Navigating through dangerous waters

Captain Martin Lim, chairman and president of the Maritime Pilots Malaysia Association, who is also a seasoned ship captain, shares his experience on the joys, challenges and what it takes to be a good maritime pilot.

Please tell us about the job of a maritime pilot.

A maritime pilots hails from the seafaring profession who has worked as a ship master or senior navigation officer with years of experiences. The profession covers a wider spectrum of pilotage that includes professionals who work as marine pilots in the port and harbor, deep sea or straits pilotage that are assigned onboard VLCC or deep draft vessels that transit the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, STS (Ship-to-Ship) pilots and mooring masters who work on a tanker offshore that need to moor to a single mooring buoy.

Maritime pilots are familiar with the straits, channels, and have good knowledge of the traffic, weather and hydrodynamic conditions i.e., depth, sea bed characteristic, local and international rules, navigational aids, navigational hazard including port and terminal berth properties within a defined waterway.

In general, maritime pilots on board ships act as advisors to the master. Due to the complexity of the pilotage, navigation, ship handling, traffic, current and weather conditions and mooring requirements, maritime pilots usually take over the control of the ship under the observation from the master and the bridge team members. Still, the master has the overall responsibility for the ship.

During pilotage, a maritime pilot gives instructions on steering in restricted waterways in relation to ship’s draft and under keel clearance, engine telegraph command, tug and tow requirement, mooring arrangement, and advises on current, weather and traffic condition.

Capt. Martin Lim (right) with Kitack Lim, Secretary General of International Maritime Organization (IMO).

What soft skills are needed to be a good maritime pilot? 

Apart from the professional knowledge as required by the industry and International Maritime Organization, in order to continue to love and appreciate the job, an instinct for obstacles, difficulties and dangers even in seemingly ordinary conditions is needed to accomplish a safe pilotage.

As we navigate and handle the vessels, which are the biggest and heaviest object on the water, it is normal for the master and bridge team to develop fear factor when entering a port, which they are not familiar with, what more when passing another incoming ship at close distance or swinging her during strong tidal condition during heavy traffic. 

In the event of these situations, the skills of stress management are useful for pilots alongside providing intensive guidance on what to expect and sharing the plan for the pilotage process. The master and the bridge team must be clearly advised for them to accentuate the right point of situational awareness. Each notation of concern must be responded positively. Good pilots will constantly keep the bridge team in a calm state of mind to avoid any wrong action to instruction given and to prevent loss of situational awareness.

A maritime pilot’s communication and interaction with the bridge team is important too from a humanistic aspect. A small gesture like asking “How have you been?” or “How is your family at home?” is appreciated as sailing across the ocean is a lonely journey and the pilot is the first new person seafarers see after a long passage.

Nowadays, the number of crew members onboard has been halved even on big containerships. In the mid-80s, during my sailing career, we used to have an average of 40 crew members onboard a 5,000 TEUS containership. Sadly, today, after factoring the cyclical shift duty, crew members do not have much opportunity to socialize among themselves. The joy of dining and mingling together is rare as their food can be seen wrapped and placed on their seats during dining hours.

It is always good to have a genial conversation with the master and bridge team when the situation is safe to do so instead of merely giving pilotage instructions during the hours onboard. Amazingly, this will stimulate cohesive working relationship and unforgettable moments. On many occasions, a genial conversation can uplift morale and mental health. Sometimes, words of encouragement can help someone with personal problems. Ultimately, pilots can make the master and bridge team feel welcome to the port of call.

What do you love about your job?

The challenges and responsibility. For example, the dynamic of challenges, particularly in guiding a gigantic-size and deeply-laden vessel in busy waterways, and to swing it before coming alongside under influence of strong current and wind conditions.

The bigger the challenges and responsibilities, the bigger the rewards of job satisfaction and a demonstration of gratitude by the master and bridge team members after getting the vessel safely alongside or departure from the port or harbor. It is rewarding to see the vessel transits the Straits of Malacca and Singapore safely and sails onwards to the next port of call. It is all about good team work among the pilot, master and bridge team.

During the pandemic, all over the world, maritime pilots have responded to SOS from masters to bring their ships into the harbor so that Covid-19 patients onboard could seek emergency medical attention in hospitals. We tried our best as we understood lives were at stake.

Capt. Martin Lim (second from right) representing Malaysia signing the BALI DECLARATION flanked by Capt. Pasoroan Herman, President of Indonesia Maritime Pilots Association (INAMPA) and Capt. Max T. Strossel (right) from Papua New Guinea in 2017 at Bali.

What are the challenges you face on a daily basis? How do you overcome them?

I would say the big challenges are ensuring local and international rules are complied with, guiding gigantic-size of ships and displaced weight and making sure the integrity of the safety and security aspects of the port and harbor are intact.

In fact, at every different time of the day, we face different situation and condition of the seas, weather, port and harbor, and also the emotions and mindset of the master and crew. Pilots constantly face a dynamic environment, so boredom does not set in and it is a challenge every time we board a different ship.

Even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, all the pilots in Malaysia and worldwide worked as usual.

Maritime pilots are also known as ambassadors of a country as we are usually the first local person the seafarers come into contact with. Therefore, being diplomatic, hospitable and professional are important. Apparently, if we do our job right, the master and the crew will ask “Are you sailing us out tomorrow, Mr. Pilot?” This is one of the highest compliments we can get.

Communicating with different nationalities is a challenge too as language barrier contributes to communication error. I will adapt myself by communicating my navigation and ship-handling instructions slowly and meticulously to the master and crew so that I am understood clearly without ambiguity. 

I also make sure the master and crew are comfortable to speak to me at any time during pilotage as I do encourage them to work with me cohesively as one of the bridge team members. One benefit is that every piece of information detrimental to the ship’s navigation safety is being shared and not hidden from me so that I can take the necessary action in ample time if required.  

It is dangerous for a pilot to allow a tense environment on the bridge to boil over during pilotage and we have to do something to break the ice. This is for the best interest of the safety of the pilotage and the ship itself.

What is your opinion of a good leader?

A good leader must demonstrate efficient communication skills, make decisions based on facts, is capable of knowing right and wrong and to take corrective actions. They must hold on to their principles regardless of the situation, treat everyone fairly, take responsibility for mistakes, have the courage to admit to mistakes and do not hesitate to offer an apology, if necessary.  

What is your advice to students and jobseekers wanting to join the maritime industry?

The maritime industry, one of the oldest industries in the world, connects people from all over the world by facilitating global trade. As it is an essential service, the industry offers broad and wide opportunities to all, even in times of crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic where though many lost their jobs, many in the maritime industry retained their jobs and some companies even prospered with the increase in container freight rates.

Top photo: Capt Martin Lim (right) with the commander of INS Shayadri, Capt. Kunal Singh Rajkumar.

All photos credit: Martin Lim

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