The International Pilot

The International Pilot is the magazine of the maritime pilots’ community. It was launched in 1997 being its main objective to collect and illustrate essential information concerning our members’ profession. In terms of content, the primary topics are Maritime Safety and Pilotage among others of common interest within the industry.

The magazine readership exceeds 8,500 subscribers including maritime pilots and their National Associations as well as other sister Associations and stakeholders worldwide.

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A message from the IMPA President published in Issue 50 of The International Pilot.


The Challenge Facing MASS Proponents

As you are reading these lines, everywhere around the world, maritime pilots are directing the navigation of the world fleet on the planet’s most challenging, high-risk waterways. This statement is true every second of the day, every day. And, every day, in the most diverse and difficult conditions, this reality essentially goes unnoticed.

This is as it should be – because this means things are going well.

The primary purpose of pilotage is to deliver safe navigation. And pilots do exactly that. IMPA pilots perform over a million assignments every year, with a safety record consistently above 99.95%. Virtually none of the very few incidents that do happen result in either environmental damage or injury.

On every one of those assignments, pilots face heavy responsibilities. Split-second decisions can be of great consequence. Loss of human life, destruction of fragile ecosystems, and damage to vital trade infrastructure can result from making the wrong decision.

Safe maritime transportation is so critical to the public interest that the very first principle put forward by the IMO in respect of Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) is that “trials should be conducted in a manner that provides at least the same degree of safety, security and protection of the environment” (Interim guidelines for MASS trials, MSC.1/Circ.1604, 14 June 2019). This fundamental principle is echoed in the European Union’s Operational Guidelines for Safe MASS Trials which state that trials should achieve “at least the same degree of safety, security and protection of the environment” as existing risk-mitigation measures.

In practice, since there is little need for something that is “only just as good as” something else, this means MASS must do better than what current risk-mitigation measures, including pilotage, provide.

The burden of proof is therefore on MASS proponents to demonstrate that they can effectively meet the same heavy responsibilities that pilots face every day, and deliver safe navigation in all types of weather and hydrodynamic conditions 24-7-365, with a level of safety that is noticeably higher than 99.95%.

So far, evidence that this burden is being met, or can be met, is scarce.

IMO and EU Guidelines state that a risk-based approach and risk-assessment methodologies shall be used throughout the process of developing MASS. In practice, however, several inadequacies in the application of best practices for risk management and risk assessment can often be identified. For example, a recent tender by the European Safety Maritime Agency to identify the competences that remote control operators should possess for operating MASS not only does not follow a risk-based approach but discusses vessels with systems that do not exist.

Meanwhile, the target that MASS proponents must meet is not static. The “burden of proof” keeps growing every day. For one thing, the safety record of pilotage generally tends to constantly improve, with incident-free rates moving up from 99.95%. For another, with ever bigger vessels transiting the same waterways, pilots achieve this improving safety level despite a concurrent increase in navigational challenges.

Notwithstanding the problem of dealing with ships that do not exist – I am willing to suspend my disbelief for a second – there is another dimension to the burden of proof that the proponents of MASS must also address, a dimension that touches on one of the most delicate problems that marine transportation face: social license.

As is apparent from public discussions and reactions to various proposed and existing shipping initiatives, even with risk-mitigation that is as successful as pilotage is, social license for marine transportation appears to be increasingly difficult to secure and to maintain, with public tolerance for the possibility of marine accidents being lower than ever.

This speaks to a final question of the uttermost importance: who needs MASS? Does the population of my hometown need a supertanker being maneuvered remotely, or maneuvering itself, in the restricted, ice-infested channel right in front of the city?

Simon Pelletier


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