Lou Vest clearly recalls the day he realised he should keep a camera with him at all times.
“I was walking around the docks at Houston on an August day, watching the stevedores working among the trucks, the cranes and the ships. In the middle of all this, an ice cream truck came by and suddenly everything stopped. All these tough stevedores in their hi-vis vests were sitting around eating popsicles and Eskimo pies and I thought that would be a dynamite photograph if you did it right.”
That was 2002 and since then Vest has carried a digital camera with him as he works as a pilot at the busiest port in the United States. The results, posted on his Flickr page are a fascinating document of his daily working life, as well as providing the bridge team’s perspective on handling ships in close quarters.
Vest takes his pictures when safety and conditions allow, many of which find their way into presentations, collections as well as exhibitions in downtown Houston.
What the pictures demonstrate is not just the volume of ship traffic a Houston pilot has to handle – some 200 ships per year – but also the tight conditions in which that happens. The Houston ship channel is 53 miles long, crossing Galveston Bay at 530ft wide, with docks beginning at mile 30 and narrowing to 300ft wide for the last 10 miles.
It’s a tight squeeze for the Aframax tankers and post-Panamax containerships that call at the port but Vest says his game plan every trip is ‘to stay out of trouble’.
“They say a pilot is a person of superior judgement and ship handling experience who uses his superior judgement to avoid situations where he has to use his superior ship handling experience,” he chuckles. “People ask me if my job is exciting. Actually it’s my job for it not to be exciting. I want to make it as uneventful as possible. If I can do that then I’ve had a successful trip.”
That much nonchalance takes practice, accumulated in Vest’s case during five years in the US Navy followed by service as a master in the merchant navy before being invited to join the pilots in 1986. The Houston pilots require a three-year apprenticeship and recruits mostly masters and first mates – demand for positions is such that there is currently a long waiting list.
It’s a job that requires the right combination of nous and knowledge, because despite the digital data supplementing their ship handling skills, in-port navigation still requires a certain individualism.
“I have a photo of a pilot getting onto a ship at night and looking up into the darkness and it’s very accurate, because the truth is you don’t know what’s up there. You don’t know if the ship can steer well or how competent the crew is going to be. If I’m turning a ship in basin and I’ve got 100ft on the bow and that 100ft is 800ft away from me, do I rely on a mate I’ve never talked to before? I can’t rely on him alone, but I use his information and put it together with what the tug, my own eyes and the laptop are telling me.”
That doesn’t stop him advocating the use of digital navigation technology, in fact he’d happily use more. Houston pilot units employ bespoke navigation charts and hardware equipped with Differential GPS for position monitoring, a ‘PPU’ which can also plug into the bridge to receive AIS and heading data from the ship’s gyro.
Vest’s feeling about technology is that he’d like to see some fresh thinking on how such systems connect. That could mean expanding the data coming through the ‘pilot plug’ and further ahead, replacing the large bridge consoles of today for an integrated digital system that concentrates on display and overlay of whatever data and information the bridge team needs, on demand.
“People are in a box and not thinking outside it. We’re already machine minders – the whole ship is a machine,” he says. “If we’re going to be minding several screens, we might as well have them integrated. It’s far harder if you are looking back and forth between displays on different consoles, and what happens when they don’t agree? With an overlay you can see right away that something is wrong.”
This is not an argument for technology for its own sake, but rather what Vest sees as the need to reduce duplication when for example, the mate is required to record buoy positions during passage to the berth, something Vest’s laptop is already doing. It might sound like good navigational practice but as he says, ‘recording data is what the machines are for’.
“I understand the need for data but that job is already being done. While the mate is doing that job he’s not a second pair of eyes and ears for the bridge team. He’s another machine. He is not watching the pilot or the channel and learning the important thing, which is how to take ship into port.”
By Neville Smith