: “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”.

I worked several time with to identical Tidewater AHTS in Gulf of Thailand doing rig moves on Drill Tenders, Construction barges, Semi-subs and Jackups.
Both Masters were Brits and had years of experience on Offshore vessels. One could do anything asked of him, the other was known as “Capt. Chaos”. He could screw up a wet dream.

The moral of the story; not everybody is equal and not everybody can become good boat handlers.
Also; You can do something wrong for years and call it experience.



The answer is actually another question. “An African or European swallow?”



OK, I’ll bite. I’m pretty under qualified to answer, since the largest boat I ever handled alone was 100’ in length, single cpp, no thruster. She was powerful enough to crash stop from 12 kts in a boat length and extremely sturdy with a 4" ice belt and framing to match, so she lent herself well to being tossed around like a tug, and bouncing the bow off the dock on a large fender wasn’t a problem. In short she was a fun and forgiving boat to drive, and your hypothetical 300 footer is a whole different ball game. Enough excuses now, let’s try this:

As I pass M199, I go dead slow ahead and watch my SOG drop until it hits 1 kt, at which point I power back up to maintain speed.
At M200 I warn traffic that I will be executing a turn in the channel in 10 minutes. I post a lookout on the stern and order the crew to stand by for anchoring.
As I pass the pier head at a distance of 200 feet, I order 5 degrees of port rudder for a heading change of 15 degrees.
I watch the yaw indicator as I come abreast of the berth, and once current starts carrying my stern towards the dock, I put the rudder hard to port, still going slow ahead.
Once I have established a decent yaw rate, I stop the engine, anticipating that the stronger current pushing on my bow will bring me to a stop.
I let the vortex bring me around and use the engine to maintain a distance of 100’ between my stern and the dock, until I have executed a 180 degree turn.
I should now be parallel to my intended berth with the bow swinging rapidly to port, so I let go the starboard anchor to arrest the swing.
I pay out chain and use rudder to stay parallel to the dock until pushed on by the current, tie off and pay out enough chain to clear the channel.

How did I do?


Wow, not bad at all! I would say that you are curious, have a lot of courage and must be really keen on shiphandling. Three indispensable qualities. I would’ve myself written; I would never ever attempt a maneuver in such a tricky current pattern environment without the advice… of a swallow pilot :yum:. The most important element of your maneuver is your decision to berth portside to. Bingo. Landing a plane with the wind in the tail is too much fun!

When we look at the chart, we notice an exceptionally strong current that goes from 4½ to 6 knots. 6 knots of current surrounded by eddies is not something to overlook! Then, there is a large anticlockwise eddy that goes from 2½ to ½ a knot in front of the berth. In the basin, it shows dead calms.

Let’s go there step by step … Leg 1; the current arrows set at almost 45° against the north side of the berth. The mean force would be 5 knots. That means that the vessel will have to steam at 7 knots to just advance over the ground and have a head of some 45° away from the berth. If not fair in that current, the vessel will set like hell toward the tower at the end of the quay. One little mistake at the wheel could be the end of story. I can assure you that the maneuver reset button will not work in that case! You will have to be quite a world-class shiphandler to recuperate!

So, there you are… steaming fair in the current at 7 knots (2 knots over the ground) with a 45°heading away from the berth. Question; how do you turn and stop parallel to the berth, knowing that once done, the vessel will fall in a comparative dead calm water but at a speed of 7 knots over the ground?


Montreal? Up by Jacques Cartier Quai if I’m not mistaken.

Great area to spend a bit of time at the dock.


… and you have the leisure to observe at close range quite bulky size of vessels calling the harbor. The cruise ship is just about to fall in that treacherous current…

A photo that I took from berth 19.


I knew I was missing a joke :stuck_out_tongue:

I first thought about snubbing around, but decided that it wouldn’t work to starboard because I’d be working against the current and risk stalling out. Going to port would be awkward because I’d end up riding into the channel on the wrong anchor.


The idea of turning to port along with the anticlockwise eddy current is excellent. But by doing so, you are working against the right handed propeller thrust when going astern. At the end of the day, you could «saw wood» (back & and forth) for quite a while… :thinking:


I don’t know. . . . .