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Issue 57 - Guiding a Path

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011


This article is 7 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Guiding a Path

Nick Drainey finds out about the history of the Forth's forgotten heroes

The thick fog which has blanketed the Firth of Forth makes navigation an apparently impossible task. But coxswain Kevin Murdoch is undeterred by the curse of many a mariner and puts the engines of his boat to full throttle as the harbour walls of Granton are passed and eider ducks scatter out of the way. Once in the middle of the busy shipping area it seems almost foolhardy to be flying across the waves, making sharp turns to cause a swell any powerboat driver would be proud of.
But for Kevin speeding through banks of fog is part of his everyday working life, as he guides pilot boats out to meet great oil tankers, container ships and cruise liners. Besides, the green flickering light of the radar to his right acts as his eyes and ears – more reliable than any human, even on a clear day. Without this service the world of shipping we take for granted would cease to function; captains would be unable to steer their large vessels into or out of unfamiliar harbours far from their home ports. Kevin’s job is in his blood; his father ran a prawn fishing boat from Port Seton which he enjoyed sailing on from the age of seven. But 17 years ago he left the fishing behind and joined the pilot boats, operated by Forth Ports. Anything over 60 metres in the Forth needs a pilot to be on board to guide it past rocks, sandbanks and man-made structures to a safe berth or, if it is leaving the Forth, safely back out to sea.
That pilot is taken by Kevin and his colleagues to the ship’s side from where they usually have to clamber up a rope ladder, or if they are lucky step through a door in the hull. Every year more than 3,000 ships are guided in by three pilot boats and a fleet of four tugs - used if the ship is too big and difficult to manoeuvre on its own. Kevin, 42, believes his job is vital but only a few miles away in Scotland’s capital most aren’t aware of it. He says: “People don’t know what it is. You mention pilot and the first thing they think is aeroplane pilot.”
There is a certain amount of routine to the job which helps alleviate the obvious dangers of taking a small boat right up to a huge ship. Kevin says: “You know when the ships are due so you go out approximately 30 minutes before that. “You go alongside ... it is basically a controlled collision. You go in nice and slow then the pilot goes on board. Sometimes, if the weather is bad you get the ships to go right round to get a good lee. “If it’s Force 8 or Force 9 you have really got to take your time going out. Under normal circumstances it takes about 20 minutes to go to where the pilot goes on, or off, but if the weather is bad it could take up to 35 minutes because you have to go slower so your boat’s not banging and breaking up.”
The dangers are always there and for Kevin the fog is worse than high winds and waves. “It is hair-raising but it is second nature, it would be like a fireman going to work – you respect the sea, you know the boat’s capabilities. “Personally I hate working in the fog rather than a gale of wind. In a gale of wind you can still see where you are going ... in fog you can’t see anything in front of you, that’s why you rely on your radar.”
Very occasionally ships have to wait at anchor until extremely bad weather has passed. Kevin says: “There are times when it gets really bad and you can’t get out but they are very few and far between. Where we work it is always worse when the wind comes from the east because, basically, you have that coming from Russia.”
Pilot boats date back to ancient Greece and Rome when fishing boats would guide larger ships carrying goods into harbour. Since then things have become more regulated, not least with the red and white flag which identifies a pilot boat.
In 1828 the Forth Pilotage Authority was established and in 1913 the Pilotage Act saw more dedicated pilot boats and crews, purpose built for the job. Such was the knowledge of the pilots and their boat crews that during World War One they were moved from a look out on the Isle of May
for fear that if they were caught by any
advancing Germans, valuable intelligence would be given away.
Today, the pilot boats are based in Granton where a high-tech control room monitors the passage of ships and takes radio messages from captains needing a pilot to guide them in, or out, of harbour. As Kevin guides his boat further into the gloom another pilot boat appears. Its engines stopped, the boat bobs like a cork in a bathtub as two crewmen, fastened on to the guard rail with safety clips, move two yellow canisters on to the deck. Within seconds an ear splitting explosion is heard across the water and two flares disappear up into the low cloud. Attached to them are lines used to attach a rope from onboard a ship.
This is only a practice drill but the perilous activity they are preparing for emphasises the important work being carried out 365 days of the year, all round the clock.
Kevin appears at first glance to be relaxed about the dangers but is proud of an impeccable safety record in the time he has worked on the pilot boats. He says: “It is a dangerous job although, thankfully, nobody has ever been hurt while I’ve been here. You know what you can do and you can’t do and you don’t tell someone to go out on deck until you are happy ... there is a trust.” Another coxswain, Urvaru Raki, known as Raki, is proud to be the first Fijian to work the Forth.
The 42 year old moved to Scotland in 2000 and joined the pilot boat service the following year after working as a deckhand on ferries, tugs and cruise liners on the Pacific Ocean. He says: “It is virtually the same, apart from the weather.”
The pilot boat crews work four shifts of 12 hours a week, two in day time and two through the night as the constant shipping traffic supplies Scotland with goods and exports products across the world. Different ships, weather and tides mean that every job is unique but at the centre is a dedication to safety. Raki says: “It is a good job, a challenging job because it is not the same approach all the time. “It can be scary sometimes but if you are scared, you abandon the job. You have to think, what happens if the engines cut out - things like that. If the engines cut out during rough weather you can lose a pilot, there are no two ways about that.”
Back at base, crewman Mick Lillie is happy to be the one who has the key job of guiding pilots from the deck of the boat onto the ships coming into the Forth. The pilot boat can go up to nine miles out to sea to meet some of the larger boats. When they pull alongside, Mick says it is like a “curtain of metal in front of you”.
The 45-year-old adds: “If the weather is fine, it’s alright ... in bad weather you can’t see anything, it’s like being in a washing machine with an uneven load.” It is only when the coxswain says it is safe to go on deck, however, that the pilot can go outside. With a little understatement Mick adds: “I make sure he gets on and the ladder is safe.”
Meanwhile, the coxswain Kevin is happy to have a job behind the wheel of a boat – to him it is the best form of transport: “You have more freedom – you don’t get stuck in traffic jams all the time. “Every job is different but it is good knowing you can go out in stormy weather, get a pilot aboard safely and you haven’t put them or yourself in danger – job satisfaction.”