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Oil and Water: A Day in the Life of a VLCC Harbor Pilot: “A cool, calm courage that no peril can shake”

Emad Talhah is a Chief Harbor Pilot and Mooring Master at Saudi Aramco. He is based in Ras Tanura.

6:45: Pilot Boarding Area

Next to our tiny craft, the supertanker looms like a skyscraper rising from the deep. Mini-metropolis may be more like it: stretching the equivalent of five city blocks, the VLCC – or Very Large Crude Carrier – is as long as New York’s Empire State Building is tall. Navigating the choppy waters, our pilot boat angles toward the VLCC, pulling starboard alongside the fast-moving vessel in a delicate dance of precision and pinpoint timing. In a spray of water off the bow, I position myself at the launch’s rail to grab the 30-foot boarding ladder dropped down to me. The waves rock our boat, and I miss; the launch re-approaches, and this time I jump onto a rung and quickly climb toward the main deck. I don’t always transfer on or off a moving vessel by ladder.

Emad Talhah, Chief Harbor Pilot and Mooring Master at Saudi Aramco

Sometimes I rappel from a helicopter.

Either way, that “commute” could be a metaphor for my work as a Chief Harbor Pilot and Mooring Master at Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest integrated energy and chemicals enterprise. Movement on and off the company’s port facilities in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea is the journey’s high-risk element.

It’s a job that requires me to know my sea-lane’s depths, currents and hazards like the back of my hand. It calls for unbroken concentration to negotiate ever-changing variables of weather, visibility, sea traffic and even geopolitics. And it demands exacting coordination with the ship Captain, crew and logistical support around the world.

In short, every day is a new challenge.

07:00: The Bridge

Once aboard, I assess the vessel’s suitability for a berthing/unberthing operation, or maneuverability at the dock. Next I “take a round” to inspect the deck and equipment.

As if boarding weren’t enough exercise, I now climb 10 flights of stairs to the bridge – the ship’s center of navigation.

By international law, the Captain is in charge of the ship and all persons on board at all times;
the Harbor Pilot joins the ship to assist operations and give expert assistance and guidance to coordinate safe operations in the port.

Here, intensive maneuvering is needed – for example, an area with bridges or abutments, and congested traffic – in addition to handling the port of call.

These days, simulation technology can aid mastery of situational challenges like moving the VLCC through a narrow passage, or turning it around in a confined space. But there’s no shortcut to experience or continuous professional development, especially as the global shipping industry increases, with vessels and cargo alike getting bigger – while port infrastructure and waterways remain static. Innovation proven to enhance efficiency and safety is welcome, especially in managing data and communication; however, the pilot’s specialized skills remain essential to safe passage and environmental protection.

Saudi Aramco’s Harbor Pilot program consists of 18 licenses structured on difficulties from berthing small ships up to VLCCs (the bigger the ship, the bigger the pilot’s role), with annual revalidation testing on local and international rules and regulations. I also participate in maritime conferences and committees to fulfill all new local and international laws and guidelines.

Safety also depends on familiarity with the waterway. Maritime pilots work specific routes, building considerable knowledge both to plot and execute the course, and to avoid or manage any hazards. Drawing on that knowledge, I instruct the ship’s master on steering orders, engine speed and use of anchors.

Which brings me to one more thing a Harbor Pilot requires: a clear head – or as the Mark Twain quote goes, “a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake.”

Pilotage is a 24-hour operation year-round, typically with rostered shifts. Since ships arrive off ports randomly, the workload can lead to irregular sleep patterns (although most seafarers adapt).

A Harbor Pilot must be able to handle the stress of extreme concentration, physical exertion, and responsibility for the safety of people, the environment, and a ship whose cargo alone is valued in the millions. There’s also the need to stay on schedule, because time is money.

10:00 Conn

The importance of physical and mental fitness comes clear when you consider the ship’s monumental size.

At over 250,000 tons, the standard VLCC is bigger than an aircraft carrier. To give you some perspective, its two million barrel capacity is enough oil to power every vehicle in the United States over a four-hour period.

These supertankers have very large areas of hull exposed above the water before they are loaded with oil cargo: this is ballast condition, and the large area exposed to wind effect called is windage. These two conditions are of great importance during maneuvering, but less so on completion of loading, when the area is much reduced due to vessel sinkage in the water.

“Conn,” the nautical term for conducting a ship, calls for me to use visual information and awareness of what’s happening all around the vessel, plus my knowledge of the waterway to give steering and engine orders in line with the plan I designed to avoid or manage obstructions – like heavy fog or sandstorms, or currents and winds that may alter the position of channel markers.

Guiding such a large ship also requires careful time management. All vessels have differing characteristics, sometimes with maximum speeds up to 21 knots. When maneuvering in port, most vessels must maintain at least five knots for the ability to steer.
If required to stop suddenly, a VLCC needs about 20 minutes to reduce speed due to the huge momentum carried by the vessel. However, when approaching a destination port, the pilot will gradually slow to control the VLCC’s movement from up to 12 miles away.

Overall, conn is a meticulously detailed process that requires documented safety inspections every six hours, at a minimum.

13:00: Berthing

Teamwork is vital to pilotage – especially evident at journey’s end. The berth must be specific to the cargo, whether crude oil or oil products; also, the vessel’s size dictates the dock-space length and water depth.

On arrival at port, the ship is contacted through VHF radio by the Saudi Aramco Vessel Traffic Services Operator (VTSO) from Ras Tanura Port Control Center, where all required vessel and cargo information is confirmed and sent to our Oil Supply Planning and Scheduling (OSPAS) department, which tracks each drop of oil through the company’s vast network from production to delivery. Our berth is allocated with a schedule, and VTSO assigns a marine craft to check its condition.

I give orders to the tug boats and mooring launches that are escorting us in, and direct jetty personnel in order of sequence to deploy and retrieve mooring lines.

When the ship is fully secured, hoses are connected to the ship’s manifold and a check ensures there are no leaks. Then oil transfer operation commences. I stay on the ship to coordinate the discharging operation. When loading the VLCC, I conduct a preliminary safety inspection of the ship’s manifold and mooring equipment.

Something Bigger

If you gauge job satisfaction by being part of something bigger than yourself, there’s much to be said for pilotage. Today, 90 percent of purchased goods travel by ship, so the global maritime industry is essential to consumers. In my case, I’m helping deliver arguably the most valuable commodity: the energy that powers economies and quality of life. With the global middle class now the largest in human history, that’s a lot of people depending on our cargo.

As the world’s most reliable energy supplier, Saudi Aramco requires a massive shipping operation to transport crude oil, oil products and chemicals to global customers, and to support offshore operations. Building on its Upstream reputation, the company is expanding its Downstream business, to include integrating refining and petrochemicals for essential fuels and products for use in the automotive industry, manufacturing and other key sectors. And as the Downstream grows, so do Aramco’s maritime transport needs.

The growth of ports and terminals to meet distribution of the world’s cargo ensures Harbor Pilot demand is strong. Women make up only 2 percent of the maritime industry, so female Harbor Pilots are extremely rare.

With job growth forecast for the next 10 years, I hope to see more diversity in our little-known but vital role.

The Maritime Silk Road

When you think back to the fabled Silk Road that brought vibrant commerce to the ancient world, the caravan is the image that most commonly comes to mind – but commodities also traveled a lively sea route. The Maritime Silk Road may have been even busier, and older, than the overland network.

That nautical analogy is alive and well today, thanks to growing energy demand and our reputation for operational excellence.

This journey complete, I await my next assignment to navigate this New Maritime Silk Road billowing blue-green toward the horizon.
Source: By Emad Talhah, Chief Harbor Pilot and Mooring Master at Saudi Aramco. Article arranged exclusively for Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide (www.hellenicshippingnews.com).

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