Picking up the Pilot

Picking up a pilot is often a routine operation, particularly in the more regulated and organized ports. Other ports not so much.

I recalled calling to the Port of Doha in Qatar for the first time.

As we approached the sea buoy no sign of the pilot who we had given our ETA to earlier. When we called the pilot he told me to come into the channel and the pilot would board between buoys 1 & 2.

I hadn’t really done much research before arrival and as I approached the first set of buoys I was surprised to see how close together they were. Turns out the channel there is only 160 meters wide, the ship is 32 meters wide and 200 meters long.

So I get to 1&2 and no pilot but he calls and tells me he’ll get on between 5&6. And so on, the entire 10 mile length of the channel. The pilot got on just outside the breakwater.

The pilot jumped off early on the way out also but it was just as well, he was having some difficulty with the wind and current once he got to the channel, I was glad to see him go.

The least depth of water between Doha light vessel and channel entrance is 12 Meters. The distance between Doha light vessel and to the berth is 11.6 Miles (21.49 KM).


  1. Draft accepted at top of high tide is 8.5 meters.
  2. Under keel clearance of 1.5 meters is required for a large vessel at a speed of 10 knots.


  1. The outer channel is 6.84 Miles (12.67 KM) from bell mouth to No. 25/26 buoy Old No.4 BEACON)
  2. The Width of the outer channel is 160 Meters.
  3. The Depth of the outer channel is 11 meter’s.From chart Datum.
  4. The channel Alignment is 109 (T) / 289(T)


  1. Inner channel from buoy no 25/26 or AN / AS buoy to the berth is 3.0 miles (5.6 km)
  2. Inner channel width is 190 meters.
  3. Inner channel depth is 11.0 meters.
  4. Alignment of the inner channel is Variable.

Tug Requirement
Compulsory 2 Tugs. Exemption of Tug is under the Pilot’s discretion.

Pilot Requirement
Compulsory – Pilot boarding position is 2 cables South-to-South cardinal buoy (DOHA APPROACH).
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\ 1x1 \ 1x1 \ 1x1

In picking up the pilot you sometimes met with strange situations like the one in some place on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. ‘Someplace’ because the orders we got only mentioned the name of a village and a river. There was work in progress on a large building site there and we should have no trouble spotting it. There was a pier there built into the sea where we could berth the ship. No specific pilot information was included. We asked for that but it was not available, not even the pilot’s VHF channel, use channel 16 it said.

The relevant ADMIRALTY Sailing Directions (Pilots) provided no information either as no port was known to exist in that position. Seen the circumstances we adjusted our speed to arrive there with day light. Finding the location was not difficult and it was confirmed by the radar on which the pier was clearly visible but no buoys or tugboats could be detected. As we got closer no sign of a pilot boat and no response to our calls on VHF. We crept up but when the echosounder showed less and less water depth we stopped the engine. The captain then ordered to blow the whistle for a minute or so and that did the trick. Shortly after a speedboat raced in our direction. At some distance abeam the midship house the boat stopped, they ignored the pilot ladder which hang there invitingly over the side. Instead one of the two persons in the boat yelled at us: “Follow me!” and made beckoning gestures. We were all flabbergasted but the captain kept his cool and yelled back with cupped hands: “Okay!” and ordered ‘Slow Ahead’.

The captain was a stoical Frisian from the north of our country, where they speak their own Celtic language which the other countrymen fail to understand. It is not a dialect but a real language. So we followed the speedboat through the banks while closely monitoring the water depth. The captain had been a Rotterdam harbour pilot and he actually enjoyed this exercise and perfectly berthed the ship without the help of tugboats. Just angled at the pier and first brought out the spring wires and then dead slow ahead with starboard rudder etc. There was no current so that made it easier.

We had to discharge liquid asphalt as it was called and which was to be used for road building to connect the factory being built with the inland road system. It was rather curious that we had to pump the substance in a huge pit which they had dug which was covered with some kind of treated lining.


This Frisian captain had intimate knowledge of the behaviour of each type of Shell tanker on which he sailed. He was in the habit, after joining a for him new class of ship, of taking it through a number of exercises. This was mostly done when we would arrive too early at the port of destination, at the end of the voyage. For instance the captain would order a hard turn to port and with a stopwatch the time was started . After a full circle the time was stop. Meanwhile the turning circle’s diameter was measured with the radar. Straight away a starboard full circle was made. The apprentice mate had to record all the data.

He also studied the behaviour of the ship with the rudder straight and the engine full astern. Then the rudders were put hard to port and later hard to starboard. On this particular K-tanker we discovered to our surprise that the ship responded well on the port rudder command. The time from zero to full speed was measured and also the distance and time it took for the ship to stop with the engine in full astern. The chief engineer was not amused, especially not when he did this on one occasion without warning, a true emergency stop, in order to see how the ship but also how the crew responded.


For steering ability a 20-20 zig zag test is a better test. Preferably in shallow water. Ships handle differently in deep water so a test in the ocean might not tell you how she will handle in port. Measuring the turning circle tells you nothing really useful unless you plan to come into an occupied anchorage without slowing down and stop the ship with a 180 degree turn. I’ve done it with manned ship models but why take a chance?

I agree. Not all of us saw the practical use of all of these tests. Knowing the ship’s stopping distance is useful of course. I also think that a lot of the data, like the turning circles, is already known from the sea trials.

Personally I would have tested the rudder sensitivity of the ship, that is does a ship respond quickly or slowly to rudder commands. For some ships it takes quite some time before she starts turning. This is important for collision avoidance. Apart from the zigzag the spiral manoeuvre also known as Dieudonne spiral can also be conducted.

The docking pilots in Bremerhaven are the world’s most arrogant pilots.

I came up the river one nice afternoon, in the wheelhouse was the German Weser River pilot, he was friendly and cheerful, the channel pilot, an Englishman, a small mousy, timid sort, he was standing by himself in the corner of the wheel house and the mate on watch and helmsman.

Once we got to within a mile or two from the Bremerhaven locks, the tugs came out, one tug transferred to us four (one on each wing, two apprentice) docking pilots to take us through the locks.

We were at dead slow, transferring the pilots, getting ready to take tug lines and so forth when the river pilot announced he had to go to the head. Off he goes. So the river pilot was absent when the four docking pilot made their bustling, assholeish entry into the wheel house, full of self-importance they brushed past me looking for river pilot.

When they didn’t see anyone they recognized they turned back to me and asked, “where is the pilot?”.

So I told them “Don’t have one, I brought it up the river myself”. All four pilots immediately spun around to confront the mousy channel pilot. He just backed further into the corner, held up his hands as if to surrender and squeaked out “I’m just the channel pilot”.

Then the four docking pilot spun around again to me, I figured I’d better not take things any further so I told them the river pilot was in the head and would be out shortly. Problem, they didn’t believe me.

They started a discussion in loud voices and all started to move towards the VHF. One of the pilot actually had the mike in his hand to report, I assume to the German Water Police when the river pilot emerged from the head, rearranging and tucking himself back together.

It took the docking pilot a few seconds to shift understanding. The lead pilot hung up the VHF mike turned to his pals and announced in a loud voice, “Captain make joke.”. Which resulted in no laughs.

In defense of the docking pilots, the Weser river to Bremerhaven is wide and deep with only a few gentle bends, so it’s perfectly plausible I could have come in myself on a nice mild and sunny day.


You know this line sounds hysterical if you say it with a Russian accent. Sort of lieutenant Chekov “Keptan mayek joke”.


We never employed a Channel pilot on any of the ships I sailed in and I always found the harbour pilots in Europe and the US pleasant and efficient.
At Ulsan, the pilot joined virtually at the same time as the heaving line hit the dock and in Kingston after a long conversation where I was told to keep coming in he made it to the bridge pretty well in time for Finished with engines.
I had various experiences with pilots in Shanghai. Some pleasant some not and the most useless individual was in Vishakapatnam, India where after watching him endeavour to use every last morsel of air, not even enough for a last despairing whimper from the ships whistle, he was instructed to watch and keep his mouth shut.

Testing the “rudder sensitivity” is only a partial test. Some ships, mostly large tankers, are deliberately built to be directionally unstable. This is to make them more sensitive to small rudder movements which allow the ship to maintain course without large rudder movements which can be inefficient fuel wise on a long voyage. Unfortunately, eventually they must come into port. A pilot turning from one reach of the channel to another may find that 10 degrees is enough to begin a turn but hard over rudder for a long interval is barely enough to stop turning (and occasionally not). That’s why I recommend the zig-zag test.



Analytic of a ZigZag manoeuvre (10°). There is also a 20° version.

What I know is that most tankers and bulkers with a high block coefficient are inherently dynamically unstable. With large directional instability these ships are difficult to handle and this could lead, in restricted waterways and in heavy traffic areas, to dangerous situations.

Yes, the heavy German accent is key.

The other funny thing was the channel pilot. He knew the river pilot was in the head. I don’t know if he was playing along on purpose or not but it came off perfectly as; “I did my best to stop him but either way the captain is responsible for this situation, not me.”

That’s a idealized zig-zag. I looked at the one for a ship named JO LONN once. After the 1st overshoot angle the rest of the data was " * ". When we looked up " * " in the appendix it was a page with the words “lost control of vessel” written there.

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From the Jo Lonn’s dimensions found on the internet I roughly calculated a Cb of 0.79. The length to beam ratio is 5.5, a rather smallish value. The full hull form with large Cb and small L/B ratio suggests bad manoeuvring characteristics.

Probably even more important for the directional stability is that the Longitudinal Centre of Gravity (LCG) of the ship must be ahead of the Longitudinal Center of Flotation (LCF) or center of the waterplane. The further apart the better the directional stability will be. This can be compared to the feathered arrow. Try firing an arrow without feathers and weighted point.

I remember that, probably out of boredom, we held sometimes steering contests. The auto pilot was then switched over to manual steering. The contest was held over a period of 20 minutes. Who was the winner was established with the help of the course recorder. Yes, it was a tanker, long voyages… As it turned out the ship sometimes kept its course by itself, with a tick to port for compensation of the wheel effect, for 5 or more minutes, but only with a quiet sea state.

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This is about what happened after we picked up the pilot in Port Said and after having survived the usual mess on board with the influx of sellers with their junk and the chick here-chick there-chick gone-money-gone con artists. We were always relieved when we could leave that behind us and were quietly sailing on the canal.


The police man at the gangway was standard. His only function was to receive an admittance fee from the sellers before they were allowed to board the ship, some kind of revenue model.

At lunch time the Chinese steward came on the bridge to inquire what the pilot wanted to eat. The choice was between the hot meal of the day which was Nasi Goreng, Indonesian fried rice or lice as the Chinese pronounced it and sandwiches. He opted for the Nasi and stressed that he didnot want pork. After some time the meal was brought up and the pilot started to eat but already soon started to curse and yell. He had found some pieces of ham in the rice. The steward was called for and was shown the pieces of ham in the rice but he then spoke in an almost offended tone the famous words: “This no porkie Sir, this is ham!”. That sentence echoed still for days around the ship.


My favorite wheelhouse introduction to a pilot we had picked up was in San Lorenzo Honduras.

We were running a coast-wise down through Mexico and Central America, it was a high-tempo run but going relatively smoothly.

But prior to arrival at San Lorenzo we had two problems, the first was we were drawing close to 8 meters of water and the charts and pubs showed the river only had 6.5 to 7 meters of water. The second problem was because of some email snafu we could send emails to the local agent but he could not send to us. So we were unable to resolve the draft issue.

When we finally got the email problem with the agent solved he would not give any info about the depths but instead told us to ask the pilot when he boarded. So we pumped out all the ballast we could, trimmed it flat and hoped for the best.

I always say any plan that has the word “hope” in it is a bad one so when the pilot boarded (from a small skiff with an outboard) we were waiting in the wheelhouse with some trepidation.

When the pilot stepped into the wheelhouse with a cheerful “Buenos días captain, what is your draft?” it seemed like the moment of truth. I told the pilot I was at 7.4 meters flat he says," Captain, that is the perfect draft for arrival in San Lorenzo".

Of course the next question I asked him was what about the charted depths, the pilot just waved me off with “Don’t worry captain, the charts are not correct.”

I watched the depths all the way up the river, I didn’t see a keel clearance under 4 meters till we got to the pier but even that had sufficient water.

After discharge when the same pilot boarded (he was the ports only pilot) we were a little lighter. Again the first question was about the draft. When I told him we were 7.2 flat his response was, “Oh, better and better”.


Having gone the Bremerhaven for years, I found the Weser Pilots to be very professional and good natured. Yeah I guess you can get an odd duck once in a while. I was one of the 1st ships going to Bremerhaven when they started using the swath pilot boats and since I had experience using them going into Houston, I explained to the pilots how we would “push” the pilot boat away after they got “stuck” to our hull. I also suggested that they have a welded fender midships on their swath (Houston went thru similar problems until they installed a fender system) so they could pivot off away from a ship and sure enough a couple of months later, they had it on their swaths. This eliminated having to go hard over on the rudder to push them away in a narrow pilot boarding area. The North Sea pilots that we employed for the most part were a professional, entertaining group. I made it a practice to have the conn in the pilot areas and had the n sea pilot handle the vhf calls, that way there was no confusion as to what he (the n sea pilot) was doing. I found that worked out much better and easier that way. Plus why would I let the n sea pirate have all the fun!!

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I don’t recall having an unpleasant Weser Pilot

The car ships in BRV go inside the locks to avoid the big tides. The Weser pilots usually gets off when the docking pilots get on.

A couple items about the docking pilots there, most pilot will ask before using the bow thruster, the pilots in the locks in Bremerhaven don’t. Best to not only block the controls but also keep a good eye on the pilot when you have lines in the water. Even with two tugs made fast.

Sometimes in any port the bridge marker for mooring position might be in the wrong place. Only one other time have I had a pilot refuse to move when we told them the ramp was blocked. In BRV the pilots insisted on spotting the ship in accordance to the bridge marker and refused to move the ship. I had to wait for the pilot to leave and then line-shift to get the ramp down.

As far as the channel pilots, we have benefited greatly having them, but our N. Europe runs include a lot of ports and sometimes I got one that liked to talk too much.

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Pardon the off topic post but Bremerhaven brings back a number of memories. Back in the early 80’s I was on a north Europe run that included Bremerhaven. Thank god for radar for on one one occasion the fog was so thick visibility was near zero. When we got up close to the container terminal the Bosun was told to throw the heaving line. The Bosun yelled back, “What side”. He couldn’t see the pier.


I recall, this goes back a few years, an SL-7 was “trying” to undock in BHV with the wind blowing 7-8 towards the dock. 4 tugs were being used & they couldn’t pull the SL-7 off the dock, the sailing was canceled until the winds died down the following morning. I had my 1st collision in BHV, we were docked and a ship hit our stern while trying to dock, between the wind & current, Bremerhaven made for some exciting maneuvers.


Night time in EU. 2012. Can’t remember if it was Antwerp or Bremerhaven. I’m 2M’g on a ARC RO-RO vessel and the Master delegates me to go meet the pilot. Just before I clear the wheelhouse, he tells me to not use the elevator to bring up the pilot! Now, having sailed as master prior to this for several years, and knowing the elevator is operational, I just have to query the Master on this.

“Cap. There’s nothing wrong with the elevator, why do you want the pilot to hoof it up 12 decks?” His reply, “Because if HE IS STUCK in the elevator, I’m without a pilot!” My reply: “Well Cap, you’ll also be without a watch officer. However, you could just go to anchorage.”
Without rebuke, the Master did prevail, and I went on down to get the pilot.

With the pilot embarked, the pilot boat proceeded to clear the vessel. As the PB was reving up, I told the pilot that he might want the PB to remain close aboard. Of course the pilot was perplexed. However, when I told him the Master wanted us to use the stairs, the pilot called the PB back.

Of course the master on the bridge was monitoring the VHF pilot channel, and as the pilot was making his radio call, the Master was calling me on the ship’s UHF radio, inquiring in a rather exciting voice, as to why the pilot wanted to disembark. . .

Needless to say, the elevator was used and the master never inquired about my complicity. . .