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Home > Business > Special


Be a marine pilot. Earn Rs 22 lakh a year

Sherin Mammen | May 29, 2007

As a child you would have heard tales about ships and seamen, pirates and shipwrecks. As you grew older you would have learnt that ships are the lifeline of trade among countries. Everything from food to machinery comes by way of sea in huge ships piloted by sea captains.

But what you may not know is that the captains are responsible for guiding the ship till they hit a port. Bringing the ship into the harbour and anchoring it is taken up by a different captain -- one who belongs to a specific port and is familiar with the waters of its harbour. These captains are called marine pilots.

Marine pilotage has a history as long as sea travel. The recorded history of marine pilotage dates back to about the 7th century BC. References to pilots assisting ships navigating close to the shore have been found even in the Holy Bible and in the writings of Homer and Virgil.

It's not just valet parking

Pilotage service is very often mistaken as valet services for ships. However, it is a job that requires a high degree of proficiency, quick and independent thinking, and knowledge about the port, its waters and local conditions. "It's also about risk management" says Jose Alappat, the Harbour Master of Cochin Port. A marine pilot is responsible for not only the safety of the ship being brought into the port but also the marine environment and the port infrastructure.

Captain Sajan K Varghese, a marine pilot with the Kochi Port Trust, says: "The pilots employed by the port have to ensure safe passage, berthing and unberthing of ships of 500 Gross Registered Tonnage and above inside the harbour limit."

While inside the congested port waters, the pilots navigate the ship on behalf of the owner and master of the vessel. If an accident occurs inside the port waters, the insurance company will cover the vessel only if a licensed pilot was on board at the time of the incident. They also have a responsibility to the port for not damaging port infrastructure while navigating or bringing the vessel to the berths.

If tankers are grounded or have collided, the oil leak caused can be disastrous for the environment and marine flora and fauna.

In India, a marine pilot, as per the Major Port Act 1963, should have an MOT license as a master of a foreign going ship (captain license) and at least two years of experience as a chief officer or captain of a foreign going vessel.

Most of the pilots have a sea experience of 15 to 20 years. On joining the port, they have to undergo training and qualify to obtain a license to pilot in that port from the Union ministry of shipping and transport.

However, there is not a single recognised pilot training centre in India. It is up to an individual to research and polish his skills by reading about and practicing on various kinds of ships. The Harbour Master of Goa Port, Sharad Karnad, says: "Each port trains its own pilots. The government has never taken any special measures to recruit and retain pilots."

Ship handling differs with the shape, size, propulsion, engine, rudder, thruster and various conditions such as weather, tide and currents. Most times the pilot has no prior information about the ship. However, he goes on board at a most crucial time and quickly adapts to the conditions of the vessel and controls her according to his ability and skill.

Not enough pilots

All the major ports in India are prescribed to have at five to 15 pilots -- this number is based on the length of the passage, tidal condition, topography and traffic handled in a year in a port. Kolkata, being a river port, has its own set of pilotage rules.

However, an acute shortage of trained pilots has resulted in the availability of only around 50 to 60 marine pilots at Indian ports. Says Captain Verghese, "While the Port of Cochin should ideally have 12 marine pilots, we have only five now." This shortage has compelled the existing breed of pilots to put in several additional hours of work and sea life ethics do not allow an officer to shy away from his work due to fatigue.

Feels Harbour Master Karnad, "Any demand to increase the number of pilots has to be decided at the ministry level. This is never possible with today's obsession about downsizing of government organisations and the ministry of finance's objections over extra expenditure."

The decreasing number is also a result of high attrition in this profession. With the economic boom in the country and the development of private ports, salaries in private ports are going through the roof.

While a marine pilot in a major port may gross about Rs 5 lakh (Rs 500,000) per annum, a private port offers about Rs 22 lakh (Rs 2.2 million) per annum, and that too for much less work. All this while the responsibilities of every marine pilot remain equally high and the risks involved even higher.


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