September 2015 – Phil Shayler

Pilotage on the Thames

Shayler1Phil Shayler opened our 2015/2016 dinner and talk programme with Pilotage on the Thames. Phil is a working pilot, a pilot trainer and examiner, and a port controller, and knows his stuff. He’s been a pilot for 24 years and the enthusiasm he still has for the work shone brightly through. Taking control of navigation (not as he explained “command of the vessel”) for enormous, unwieldy craft in the confined, busy, shallow and tidal waters of the Thames and its estuary has plenty of excitement to offer, even for someone as experienced as Phil. With bow and possibly stern thrusters, a few tugs, high-precision GPS (they carry their own kit to supplement whatever the ship may have) big ships are nudged into and out of tight berths in all weathers. The job is 24/7 – dashes in taxis, perhaps an hour or so in a Pilot “cutter” (£1m’s worth of boat itself) precede the actual duty, typically. The regulations preclude climbing ladders longer than 9 metres, but in the UK (unlike say in NL) the regulations also preclude single-engined helicopters so climbing ladders is what they do. If the weather is so bad that leaving a departing vessel is too dangerous – above a Force 7 say – the pilot will stay on board and be flown home later… this perhaps explaining why it is a traditionally male-dominated profession, as the work is a poor fit with home life.

Training is long and multi-staged, and a budding pilot works his way up from “little” 125 metre vessels (Class 4), to 320 metre (Class 1) and “unrestricted”. The bridge simulator looked quite fun. Perhaps we could persuade Phil to give us go, sometime?

The images that really grabbed our attention were those of the prangs. All this close quarters manoeuvring is not without incident – many of us have suffered or caused the odd bump and know something of the emotional effects. So there were a few gasps. Not from Phil, though.

All in all a fascinating insight into a marine profession that not only keeps us sailors and our seaways safe, but also keeps the ports working efficiently to support the vast amount of modern ship-borne trade without which us islanders would be eking a pretty meagre existence. So it is for more than a talk that we should be thanking Phil. Thanks!