A ship’s pilot’s story

Silloth, at the time of writing, has three Pilots, all former Merchant Navy Officers: Chris Puxley (the former Harbourmaster – see Ships and the Port of Silloth story), Ed Deeley** (the current Harbourmaster) and Bill Amyes *. Their Pilotage Area extends from just North of Maryport to Grune Point in the North, and across to Southerness Point in Scotland.

Pilot Bill Amyes leaves the bridge of MV Celtica Hav (photo: Ann Lingard)

I first met Bill Amyes after he had just brought a grain ship, the MV Celtica Hav, up the channel. Liz Elliott*, at that time the shipping agent at John Stronach's (see Ships and the Port of Silloth story), introduced us. Bill was reticent, quietly-spoken; he looked away, though with a hint of a smile, and said they had had "a quiet trip up." I asked if I could talk to him about Piloting.  "Aye .... aye..." He'd go away and get something down on paper, we could meet next week. Two weeks later, in October 2012,  he was as good as his word, and we sat and talked in the lounge of the Golf Hotel. Chris Puxley I had met before, in his office on the dock before his retirement from being Harbourmaster (see Ships and the Port of Silloth story); this time, in February 2013, we met in the lounge of the Golf Club. In addition to continuing as a Pilot, Chris also writes for the Solway Buzz  under the name 'Captain Slog'. He and Bill both built up a picture for me of what it is like to pilot ships on the Firth and into the port of Silloth.

Taking a Pilot is compulsory for ships of more than 50 metres in length. But "On the Ben Varrey, the usual skipper has been qualified by the Silloth Harbourmaster to bring it up himself," Bill Amyes told me. The Ben Varrey's skipper has a Pilot Exemption Certificate, which is valid only for him, and only on that ship – and  to keep his Certificate he must Pilot his ship into Silloth at least six times a year.

Part of Admiralty Chart with approximate position of the navigation buoys added

Why is a Pilot compulsory? One has merely to look at the Admiralty charts (see 'Piloting a ship to Silloth' on my blog for recent images) for the Upper Solway to see the extent of the 'Unsurveyed Areas' and 'Changeable Depths', the places where the positions of the sand-banks and the depth of the channels are always changing. I had already seen for myself how the Solway's high tides vary enormously throughout the month and year, from about 10 metres to as little as 6.5 metres (above the local Chart Datum point). Taking into consideration the fact that the depth of Silloth's harbour is 0.7 metres less than that stated for High Water, due to silting, this has important implications for ships that have a deep draught. The deepest ship draws about six metres, Bill said, and he was scathing about the occasional ships that have been to Silloth several times and "should know the situation. There was one had to sit outside for four days until there were bigger tides. Or else they come here on the biggest tides, but only half-full. The ship I first came in on was 1000 tonne, and coasters used to come in the same – but now they're 4000 tonnes. That's happening in a lot of ports around the country."

A tight fit: MV Scot Pioneer approaches
New Dock on September 20th 2009 (Photo: Andrew Lysser; commissioned by Carr's Flour, to whom I am grateful for allowing me to use this image.)

The topography of the sea-bed never remains static. The Pilots had been using the current route for about a year, but both emphasised that "a big storm will move things about a bit,"  and "the channels can change in a day if there's a storm." (**)

The Silloth Harbourmaster is responsible for surveying the approaches to Silloth on a regular basis and thereby finding a navigable channel between Silloth and the open sea. Chris told me that when he first began working as Harbourmaster he used to go out in a small boat with a Decca Navigator and mark the edges of the channel on the chart; the crew of the fisheries' protection vessel, Solway Protector (see the Sea-Fisheries story) assisted for a while, but these days a hydrographer from the Associated British Ports (ABP) at the port of Barrow, comes up and cruises back and forth between the Solway and Corner Buoys, recording  the depths over an area through The Narrows.

New buoys, April 2016

Because of the narrow channels, and especially during the big tides, the currents can be very strong. "If you run aground on a sandbank and the tide is coming in it's liable to turn a boat over," Chris said. "That's one of the reasons why we have a lifeboat at Silloth." The shrimp boats are particularly at risk: when they are fishing, beam out and dragging the bottom of the channel, the net can snag on a wreck, "or a Hudson bomber". One of the shrimp boats was lost in 2011 when the net became snagged at Cardurnock Flats off Grune Point and caused the boat to capsize; fortunately the crew managed to grab life-belts and, despite being in the water for an hour, were rescued.

The information that a ship is due at Silloth passes along a chain: the receiver of the goods (for example, Carrs' – see Ships and the Port of Silloth story) informs the shipping agent that a ship is on its way; the agent follows online the ship's progress and, having received the ETA, informs the Harbourmaster and the Pilot, and asks the Pilots' Office at the Port of Workington to have their tug-boat Derwent ready. The Derwent takes the Workington and Silloth Pilots out to the ships, in addition to her work of towing and surveying. The ship to be piloted must wait off Workington. Chris explained that the Derwent goes alongside, moving at about six knots along the lee side, and the Pilot boards, either up a ladder or by stepping across - "You get used to knowing when to jump!"

Pilot boat Derwent moored at Workington

When the Pilot arrives on board, he's met by one of the crew, Chris told me: "Usually with 'Good morning, Mr Pilot, glad to see you.'And then you're taken up onto the bridge and introduced to the Master. You discuss the passage plan so the Master knows what's going to happen. You're doing several things at once – it's an unfamiliar bridge, especially difficult when it's dark. Which one is the captain? You need to check the equipment is working, find out about any defects in the ship, and its maximum draft. Familiarise yourself with the bridge equipment, where the radar and echo-sounder are, whether the VHF [radio] is on the right channel."

Presumably the Pilots know most of the ships that come into Silloth, and their Masters? But no, Chris said, there are many different ships visiting the port. "You can meet a completely new guy that you've never met before, he has little or no knowledge of the Solway. He puts his faith in the Pilot to get his ship into port without damage. Part of the Pilot's job is to convince the Master of his competence and put the master at ease."

"At all times, it's 'Master's orders and Pilot's advice'." Chris tapped the table between us to make his point. "In practice, the Master abdicates his responsibility to the Pilot's knowledge, but he must be constantly aware of his ship's safety."

The MV Celtica Hav approaching the outer harbour (photo: Ann Lingard)

Taking over the navigation of the ship, the Pilot will often use the ship's autopilot as far as the Shallows, the sandbanks that stretch out from Dubmill Point into Allonby Bay, between Solway Buoy and Corner Buoy off Beckfoot. Interestingly, the ship's speed must be decreased in shallow water because of a hydrodynamic effect known as 'squat'. Chris explained, "Think of it as the opposite of 'lift', the effect that speed has on air pressure over an aircraft's wings – in shallow water, the ship drops slightly. But after that, we're into deeper water all the way to Silloth. Big tides can be going at two to three knots, and the Pilot needs to ensure the ship is travelling at an appropriate speed over the ground, to arrive off the port at the right time."

Meanwhile, the Pilot will also be looking out for other vessels and small craft, talking to the Harbourmaster at Silloth on the VHF, and judging the height of the tide through the Narrows. "If there's an outbound ship, it must wait for the incoming ship above the Narrows because it's important that the incoming ship gets to Silloth at exactly the right time. There's very little flexibility."

The distance from Workington to Silloth is just over fourteen nautical miles, taking about one-and-a-quarter hours, "But we allow two hours just in case anything happens. There'll be general chit-chat on the bridge, where they're from, about the weather, I tell them what Silloth's like. Basically, it's the Pilot's job to make the Master feel at ease. The Master will have basic English, and must know maritime terminology, that's a requirement. "

Bill Amyes had told me that these days very few ships were registered in the UK and carried the Red Ensign – the British flag – and even those that did might have few or no British people on board. Sometimes language difficulties could arise, he said, but many people spoke reasonable or good English. Chris laughed, recalling a trip on a Russian ship  when he was learning the job from former Pilot Alan Ray. "The Master was nodding and saying 'Yes, Mr Pilot' all the way, but I realised later he hadn't understood a word – he wasn't used to Alan's broad Cumbrian dialect!"

Approaching Silloth, the ship needs to be standing off the dock entrance at roughly twenty minutes before High Water. The Pilot is now constantly checking with the Harbourmaster about the height of the water on the gauges by the inner dock gate. "You want the flood tide at its slackest rather than slack, before the counter-current along the shore builds up."

Passing through the New Dock gate (photo: Ann Lingard)

I had previously watched Bill bring in the Norwegian-owned Celtica Hav in mid-September. The Firth was silty-brown, stirred by the wind, but the calm water in New Dock reflected the blue sky. The ship's ETA was 1430 hours, and I awaited her arrival in Stronach's office, with Liz Elliott. Liz showed me a small boat-shaped icon on her computer monitor and we watched as the virtual ship moved towards Silloth and headed just slightly North of the dock entrance.

A few minutes later we walked around to the dock gate and watched as the real ship came straight in, beautifully lined up, through both inner and outer docks without pause. Inside New Dock, the ship slowed, and was gradually turned around by use of its bow-thruster and the main propellor, then inched against the quay with its bow now pointing towards the sea. Heavily laden, its Plimsoll line was only just visible at the water-line: a striking contrast to the MT Zapadnyy against the other quay which, by now, had almost finished unloading its cargo of molasses.

MV Celtica Hav heavily laden, in contrast to MT Zapadnyy (photo: Ann Lingard)

Wagons were already queuing and waiting for the Celtica Hav's cargo, and even as she came alongside the crew were throwing hawsers across for helmeted dock staff to loop around the bollards. The ship was declared "All fast" at 1440 hours, and within twenty minutes her German wheat was being unloaded. There was a flurry of activity: the stevedores bantering with the crew and moving gear; the bucket of the crane scooping and tipping; the representative from Carrs' waiting to go aboard to collect samples of the grain, and chatting with Liz, who was waiting with documents for the Master to sign. As Bill Amyes came quietly and unobtrusively down the steps from the bridge, and across the gangway onto the dockside, a flock of pigeons clattered up from a silo, catching the sun as they circled and settled again.

Later, Chris talked me through the manoeuvres necessary to enter the dock, that delicate balance between ship and tide and wind. "You turn the ship to stem the tide, waiting for your opportunity. You've got to take the wind into consideration too – balance its effects against what the tide is doing. The Master looks after the engines, he must maintain steerage, he must never take his foot off the pedal! I'll be crabbing my way in and as we enter the dock, put on the starboard helm to stop getting swept down – because the bow is now in calm water inside the dock but the stern is being pushed by the tide. Try to keep the ship on a straight line, moving in at about four knots." It was a graphic series of pictures and I could clearly imagine the tension, but Chris is a calm man, and he just smiled: "I think of it as a gentle adrenalin rush." (There are dramatic photos of that tricky entry - and of the day in September 2016 that MT Zapadnyy 'got it wrong' on my Solway Shorewalker blog.)

The Passage Plan that the pilot uses to explain manouevres at the Port

The water has another interesting effect on the ship called “blockage”, he told me. "As the ship moves into the New Dock entrance, the displaced water in New Dock is trying to rush out. The ship is a big mass and it's got to push through the water that's trying to get out. If you're standing on the dock-side, you can see it happen – the water level in the dock rises briefly because it cannot escape. Then as it rushes out each side of the ship it could suck the ship from one side to another. You must be alert to that effect."

When the ship has docked, the Pilot is free to leave – but he will be required again, when the ship heads back out into the Firth. Bill told me a little of what happens on the seaward trip. The additional notes which he wrote for me, and which I have copied here, are very clear: "The dock gates at Silloth normally open 1½ hrs before High Water Silloth and we sail then to ensure that we arrive at Workington before their dock gates close, as after that there is no Pilot boat and the ship will have to anchor until the next [high] tide to disembark the Pilot. However sometimes to prevent ships losing money we sail the ships at High Water or after and are 'carried over' to the next port and the [shipping] agent arranges transport home. I have been to Mostyn and NW Wales and Glasgow several times, Liverpool several times and Belfast and Londonderry – never unfortunately to France, Spain or Portugal etc."

These days the shipping agent arranges for a taxi to collect the Pilot at Workington and brings him home, but when Bill was younger he "used to walk home to Silloth from Workington. I was used to a hard paper round in Alston, when I was a lad!" He still goes out hill-walking once a week, and has done all the Wainwrights and the Coast-to-Coast path. After our meeting, he headed off up the street at a smart pace, being greeted by acquaintances along the way. A young man with a round, brown face, and wearing a blue hoodie beamed, "Hello Mr Bill": a member of the Ben Varrey's crew.

I walked back to the Port to collect my car; the wagons were standing idle, the Ben Varrey was waiting for the crane to be fixed, and pigeons waddled on the quay, pecking at spilt grain.

                                                                 February 2013

(*) Liz Elliott and Bill Amyes both retired in March 2013

(**) An April 2016 update - Ed Deeley's addition to this 'story' - with many more images and charts, is on the Solway Shore-walker blog. And new photos - including the stranded Zapadnyy - have been added in September 2016.

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