west coast marine pilot vessel mash
A West Coast marine pilot vessel (photo courtesy Mash)

Training is key to Pacific marine pilots’ tanker safety success

Marine pilots on Canada’s West Coast have an exceptional safety record in the world’s largest pilot-mandatory zone for large vessels including oil tankers.

Recent news of large ships running aground has heightened awareness of marine safety. On March 14, 2022, the cruise ship Norwegian Escape ran aground off the coast of the Dominican Republic (it was freed on March 15). The container ship Ever Forward ran aground in Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Maryland on the U.S. east coast on March 13.

Could this happen in Canada? It’s not impossible, but Canada has world-class marine safety built into how we manage shipping that goes a long way to minimizing the chance of a mishap. One of the keys to the safety regime is our use of professional marine pilots.

Canadians care about marine safety. We have the world’s longest coastline and coastal areas of great beauty and ecological sensitivity. With the completion of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) pipeline in 2023, more oil will be transported by ship from Canada’s West Coast to international markets. Some people have raised concerns about the risks of shipping oil through Canadian waters. But Canada’s world-class marine safety organizations are more than up to the task.

Two organizations manage West Coast marine traffic

The Pacific Pilotage Authority (PPA) is a federal Crown corporation established in 1972 (the first marine pilot in B.C. was licenced in 1958 – the coastal area previously had pilot requirements under other organizations). Currently there are 114 marine pilots at various levels of training and authority. All but 10 belong to a separate organization, British Columbia Coast Pilots Ltd., which provides contract piloting services to the PPA. The remaining 10 pilots are employed directly by the PPA and provide pilotage on the Fraser River.

“Marine experience is important, but so is the business side to effectively manage the pilotage program,” notes PPA president and CEO Kevin Obermeyer. “We focus on administration and providing fully co-ordinated pilotage services within B.C.’s compulsory pilotage zone.”

Capt. Steve Kennedy is the president of British Columbia Coast Pilots Ltd. He’s an unrestricted marine pilot with more than 30 years of seagoing experience. He comments, “Becoming a pilot is the pinnacle of the marine sector in B.C. Pilots are trusted and respected because of our rigorous training and experience. It’s the local knowledge we value most. We can teach a person about handling a ship but understanding of the coast and waters comes from years of experience. It’s irreplaceable.”

Every vessel of 350 tonnes or more (except government of Canada vessels, B.C. Ferries and ships captained by Canadian armed forces personnel) must have a pilot onboard when travelling in the coastal compulsory pilotage zone, also called the pilot-mandatory zone.

Pilots are professional mariners who have years of experience and are familiar with coastal waters. Although a ship’s captain is very familiar with their own vessel and crew, they may not be familiar with the specifics of each port where their vessel must go. B.C. pilots have a lifetime of experience in how tides, geography and weather can affect how ships move in and out of B.C.’s harbours. Pilots board a vessel and work with the crew to apply this exceptionally thorough, local expertise to make sure ships, crews, passengers and cargo move, arrive and depart safely in coastal waters.

Most pilotage authorities around the world manage marine traffic within a port or along a river, covering a relatively small area. But the PPA’s mandatory zone is vast, two miles off any given point of land along the West Coast including numerous inlets and narrow passage, and around all islands. It’s the largest such zone in the world (click here to see a map).

Stellar safety performance

B.C. coast pilots have developed a safety practice that’s internationally recognized. Effective planning, using the latest navigation equipment, community involvement and training, plus many layers of safety procedures have resulted in a stellar safety record: consistently 99.9 per cent safe operation of large vessels including oil tankers.

“Our record compares favourably with other pilotage authorities worldwide in terms of safety performance,” says Obermeyer. “The difference here is scale, and the extent to which we seek people with extensive knowledge of the coastal environment no matter where they are within the mandatory zone.”

What will TMX mean for pilots?

Within the pilot-mandatory zone, ships are required to have one marine pilot on board to help navigate the ship. To increase safety even more, loaded oil tankers are required to have two marine pilots on board while in the zone.

For inbound (empty) oil tankers, a pilot boards the ship near the southern tip of Vancouver Island and remains until a change of pilots in English Bay area (the entrance to Burrard Inlet and the Port of Vancouver). The second pilot manages the tanker to Westridge Terminal in Burnaby, B.C. where the tanker is loaded. The inbound trip takes about eight hours.

On the outbound (loaded) trip, which takes about 10 hours, two pilots board the tanker and manage the ship under the Second Narrows bridge (always at slack tide, a short period between low and high tides) and onward under the Lions Gate (First Narrows) bridge. Then another pilot change, when two new pilots board to manage the tanker through the Strait of Juan da Fuca between Vancouver Island and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

Another level of safety: tugboats. Every loaded oil tanker is required to have three tethered tugboats, more than the requirement for any other type of vessel. These tugboats maintain full control of the tanker at all times, to help manoeuver the ship carefully through coastal waters, working in tandem with the marine pilots on board the tanker. 

tugboat and oil tanker k1583052
Tugboats ensure tankers remain under control in the event of steering or power loss.

The completion of the TMX project will mean one additional oil tanker every day, which in turn will mean additional co-ordination among pilots onboard various vessels in the inlet and harbour.

“TMX will add more logistics, but pilots already conduct extensive planning, communicate and co-ordinate,” says Kennedy. “We’re also training additional pilots. We’ll be ready.”

Read more: Trans Mountain and West Coast marine safety

Read more: What is the WCMRC?

Read more: After massive response, Trans Mountain safely restarts operation

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Captain Steve Kennedy President, B.C. Coast Pilots Ltd. and unrestricted marine pilot
  • Kevin Obermeyer President and CEO, Pacific Pilotage Authority