Safe solutions for smooth and efficient shipping

The PLA’s highly skilled pilots and VTS teams ensure the safe and efficient movement of ships throughout the port.

Safety, security, efficiency, access, new technology, cost-effectiveness: all of these underpin a successful port. The PLA is driving forward on all counts, recognising that such aims must always be a ‘work in progress’ and that an ever-busier river brings its own challenges.

Pilotage is a case in point. Two years ago, as the number of ship calls rose rapidly, so too did the demand for pilotage. Pilotage delays, never wanted by anyone, became an issue.

PLA PilotsServing any vessel – PLA pilots boarding a navy ship in Gravesend Reach

Fast-forward 12 months, and a multi-pronged approach to tackling this problem had really delivered results.

“The problems we had with pilotage delays were well documented. We have put a lot of effort and hard work into resolving this,” says chief harbour master Bob Baker.

“The result? Despite continuing rise in demand during 2018, because the number of ships we handle continues to go up, our service level has significantly improved. We are not complacent – there is more to do, but we are in a far, far better place than we were in 2017.”

How has this been achieved?

New working arrangements were negotiated with the PLA’s pilots to deliver better productivity.

Bespoke pilot allocation software was introduced, to allocate pilots to ships in the most efficient manner.

The recruitment of additional pilots continued.

A revised management team was put in place to oversee pilotage.

The PLA now has a total of 102 pilots: 82 sea pilots, 16 river pilots and four trainees. “We have been recruiting 12 pilots a year for the past two years and we will take on another 12 in 2019,” says Bob Baker.

“Meanwhile, if a ship suddenly needs to change its ETA, our software can do a whole reallocation of pilots in real time to be more efficient. This has been a great change and we are continually updating the program and our way of working.”

To put all of this in context, the number of sea pilotage acts carried out by the PLA in 2018 almost reached the milestone figure of 10,000. Service levels, meanwhile, reached 98% in the last quarter of 2018, compared to 77% a year earlier.

“Our pilotage acts have continued to increase, much of this due to growing business at London Gateway,” says Bob Baker. “We are proud that, while the number of ships has gone up, the number of delays has gone dramatically down. Feedback from customers has acknowledged this dramatic improvement, which is thanks to the hard work of all concerned.”

The skills of the PLA’s pilots are immense. To the east, they are regularly handling some of the world’s largest container ships, bringing vessels of up to 400 metres long, with capacity around 20,000 teu, to and from their berths at London Gateway. To the west, the specialist river pilots know every bridge and every quirk of the Thames, as they bring cruise ships and others right into central London.

The PLA’s jurisdiction stretches 95 miles from Teddington Lock out into the North Sea and its VTS area covers a total of 600 square miles

This work must be carried out in all weathers, in all tides, and at all times of the day or night. Pilots board vessels armed with tablet computers to provide them with real-time information, but they also carry with them huge knowledge and experience of the Thames – its depths, tidal currents, jetties, piers and bridges.

The PLA’s highly advanced ship’s bridge simulator is a vital factor in the training of pilots, who are all experienced mariners. As well as being used for training, the simulator is extremely valuable for setting up scenarios to test, plan and prepare for handling vessels in all kinds of conditions. Pilots can train and practise on all kinds of virtual ships, including tankers, container ships, cruise ships and car carriers, so that when they head out to sea and climb the ship’s ladder, they are incredibly well prepared.

The PLA, an enthusiastic supporter of Maritime UK’s campaign to attract more women into careers in the maritime sector, now has three women pilots on its team. “We are keen to encourage more women into the industry, including in harbour master and pilotage roles. And we are seeing more interest, too.”

Vessel Traffic Services

Time is money for ship operators; naturally they are anxious to avoid any delays as they make their way to and from their berths in the Thames. Overseeing the smooth and swift movement of ships throughout the port is the PLA’s Vessel Traffic Services (VTS). The team constantly pushes for efficiency of navigation. But one word – safety – always comes first.

The PLA’s jurisdiction stretches 95 miles from Teddington Lock out into the North Sea and its VTS area covers a total of 600 square miles. More than 10,000 large vessels make their way in and out of the Port of London each year. There are 70 different terminals and wharves along the length of the river. Vessels need room to manoeuvre and need to be aware of each other’s movements. Berth availability can vary. Tidal changes are huge. Weather can be unpredictable. Pilotage and towage must be coordinated.

In short, the VTS team’s job is a massive juggling act, balancing the needs of every vessel, from roll-on/roll-off ferries to tankers, from bulkers and general cargo ships to cruise ships and container ships.

The PLA has two VTS Centres – the Port Control Centre in Gravesend and the Thames Barrier Navigation Centre in Woolwich. From here, the entire VTS area is closely monitored and controlled, all day, all night, all year. Each VTS Centre is led by a duty officer with the delegated powers of the harbour master, supported by a team of VTS officers and shipping coordinators.

VTSRemote control – pilotage coordinators match pilots and ships in the most efficient manner.

The PLA has led the way in establishing VTS standards, and all of its VTS personnel are trained to International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) and Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) standards. A sophisticated VTS simulator is a vital tool in training, refresher training and preparing and planning for unusual or particularly challenging ship calls. “Our VTS operation is constantly striving for efficiency,” says chief harbour master Bob Baker.

“As more ships come into London, this obviously puts more demand on our VTS system. We focus strongly on training, on investing in new technology, and on keeping pace with all technological and regulatory changes.” In the coming months, the PLA is planning to renew its VHF system and renew all of the PCs in the operations room at Gravesend.

Red Tape Challenge

Three years ago, the PLA began a complete review of all its regulations, rules, procedures and guidelines. The aim was to identify where these could be reduced, simplified or even removed altogether.

This ‘Red Tape Challenge’ successfully eliminated about half of the associated paperwork and delivered new, slimmed-down, harmonised rules and regulations.

“We reduced our regulations and procedures by 50% through this review process and now await Department for Transport approval,” says Bob Baker.

And it doesn’t stop there. As part of the drive to remove complicated, unnecessary regulations and make all the rest easy to understand, the team is now working on a port guide which will bring together all information on every berth in the Port of London – length, depth, capacity, and so on.

“The information is all out there somewhere but fragmented; now it is being consolidated into one single point, and we aim to make this available online,” he says.

Emergency response

The PLA has a central role to play in London’s emergency response structure, and works closely with the Mayor’s office, police, security services and others to be prepared for any emergency incident.

In 2017, a new Marine Emergency Centre was set up – a dedicated room in the navigation centre at the Thames Barrier, this can be staffed up quickly with a response team.

The facility has been used in the response to several exercises since then. “We continue to improve our response to emergency situations, with more frequent and more challenging exercises being held,” says Bob Baker. “The focus is on getting our own people completely up to speed. We have put aside additional funds for a more intense exercise in 2019.”

Lessons learned from emergency exercises held have been fed into the rewriting of the PLA’s Emergency Response Plan. “This rewriting has made the plan more efficient and fit for purpose, easier to use and more easily understood,” he says.

During 2018, meanwhile, an automated callout system was implemented as part of the response structure. “If we have an incident, we might have to call in 20, 30 or 40 people. Now we have a system in place that will automatically text or call everyone required.”

A whale of a time

And finally…the whale. In September 2018, the arrival of a beluga whale in the Gravesend area of the Thames attracted journalists and sightseers, along with international headlines.

The matter also highlighted how the PLA, as a statutory port authority, must balance its duty to protect wildlife and the environment with its responsibilities for facilitating the port operations and trade.

The PLA had the challenge of managing intense media attention too. That included some careful traffic management to ensure that boats and helicopters being used by film crews and others did not cause any risk to the safety of regular merchant shipping and other river users.

“People don’t necessarily understand what is going on in the river,” says Bob Baker. “We have a responsibility to keep trade running – that’s vital for the daily lives of millions of people and businesses in the South East and beyond.”