Pilots in ‘skirmish’ at sea

Posted: February 12, 2013 in Marine

Neal Higgs understands the ocean at the entrance to the shipping channel leading to the Port of Brisbane. Thirty years of familiarity as a pilot boat skipper here have taught him its temperament.

He knows its winds, waves and tides, what lies beneath.

As the pilot launch nuzzles in against the container ship with a soft bump, matching its speed to the ship’s 10 knots and settling into the lee of her massive hull to put the pilot aboard, Higgs is a model of calm authority as senior coxswain for Brisbane Marine Pilots.

Today, the ocean is a bit choppy with 2 to 2.5-metre swells but nothing to worry about.

A day or so later, however, it’s a ‘high energy’ piece of ocean that Higgs confronts in the pilot launch, doing six pilot transfers in a night shift as the remnants of tropical Cyclone Oswald unleash high winds and flooding down the Queensland coast.

“It was a bit lumpy,” Higgs tells me later in a classic understatement, adding that the seas were five to 10 metres and the wind 40-plus knots.

Neal Higgs works out of the pilot station at Mooloolaba on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where Brisbane Marine Pilots’ latest vessel, Skirmish, has been operating from since May 2012.

Brisbane Marine Pilots A

Cummins QSM11-powered Skirmish will carry out more than 60,000 pilot transfers during its service life with Brisbane Marine Pilots.

The $1.5 million Skirmish, a 14.2-metre vessel built by Norman R Wright & Sons, is propelled by twin 11-litre Cummins QSM11 engines rated at 455 hp and will carry out more than 60,000 pilot transfers over its minimum expected service life of 20 years.

Brisbane Marine Pilots is standardising on Cummins propulsion for improved reliability and fuel efficiency. One of its older vessels, the smaller 13.4-metre Spitfire, has been repowered with twin Cummins 9-litre QSL9 engines rated at 405 hp while two other launches will have their Cat C7engines replaced with QSL9 units.

“Reliability is the real key for our operation,” comments Brenton Winn, managing director of Brisbane Marine Pilots, discussing engine choice.

He points out the operation has 37 pilots – all former ships’ masters – who guide the ships on their journey of 50 nautical miles into the Port of Brisbane and then out again. The ships vary in size from 50 metres to close to 300 metres, while the biggest tankers have a beam up to 50 metres.

Watching a sea pilot – a tiny figure framed against the vast hull of a ship nearly 300 metres long – clamber from the pitching deck of a launch on to a swaying, slippery rope ladder dangling over the ship’s side emphasises just how hazardous their job can be.

It’s easy to understand why the pilots and launch crews are admired for their seafaring skill.

“Sometimes in bad weather the crews on the ships are surprised we come out to them,” says Brenton Winn. “The consequences of an error can be huge,” he adds, discussing why safety along with the expert judgment of the pilots and their crews is so critical.

Clambering from the pitching deck of a launch on to a swaying, slippery rope ladder dangling over the ship’s side is a hazardous job for sea pilots.

Clambering from the pitching deck of a launch on to a swaying, slippery rope ladder dangling over the ship’s side is a hazardous job for sea pilots.

The Cummins QSM11-powered Skirmish is the latest pilot launch design from Norman R Wright & Sons and takes safety and comfort to significantly higher levels.

Full roll-over /self-righting capability, handling predictability, and a suspended wheelhouse for dynamic shock and noise minimisation are among its key features.

Neal Higgs endorses the vessel’s sea-keeping ability, as well as the performance of the Cummins QSM11 engines in providing the necessary acceleration to allow Skirmish to jump clean and clear of rolling waves.

Senior coxswain for Brisbane Marine Pilots Neal Higgs...30 years as a pilot boat skipper.

Senior coxswain for Brisbane Marine Pilots Neal Higgs…30 years as a pilot boat skipper.

When engine selection was being considered for Skirmish, the fact that around 40 QSM11s are used in the Brisbane CityCat fleet was testimony for Brisbane Marine Pilots that the 11-litre Cummins was the correct choice for its operation.

Top speed of Skirmish is around 22 knots depending on the conditions, but the vessel is typically cruised at a comfortable17 knots at 1800 rpm for good fuel economy, with the QSM11engines consuming between 60 and 70 litres/hour per side.

Skirmish had clocked up close to 2000 hours by early February in an impressive start to the 60,000 pilot transfers it will carry out during its service life.

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