April 01, 2010

Pilot Study

Many moons ago, when I was in college and Mumbai was Bombay, I bought an olive green T-shirt from a hole in the wall shop in Colaba. Emblazoned on it was the invitation: “Join the army! Go to exciting new places!! Meet exciting new people and kill them!!!”

Perhaps because I had flat feet and would have been rejected by the infantry anyway, I joined the merchant navy instead. At least I got to the exciting new places and exciting new people part. Unfortunately, pilots have added too much to this excitement in recent years.

Scene 1, flashback to about eight years ago. Japan Inland Sea. Daytime, good visibility, hundreds of fishing boats everywhere. Knackered feeder container ship. Knackered Master (me) and knackered crew. On last leg of a ten day, eleven port marathon in Japan and Korea. Inland sea pilot on board, as sometimes happens in Japan. Age of pilot about eighty five, as often happens in Japan. Or at least he looked it. Thick glasses, thicker three piece suit. Glued to Radar. Radar on 12 mile range. He is plotting everything he can see, which is the entire Japanese fishing fleet- or so it seems. The fishing boats are stretching the ARPA’s computer memory; CPA alarms are going off as if it is World War III. Binoculars slung around neck give the pilot the look of an Admiral out in the Pacific about to attack Pearl Harbour circa World War II.

One smallish fishing boat about four points on our starboard bow breaks away from the pack and heads straight for us at terrific speed. Range about two miles. Pilot still playing computer games with the ARPA; he is not programmed to see anything different unless the ARPA tells him so. In this case, it doesn’t, so he doesn’t.

Me, idly, picking up my own binoculars, “Pilot, fishing boat on starboard bow on collision course, I think.”

He looks at me and bows deeply. “Thank you,” he says, and sticks his head in the radar visor again. Boat is now maybe a mile away, still heading for us at full zip. I can see, now, that there is nobody on deck.

I curse. “Five short blasts,” I tell the duty officer, which, when they start, startle the pilot so much that he shakes violently and I wonder if he is having a cardiac arrest. (I can imagine the headlines, “Pilot blasted by blasts. Master arrested. Criminalisation of another seafarer!!”) The boat is perhaps half a mile away now; one of those constant bearing cases but it is still at full zip, and boy, those Japanese boats can be fast. Still nobody on deck.

“Pilot, I am taking over,” I tell him, and order the helmsman to go hard over to starboard. The ship starts swinging. Boat is now two cables away. Pilot finally looks out of the porthole. He finally sees the boat and immediately panics, but very smoothly, in the way that only Japanese pilots can. He is shattered too, as he realises that the ARPA, like a young wife, has betrayed him. He now goes out on the port bridge wing and starts screaming at the boat, which, by now, has just crossed our bow and is going clear.

Suddenly one person comes up on the deck of the fishing boat from God knows where. He sees the pilot screaming and bows at him. Deep bow.

The pilot stops screaming and bows back at him. Deep bow. They exchange more bows. And then some more. The ARPA is forgotten.

I put the ship back on course and hand her back to the pilot, wondering if these bows are similar to those made before Seppuku. You know, the Japanese samurai ritual of suicide by self-disembowelment. I think those guys bowed deeply too, just before they fell on their swords.

Scene 2. A couple of years ago. Departure Southampton Docks. Me with a coffee in the pilot chair waiting for the pilot. Filipino Third Mate fussing around lethargically on the bridge preparing for departure.

Walkie-talkie crackles. Excited AB, “Bridge, Pilot on board!”

Me, “Aye, Pilot on board. Please bring him up to the bridge. And everybody on departure stations now, please. Take in the gangway”.

Three minutes later the wheelhouse door swings open and a blue eyed blonde with wavy shoulder length hair sashays in. “Good morning,” she tells us in a breathless voice. “I am the pilot.”

And with that simple statement, she throws the ship into a paroxysm of masculine efficiency the likes of which I had never seen before and never saw again. Third Mate smartly at attention and efficiently plotting positions in the river without the GPS, a feat I never knew he was capable of. The Indonesian AB, hitherto well known for his indolence, crisply repeating helm orders and spinning the wheel with a panache worthy of the quartermaster of Star Trek. The Bangladeshi Second Mate landing up on the bridge freshly bathed, cleanly shaved, in crisp uniform and reeking of some godawful cologne, ostensibly to arrange the charts. Hell, even the Indian Chief Officer, on stand-by for’d and therefore disappointingly (for him) removed from the action, put on his (imagined) sexiest drawl on the walkie talkie, until I told him to cut it out because I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying.

Me? I was the quintessential professional, of course, as one would expect. I must confess, though, that I had a momentary pang of politically incorrect apprehension, absolutely misplaced as it turned out, at the idea of a female pilot taking a large car carrier out to the Solent in developing fog, a following current and a freshening wind.

I must also confess that I wondered, since this was a fortnightly port of call, whether a Master/Pilot exchange of information could legitimately include the pilot’s phone number. And I still like to think that when the pilot advised me, “We can single up now, Captain,” she was actually hinting that I get a divorce.