A challenge to ‘authority’

The PLA’s task is to ensure absolute safety, while also delivering a quality, cost-effective service to all stakeholders.

chief harbour masterRegular harbour launch patrols are an important part of the PLA’s safety regime.

‘Authority’ – it’s a word that might not always conjure up the positive, and a word that can seem downright intimidating. Yes, the PLA is a statutory authority, with responsibility for 95 miles of the tidal Thames. The PLA has a duty to ensure safe and efficient navigation and consider the needs of all stakeholders, and that necessarily means there must be rules and regulations.

However, the PLA is constantly pushing forward with initiatives to improve its services, putting the customer centre stage whenever possible and delivering quality and cost-effective solutions across all of its activities.

Much of what is happening now and over the coming years will reflect the new strategic emphasis on ‘Zero Harm’ and that, from chief harbour master Bob Baker’s point of view, is the key target in the PLA’s navigation services.

“It is good to have a challenging target that stretches you and makes you challenge everything,” he says. “The PLA has great systems in place and a lot of experience and expertise. It is about taking us to the next level.

“We are asking the questions: is there a way we can do things better, safer, more efficiently? We are encouraging our people to challenge established norms and ask the question – why do we do it that way? It is no good saying ‘it is the way we always do it’. Is there a more effective way? There is always room for improvement and we keep striving to be better.”

There is an added emphasis now, says Bob Baker, on being customer-focused. “It is good that we are providing a safe service, but we are aiming to put a more ‘business’ look on things i.e., a quality service for the customer and providing what the customer wants.”

Being chief harbour master could be easy, he points out by just saying ‘no’ to everything. “The trick is to find a way to say ‘yes’. It is a balance between ensuring absolute safety and also delivering a quality service at the right price.”

But let’s go back to those rules and regulations. Most of these are aimed at ensuring navigational safety and all of them are now under the microscope as part of the PLA’s safety initiatives and the drive towards ‘Zero Harm’.

“Our regulations, rules, procedures and guidelines are, in some cases, extremely complicated and sometimes disjointed,” says Bob Baker. “Some of our own staff struggle to find their way through them, which suggests that port users, and visitors to the port in particular, will have difficulty understanding and consequently conforming to our regulations.”

Stand by for the Red Tape Challenge. “In 2017, we will embark on the Red Tape Challenge to review all these procedures and work to put them in a standard format, consolidate them and remove any that are no longer required,” says Bob Baker.

This is not to say that PLA codes of practice, byelaws and regulations have stood still over the years – there has always been a programme of regular review. The Red Tape Challenge will take a more ‘joined-up’ approach.

During 2016...

The PLA’s navigational safety byelaws were updated and republished.

The pilotage directions went through a review. A number of changes were made, including bringing some intra-port barge traffic under these directions. Following a period of consultation, the final directions will be ready in early 2017.

A new byelaw to prevent sewage discharge into the Thames was introduced.

It is always important to emphasise just how critical a strong Port of London is to the day-to-day lives and welfare of millions of people, handling everything from food and fuel to paper and construction materials. Bearing that in mind, it’s vital that the PLA has clear emergency plans and a strong contingency plan in place, should the need arise.

During 2016, a specialist consultant reviewed the PLA’s emergency plans, procedures and command structure, bringing the entire ‘package’ up to date. This included a focus on cybersecurity as well as on physical response plans.

This has led to the writing of a new emergency plan. “The final part of this work is to organise tactical emergency training,” says harbour master (lower district) Cathryn Spain. “We will be developing much more in-depth training and emergency response exercises as a result.”

While ‘Zero Harm’ is something the PLA is striving for under the ‘Protect’ theme of the new strategy, Cathryn says. “We are also focusing on the other two strategic strands ‘Improve’ and ‘Promote’.

“Under ‘Improve’, we are working to improve our relationships with customers in terms of licensing,” she explains. “We now have annual meetings with every terminal on the river, maintaining good contacts, so when they do need to come to us, they know who to speak to and know them. It’s a case of working together to improve things – and that’s also important in case of a crisis or incident.

“Under ‘Promote’, we are actively monitoring the use of visitor moorings in the river, to establish whether we need more and, if so, where they should be and what facilities might be required. We also continue to actively promote the river for cruise ships, for example.”

Pilotage... all weathers, all tides, all hours

Guiding some of the world’s largest, most unusual or most challenging ships to and from their berths in the Port of London in all weathers and tide, day or night, demands experience, skill, training and coordination. It also depends on an unparalleled knowledge of the River Thames and all its quirks – depths, tidal currents, jetties, piers and bridges, from the outer estuary all the way up to the centre of London.

Let’s hear it for the PLA’s remarkable team of pilots. These are the specialists. These are the people who head out to the open sea, climb out of a launch and up a rope ladder to board massive ships, and then bring them safely to port

The PLA has a pool of 85 fully qualified pilots, all of whom hold an STCW Class 1 Master’s Certificate. The number is climbing with more pilots being recruited as the number of ships requiring their services increases. Recent months have seen an unexpected increase in traffic on the Thames, while the relative proportion of masters holding Pilotage Exemption Certificates (PEC) on the river has fallen.

During 2016, the PLA recruited 12 new pilots; during 2017, the plan is to take on another 12. However, safety and efficiency means it can never be a quick fix. “Our new pilots will all be experienced senior officers,” says Bob Baker. “However, they start as trainee pilots and work their way up through the classes. It isn’t a quick process to get them up to the top, they must be trained properly for safety.”

Challenges in the past year have included handling UASC’s Al Muraykh, one of the world’s largest container ships; the 400-metre-long vessel called at DP London Gateway early in 2016, carrying 18,601 teu, the most ever shipping containers on board a vessel.

A few months later, the PLA’s pilots safely brought in two ships carrying the world’s largest ship-to-shore cranes, fully assembled, from China to London Gateway.

Intensive training underpins the pilotage service, and the PLA’s highly advanced ship’s bridge manoeuvring simulator at Gravesend is a vital part of that, not only for actual training but also for planning and preparing for handling the world’s most challenging ships in all kinds of conditions.

Thames pilotsA full tug simulator is the latest addition to the PLA’s simulator capability.

During 2016, the PLA invested £250,000 upgrading the simulator, adding a full tug bridge simulator. The upgrade has integrated the latest hydrographic modelling, allowing trainees to learn the characteristics of the Thames from the North Sea right through to central London.

The PLA’s simulator includes full engine controls, bow and stern thrusters, radar, ECDIS, speed logs, a portable pilotage unit, and Azimuth control device propulsion and steering. Over 70 ship types can be simulated, and the variable parameters include flood and ebb tide, wind speed and direction, fog, rain and snow. This gives pilots the chance to experience all kinds of ships – tankers, container ships, cruise ships and car carriers, before they go on board and take control in reality.

The addition of the interactive tug simulator has taken that experience and training possibilities to a new level. This can simulate five kinds of tug, provide the range of tide, wind and weather, and also offer a view over the tug’s bow or stern.

As well as in-house training, the simulator is in demand from customers. Many organisations use the facility for research and development; they can check out new berth plans or see how new ships will handle on the Thames, sometimes before those ships have even left the yard. This enables customers to adjust their plans if necessary and reduce the risk of any unexpected issues when the ship actually arrives. The simulator is also used for training pilotage exemption certificate holders and applicants, and for specialist training for ships’ officers, tug masters and even pilots from other port authorities.

Vessel Traffic Services (VTS)... multi-dimensional expertise

More than 10,000 large vessels make their way into and out of the Port of London every year – including cruise ships, container ships, roll-on/roll-off ferries, tankers, bulkers and general cargo ships. All of this traffic must be coordinated and controlled, to ensure navigational safety and efficiency as well as care of the environment.

How does it work? This is the task of the PLA’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which manages and oversees safety of navigation in one of the largest and most diverse VTS areas in the UK. Covering more than 600 square miles of waterway spanning 95 miles from Teddington to the North Sea, they provide the equivalent of air traffic control for the port – with a few added challenges thrown in.

First of all, we are not talking about the equivalent of a fixed ‘runway’. Water moves! This is a landing strip that is constantly changing, due to currents, tides and weather. Vessels are coming and going from 70 different terminals and wharfs along the river. The VTS team must work within complex parameters, including berth availability, pilotage and towage. This demands coordination and communication with all operators and an ability to see the ‘picture’ in several dimensions.

The PLA has a statutory duty to provide Vessel Traffic Services and this service, like pilotage, is within the responsibilities of the Chief Harbour Master.

The PLA has two VTS Centres – the Port Control Centre in Gravesend and the Thames Barrier Navigation Centre in Woolwich. From here, the PLA’s VTS area is closely watched and controlled around the clock, every day of the year.

vtsEyes on the Thames: the PLA VTS team coordinating more than 10,000 large vessel movements a year.

Following a reorganisation, the PLA’s Safety Management System (SMS) is now a component part of the VTS department.

Chief Harbour Master Bob Baker says: “From a safety operation point of view, it makes sense that we have pilotage, VTS and SMS together and talking in the same department about the main issue – which is getting vessels in and out of the river safely and efficiently. There is constant communication between the pilots and VTS.

Simon Phillips has been appointed harbour master (VTS & SMS). “He is responsible for our SMS, which is the bedrock and foundation of our compliance with the Port Marine Safety Code (PMSC), which sets out national standards for every aspect of port marine safety,” says Bob Baker.

All UK harbour authorities with statutory powers and duties are required to comply with the PMSC, which covers all marine facilities, berths and terminals.

The PLA’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) manages and oversees safety of navigation in one of the largest and most diverse VTS areas in the UK

VTS...the facts

Each VTS Centre is led by a VTS supervisor with the delegated powers of the Harbour Master, supported by a team of VTS officers and shipping coordinators.

All VTS personnel are fully trained
to the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) standards using the PLA’s inhouse MCA-accredited training programmes.

VTS is constantly developing, particularly as part of the ‘e-navigation’ agenda and ‘Single Window’ electronic reporting, designed to streamline information flows internationally and reduce paperwork for vessels.

The VTS will play a vital role as the River Thames handles unprecedented growth in traffic from Tideway-related vessels and shipments heading upriver to the substantial growth in passenger numbers on the river, a key target of the Mayor of London.

During 2016, the VTS voice communication system – combining telephone, VHF and command and control – was replaced.

There is an ongoing programme to switch the entire network of 17 radars across to solid state coherent radars.

The PLA is recognised as a leader and pioneer in the world of Vessel Traffic Services and associated training.

Almost a decade ago, the PLA invested in a sophisticated VTS simulator, which is regularly updated and expanded; this plays a vital role in training and also in preparing and planning for unusual ship calls. It is also in demand for providing training to outside customers – the PLA offers a range of courses.