But you may be asking what is a pilot vessel doing at the port? After all, don’t pilots fly planes, parked at airports, not boats docked at ports? Well, you’re right, except that marine pilotage as it is called is a highly specialized field in Belize practiced by the members of a very small fraternity. Tonight, that field of expertise is being undermined – claims the Port of Belize – by the Port Authority which has been delinquent in installing sufficient navigational aids. That’s the news, but to understand the import of those navigational aids, you’ll first have to have a better understanding of what these marine pilots do. Exactly one year ago in April of 2009, our news team traveled out with them to find out what it’s like to bring a 485 foot long, 14,000 tonne cargo ship into the port of Belize:..

On Tuesday morning while most of us were sleeping – our 7News team was out on the water with Marine Pilots. Our Jules Vasquez and Alex Ellis were groggy, but for the pilots it was just another day at the office. That’s because their job is to guide cruise and cargo vessels into and out of the Belize City coastline. We went inside a massive cargo vessel to find out what they do.

Jules Vasquez Reporting,
It’s 3:00 am and 3 of Belize’s 6 marine pilots are headed out unto the high seas under the blanket of the bible black pre dawn hours. It’s no time to be out on the water, but it’s their job, as we pull up to this shining city on the seas, called the Grandeur of the Seas which is parked two miles off English Caye.

And while the passengers sleep, the cruise ship’s crew is anchored waiting for this man a marine pilot, who will guide them into Belizean waters. He climbs into the Grandeur and is gone. But our journey continues, we follow marine pilot Andrew Lewis aboard the Maersk Roubaix, a 485 foot long, 14,000 tonne cargo ship heading into the port of Belize. Aboard the ship, it’s a different world, all iron but as he enters the wheel room Pilot Lewis is completely confident as he calmly takes the helm of British Ship Master Fletcher’s vessel.

Andrew Lewis, Marine Pilot
“All instruments working?”

British Ship Master Fletcher,
“Everything is working.”

He’ll be here for the next two hours bringing the ship to the Port of Belize as they say under master’s orders with the pilot’s advice. The helmsman who is Filipino also follows the bearing set out by the pilot. And though Captain Fletcher has an array of technology before him including radar, sonar, GPS, and electronic navigation charts, it is the native knowledge of pilot that will carry him into port.

And pilot Lewis is constantly looking out, gauging his position, path and progress by a constellation of markers red to the right and green to the left. And while the untrained eye just sees flashing lights, for the pilot, these make the flat and coal black sea as clear and navigable as dry land.

But when a squall whipped in and the winds changed, Lewis had to studying every detail with wipers on making adjustments for the changing wind. This electronic navigation chart and GPS shows the course that the vessel must navigate – it is full of sharp turns, treacherous reefs and dangerous shoals.

British Ship Master Fletcher,
“It is quite a difficult approach, it is a very narrow challenge and the depths are not too great so you have to take it easy with your speed.”

And as dawn approaches the container laden vessel leaves the rising sun in its wake and heads towards the lights of the port bridge in the distance. Now Lewis and the captain will do their navigating from the bridge, this is the most difficult part of the journey, squaring up an almost 500 foot long ship against a 200 foot pier, delicately:

Andrew Lewis,
“We are aware, we are cognizant that if you hit this dock, because the material and the age of the dock, we know it will be detrimental to the entire country.”

This tug will help guide the boat in where it has to make a sharp maneuver at very low speed. Working together, the captain and the pilot monitor and manage the progress from the bridge and with the help of mooring boats which fasten the lines that inch the vessel in till it’s right alongside the pier head. It’s a process that takes over an hour particularly in heavy winds – and because of the weight of the vessel, it’s like a 15,000 ton colossus landing as lightly as a feather.

British Ship Master Fletcher,
“Coming alongside the terminal, because it is shorter than the ship itself, that could present some difficulties of its own.”

Andrew Lewis,
“That is why if you observe carefully, I keep asking the captain what speed we have and what speed we’re doing. I concentrate on the wind’s effect on the ship.”

It’s not simple and that’s why for two hours these strangers who’ve never met before have to be a team.

Andrew Lewis,
“This morning’s experience is not as difficult as I thought it would be considering the wind coming out of the land. So you just have to adjust as you go along.”

British Ship Master Fletcher,
“The pilot is vital at any port, particularly at this port because you have some very narrow channels and difficult to navigate and while my job is to inform him of the capabilities of the ship, it is the pilot’s job to inform me of the limitations of the port. So we work very closely together in this respect to get the ship safely alongside.”

And that partnership is the product of respect and the recognition of competence.

Andrew Lewis,
“It is very important that you display a sense of confidence. That is demonstrated by the initial contact with the captain. The captain, I am Andrew Lewis, I will be your pilot for today, could you give me a quick brief on the ship, and then you go through all the exercises and as soon as you make the first couple of turns, the captain will have a sense that he either knows what he’s doing or not.”

Lloyd Jones, Ports Commissioner
“If you are going on board a vessel to take charge of that vessel or to advise the master, that master has to have some level of confidence in you and so the bearing is very important, to sell the entire idea to the master that I am a professional, I am properly trained, and I know what I am doing.”

British Ship Master Fletcher,
“I would class the Belize pilots very highly. They are very professional in their approach to the job. They have a good knowledge of the Port and they keep me well advised as to the local conditions. So I will rate them highly, very good.”

And while the ship’s master knows their worth most of Belize doesn’t.

Lloyd Jones,
“Whilst we sleep and we get up in the morning and we see three or four cruise ships in the harbour and we see a cargo ship working, it doesn’t occur to many Belizeans that there was a Belizean who had to go out to the English Caye channel in this case and to bring that ship in safely and that really is the key; to bring the ship I safely.”

Andrew Lewis,
“People are not aware of the type of work that we do. Bringing in these vessels cause quite a couple dollars and if anything should go wrong then there goes the good name of Belize. So we need to be careful all the time.”

And so tomorrow, when you’re making your last turn, these good men will be out here at the height of night ensuring safety on the sea.

After the ship was offloaded, the pilot led them out of the water and he hopped back into the Port boat just outside English Caye. Two new pilots were recently licensed – which is not an altogether frequent occurrence as most pilots stay on until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

And that safety on the sea is what the port of Belize says is being compromised by the Port Authority.

In a letter to the CEO in the Ministry of transport George Lovell, CEO of the private port Reynaldo Guerrero complains about quote, “a serious concern on a major potential maritime disaster resulting form the problems...with the navigational aids.” Those aids he refers to are the buoys and reference markers that serve as guides for the pilots bringing in the massive cargo ships.

Because of a long series of complaints dating back to 2004 which Guerrerro says has gone un-heeded he advises the port authority that, quote, “all requests for night pilotage from the shipping agents will be carried out at the risk of the line...as we find it extremely unsafe to provide this service under the present conditions.”

Now, the real world meaning is this is that without night pilotage, there can be shipping delays, and ships can be made to say in port longer, which drives up shipping costs, which eventually drives up the costs of imported items.

Major John Flowers who is the Ports Commissioner says that in the first place, the Port of Belize has never accepted liability. He says that he is not moved by Guerrero’s threat to deny liability for night pilotage. He accepts that the Port Authority must maintain, repair and replace navigational aids but that he said takes money – and the private port has not been passing on 1% of its gross to the authority as it is required by contract to do. The arrears he said are in the millions of dollars.

Channel 7