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.
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.