Rachel Dunn

Rachel Dunn

What do you do?

My main task as a pilot is to safely get the ship from A to B, be it from berth to berth or sailing a vessel in or out. The safety of both the vessel and the tug crews I am operating with, the safety of the port and all stakeholders and the environment. No two tasks are ever the same, even if it is the same size of ship moving to the same berths. The variance in elements always alter the way the vessel reacts I have carried out the same move in light winds in beautiful sunshine or alternatively in 50 to 60 mph and rain. You feel the elements, especially on the cold moves as I have to stand outside on the exposed bridgewing. Sometimes the inclement weather, although more of a challenge gives me more of a sense of achievement than the benign conditions.

The buzz I get when the vessel is all secure on her berth especially if the weather has been unkind or the vessel has had a defect which we’ve had to work around. If the vessel is not responding as it should and everything appears to be going wrong, I have the knowledge and level headedness to resolve the situation and create a calming influence within the bridge team.

What does a typical day at work look like?

No two days at my work care ever the same due to the variance of shipping. Shipping arrives into port 24 hours a day 7 days a week, regardless of the weather. On arrival at work, I’ll check my specific moves. Today, I’ve been allocated an Algerian training square rigged sailing ship in the morning, followed by a cold move (ship moving without ships engines and instead using tugs for control) from one berth to another.

I need to plan the passage for the Algerian ship. A google of the internet reveals EL Mellah is 110 meters long with a draught of 6.3 meters. This draught decides which route I will bring the vessel into Portsmouth. In addition I know where the vessels to be berthed and which tugs have been allocated. The weather is very favourable today with light winds and minimal tides, I am not normally this fortunate as we pilot in all sorts of weather, be it wind, rain, snow, fog or a combination of all the elements. Once my passage plan has been written, I collect my two handheld VHF radios and put on my pilots’  coat. This orange coat has an inbuilt lifejacket, a Portable Pilot Unit (gives my location should I fall in the water on ships radars) and a flashing light; it is a relatively heavy jacket. I board the pilot boat that takes me to the ship. Easier to spot than most, a 40 minute journey has me meeting the ship at anchor. I clamber from the warmth and security of the cabin, out onto the foredeck and up the side of the vessel by a pilot ladder. On arrival on board, I am supplied with the ships master/pilot exchange sheet which has details of the ships handling characteristics. A discussion of our route with expected traffic, tug securing positions and berth location. A coffee is then suppled as we navigate into the port where I am constantly monitoring the ships position.VHF calls to confirm entry into the narrow channel which at its narrowest is 180 meters wide. I have to become an intricate part of the bridge team so we can get the vessel safely into port. Once through the harbour entrance, we have to turn the ship at the top of the harbour before proceeding back to our berth. With a long keel, sailors in her rigging and a freshening breeze, the use of secured tugs aids the turn of the vessel. I am instructing the tugs on how and when to push or pul the vessel. The vessel berths safely on her berth and with all lines secured, I wish the Captain an enjoyable stay in Portsmouth, get my paperwork signed by him before proceeding off the ship and past all the awaiting dignitaries.

A short period before my next job gives me the opportunity to pop into the movements office to check the moves for tomorrow and allocate the tugs for the moves.

The move is again planned with regard to tugs and other movements within the port. I have a cross channel ferry due to sail at a similar time to my move, but Harbour Control who monitor the harbour in a similar way to air traffic control will decide who has priority for their move closer to the time. Paperwork printed and being as the sun is still shining, I walk to the ship (with the same heavy coat).This time I board by gangway. As this is a cold move, I have command of the ship and advise the ships crew where I want the tugs secured. This 153 meter long Destroyer is wanting to change berth and secure the opposite side alongside. Tugs instructed auto where to secure and the power settings required for the move. Once the tugs are all secured and prior to releasing all the lines, I call up Harbour Control for permission to commence the move and find out the ferry has been delayed. All lines gone, I instruct the forward and aft tugs on their engine settings and angles to lift the vessel off the berth. I commence turning the vessel off the berth before calling in the third tug to secure on the opposite side aft. Once the third tug is secure, I give instruction to release the now redundant aft tug. As we get close to the next berth, the redundant second tug now comes back into action and the vessel is secured in position. The master rigger liaises with me to confirm the position. Due to the constraints on the dockside, the ship has to berthed precisely to almost the nearest centimetre.

Another successful berthing and paperwork signed , I return to the office to check on emails. A phonemail to harbour control to check there is no other traffic for me, I head home after a busy but successful day. 

How did you get to where you are?

After A’levels, I joined Shell Tankers as a deck cadet for a three year apprenticeship. Time spent at sea and at college, I qualified with my second mates ticket sailing as third mate with Shell. The roll of the Merchant Navy is to safely carry cargo from port to port, so the cargo can be loaded or discharged. As a qualified officer, I was in charge of a navigational watch for 8 hours in a 24 hour period at sea, and cargo watch whilst in port. I safely navigated ships from 30,000 tonnes to 300,000 tonnes around the world. After sufficient navigational watch keeping time was obtained, I returned to college for a year to study for my Chief Officers Certificate. On passing, again back to sea for more seatime before returning to college to sit my Masters oral exam. I gained my Certificate of Competency 2/II (unlimited), (Masters Certificate of Competency) that would enable me to sail as Master on any British flagged merchant vessel. I then left Shell to join Wightlink, where I worked as Chief Officer before finally becoming one of their Senior Masters. I left Wightlink to become an Admiralty Pilot in Portsmouth Harbour. A three year training program to become an unlimited pilot .This involved a number of simulator courses and numerous moves on mainly naval vessels both hot and cold. After the first year, I qualified as a restricted pilot and could pilot vessels up to 150 meters, after a further 2 years, I became an unlimited pilot.I have now just started training as a pilot for he new aircraft carriers which are 280meters long. 

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I am happily married with three grown daughters, dispelling the myth that you can not maintain a career at sea and have children. Enjoy cycling, walking with my dog. I used to enjoy skiing until I broke my leg doing the same.