Pi­lot lights

For al­most 180 years, skilled mariners have guided ships through one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous har­bour en­trances, at Port Phillip in south­ern Victoria.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY JES­SICA WAT­SON

Jes­sica Wat­son goes on board with the highly skilled Port Phillip pilots.

EVEN ONA calm day, when only a gen­tle swell rolls through Bass Strait, board­ing huge con­tainer ships is no easy feat for the Port Phillip Sea Pilots. These ex­pert nav­i­ga­tors work around the clock to guide ves­sels into and out of Port Phillip Bay in south­ern Victoria. With ex­ten­sive local knowl­edge of wa­ter depths, cur­rents, tides and ma­rine to­pog­ra­phy, they shep­herd more than 3500 ves­sels a year through one of the world’s most treach­er­ous har­bour en­trances to the ports of Mel­bourne – Aus­tralia’s busiest con­tainer port – and Gee­long, as well as to nearby Western Port.

These skilled ship han­dlers meet their charges at ren­dezvous points about five nau­ti­cal miles out to sea, in Bass Strait.Yet, de­spite ar­riv­ing in pow­er­ful high-speed launches and us­ing state-of-the-art nav­i­ga­tional tech­nol­ogy, they of­ten rely on sim­ple rope lad­ders to scram­ble many me­tres up the sides of enor­mous con­tainer ships.

Once aboard, a pi­lot heads up to the ship’s bridge to in­struct the cap­tain on how to ma­noeu­vre the ves­sel through the Port Phillip Heads – lo­cated be­tween Point Ne­pean and Point Lons­dale. Re­ferred to by local mariners as ‘The Rip’, this nar­row chan­nel is a dan­ger­ous wa­ter­way stud­ded with rocky reefs and shoals and known for strong tidal flows. It fea­tures dra­matic vari­a­tions in sea-floor depth and has a nav­i­ga­ble width of only about 1km.

The huge vol­umes of wa­ter that fun­nel through The Rip in­ter­act vi­o­lently with the of­ten wild seas of Bass Strait. Pow­er­ful whirlpools and steep, dan­ger­ous waves that rise up sud­denly are com­mon. “The ships get tossed around a fair bit in the cur­rent,” says Port Phillip Sea Pi­lot Mike Han­son, who has been guid­ing ships through The Rip for the past 13 years.

“We can ac­tu­ally have a cur­rent push­ing in one di­rec­tion on the bow and in an­other di­rec­tion on the stern,” he says, de­scrib­ing a point in The Rip where the cur­rent is known to abruptly shift di­rec­tion by about 140 de­grees. Such a dra­matic change has the po­ten­tial to quickly spin an un­pre­pared ship off course.

The nar­row chan­nel leaves the largest ships with a width of only a few hun­dred me­tres of deep wa­ter to op­er­ate within. It’s the slimmest of mar­gins, and it’s only the con­sid­er­able ex­pe­ri­ence of the Port Phillip Sea Pilots that en­sures safe pas­sage and pre­vents catas­tro­phe.

THE FIRST MAR­ITIME pi­lot ser­vice at Port Phillip be­gan in 1839, when Ge­orge Gipps, gover­nor of the young New South Wales colony, granted a pi­lot li­cence to Ge­orge Tobin, a young ship’s master. Tobin op­er­ated his pi­lot­ing ser­vice from the western side of the Port Phillip Heads, off the beach at what is now Queen­scliff.

Tobin and his crew lived in tents on the beach and used open whal­ing boats rowed by con­victs to reach the wait­ing ships.This method re­stricted the pilots’ op­er­a­tions dur­ing bad weather, and, be­cause the whal­ing boats weren’t sturdy enough to han­dle the rough open wa­ters be­yond the heads for long pe­ri­ods, the num­ber of ships they could meet was lim­ited.

As ship­ping to Mel­bourne in­creased, the num­ber of wrecks at the en­trance to Port Phillip Bay also grew, mainly due to ship­mas­ters at­tempt­ing to en­ter the bay without local knowl­edge.As a re­sult, in 1853, the re­cently formed Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment took over the pi­lot ser­vice. They sup­plied the pilots with a bri­g­an­tine (two-masted sail­ing ship), the Boomerang, which en­abled pilots to base them­selves in the open wa­ter out­side the heads, wait­ing for their next com­mand.Two cut­ters (sin­gle-masted sail­ing ves­sels) were soon added to the fleet, and more than 50 li­censed pilots op­er­ated from these sea-based sta­tions.

In 1854 the pilots were granted in­de­pen­dence from the gov­ern­ment and the Port Phillip Pi­lot Ser­vice was formed. Ever since, it has re­mained a pri­vate col­lec­tive, unique in that it is owned by the pilots op­er­at­ing it, while most other Aus­tralian pi­lot ser­vices are pro­vided by gov­ern­ment. Pilots con­tin­ued us­ing the ‘cruis­ing cut­ter’ sys­tem – where they re­mained out­side the heads and avail­able to ships on de­mand – un­til 1979. By that time, boat­build­ing and de­sign had im­proved enough for pilots to re­place their of­ten un­com­fort­able sea-based sta­tions for a land-based one at Queen­scliff.

A se­ries of in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble launches fer­ried the pilots safely in and out thoughThe Rip un­til 1991, when tragedy struck: a launch sank in steep waves, killing the pi­lot and two crew. To en­sure such an event couldn’t re­cur, the Port Phillip Sea Pilots set out to find launches that could bet­ter han­dle The Rip.They searched ports world­wide and even­tu­ally set­tled on a de­sign be­ing used in sim­i­lar con­di­tions at the Port of Bordeaux, in south-western France.

TODAY’S PI­LOT LAUNCHES use cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy to pro­vide new lev­els of safety in what re­mains a dan­ger­ous job. Cap­tain Robert Buck, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Port Phillip Sea Pilots, says they are self-right­ing boats. “If they do roll over, they can come back up­right and, we hope, with min­i­mal dam­age to the boat or the oc­cu­pants,” he says.

Mal Hart, a local Morn­ing­ton boat­builder, worked closely with Port Phillips’ sea pilots to build the fleet, en­sur­ing the boats per­formed per­fectly in the bay’s par­tic­u­larly tough con­di­tions. Mal says the main pri­or­ity dur­ing build­ing was en­sur­ing “the ride out for a pi­lot is low fa­tigue”, so they ar­rive in just the right state of mind. “This means they can op­er­ate faster in worse sea con­di­tions,” he adds.

Out on The Rip, pilots ap­pre­ci­ate the smooth ride the launches of­fer.They also value the ex­pe­ri­ence of the launch coxswains to safely de­liver them to their charges. Coxswains pull the launches along­side mov­ing ves­sels so pilots can grab hold of rope lad­ders dan­gling from ships’ sides and clam­ber aboard.

CoxswainWayne Pet­ti­grew is the pi­lot ser­vice’s long­est-serv­ing em­ployee. In calm con­di­tions, he makes this dif­fi­cult op­er­a­tion look straight­for­ward. But on a bad day, cross­ing The Rip and sidling up to a huge con­tainer ship is a chal­leng­ing feat. He speaks of re­ly­ing “on the weight and the mo­men­tum of the boat to keep you go­ing through waves”.

The skill, pre­ci­sion and courage of the Port Phillip Sea Pilots en­sure the safe pas­sage of some­times more than 30 ships a day through one of the world’s most dan­ger­ous wa­ter­ways. Bounc­ing across Port Phillip in their bright-or­ange launches, these guid­ing lights keep some of Aus­tralia’s busiest ports run­ning.

Today’s pi­lot launches use world-class tech­nol­ogy to pro­vide new lev­els of safety.

Coxswain Wayne Pet­ti­grew is well se­cured at the steer­ing wheel of the launch’s helm station, which is fit­ted with shock ab­sorp­tion and a seat­belt for rough con­di­tions, as he fer­ries pilots be­tween ships.

On a still day, climb­ing a ship’s side is fairly straight­for­ward, but the scram­ble be­comes more chal­leng­ing at night or in rough con­di­tions when the pi­lot launch rises and falls against the ship.

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