Entering and departure maneuvers

Entering maneuver

Arrival and departure maneuvers are the most interesting events that can be witnessed while travelling on board cargo vessels. Passengers may enjoy the beautiful and silent days of long passages while relaxing in the sun, admiring the seascape or enjoying funny and interactive evenings among the crew members in the Recreation Rooms, but they will always arrive on the bridge at the right time to watch the slowly approaching (or leaving), the berthing and unberthing maneuvers no matter how late or early these events take place.

In the last four years, I started to pay more and more attention to these particular moments as I discovered that they offered me the best opportunity to understand and appreciate the importance of communication and work as part of a team to fulfill a common goal. I always find a great joy and delight in watching people working together, following the commands given by their superiors, helping each other and moving around as a huge perfectly functioning machinery, always taking care of themselves and the others, always aware and alert no matter how difficult the maneuver was, how high or low the outside temperatures and how late at night the work had to be done.

Working as a team is the most important part of this job and communication is the key element to a perfect and smooth maneuver where everybody knows his duties and tries his best to follow the commands, obey the rules and stay safe.

Parking’ a two hundred something meter long vessel is a far more challenging and difficult maneuver than parking your four meter long family car and you need more than a designated space along the pier in order to perform and fulfill this action. A certain amount of work is required, skillful preparation, able and committed crew and a few basic helping and assisting extra elements which have to glue in and perform to the best of their abilities, in accordance with the outside conditions and local characteristics of each port.

The entering and berthing maneuvers must require the same kind of work as the unberthing and departure and differences may appear only when the weather conditions change – improve or worsen.  During bad weather and poor visibility the maneuvers become more tiring and stressful, but the job is always the same, the steps to be followed are more or less identical and the communication and team work become more valuable than ever. The same procedure has to be followed everywhere, regardless of the area in the world where the vessel has to arrive and more attention has to be paid during night time, during bad weather or crowded channels and harbor entrances.

Sometimes, in order to enter a port, a vessel needs to run through a narrow channel which can be a stressful operation especially if there is a lot of traffic or the visibility is poor. Some ports are sheltered inside large natural harbours, others are situated at the mouth of rivers which are flowing right into the sea. Some ports can be approached after long passages up river and others are just in the middle of a heavy traffic, on small (or big) strips of land claimed from the sea and turned into piers lined up with huge gantries and piles of coloured containers.

Many elements have to work together in a perfect harmony in order to guide the vessel towards its pier and the most important of these elements are the crew and equipment of the vessel, the pilot(s) and the tug(s).

The Pilot is the person who knows better the particularities of the port, trained to guide the vessel through narrow channels, shallow waters and heavy traffic and the key element of communication between the vessel and other helping elements (like tugs and shore mooring men).

The vessel can be boarded by one, two or three pilots, one of whom being the main pilot and the other his assistance. Sometimes, if the maneuver is longer and it implies a few hours running on the river, the vessel can be boarded by two or three pilots at some intervals of time, each one covering a certain distance and coming on board separately. For example, the longest approaching maneuver I have ever witnessed took place on the Mississippi River, before entering the port of New Orleans and it lasted ~ 9 hours. During this time, three distinct pilots boarded the vessel, each covering a three hour time period and the last one undergoing also the berthing maneuver.

Sometimes, if the approaching maneuver lasts for 4-5 hours and it represents running up the river towards the port, two pilots can do the job perfectly and safely. One of them may guide the vessel through the navigational channels up river and the other may step in whenever it is necessary or he can only be in charge of the berthing procedures.

In many cases – in small and big ports as well – full time pilots can be accompanied by one or two trainee pilots who are learning the basics of piloting or have arrived to a higher level and need only a little guidance and supervising.

In the USA, a pilot can take his license and become a full time pilot only after he has guided and piloted 1000 vessels (in or out of the port) under supervision.

In most ports in China, the pilots are always coming in pair and sometimes they come in three or four. They are always very strict in their blue uniforms, most of them barely speak English and are not open to conversation with the officers on the bridge, but they like to chat between them and mostly raising their voices as if they are arguing continuously.

American and European pilots are very friendly, relaxed and eager to chat, especially during long maneuvers.

I always like to chat with pilots – if their work allows it. They can offer me valuable tips regarding the best places in town – where to eat, where to walk, what to visit and how to reach the centre in the shortest time – but also basic information about the local history, politics and stories worth telling and sharing.

The friendliest and most helpful pilot I have ever met came on board our vessel while we were approaching the beautiful Otago Peninsula, underway to Port Chalmers.

The Pilot from Port Chalmers, Hugh, our friend

He offered me not only the most useful information about the surroundings and the possibilities of spending some extraordinary time outside, but also provided us with the means for doing it – offering us his car, warm clothes to face the cold south hemisphere winter and his priceless friendship (read the story here).

For the approaching and berthing maneuvers the pilot (pilots) meet the vessel at the place called ‘Pilot Station’. Up to that area, the vessel can safely navigate without outside help, but, to continue forward, it needs the guidance and the advices only a trained pilot can offer.

As the vessel is slowly moving towards the Pilot Station, some preparations need to be done in order to ensure the safe encounter.

First, the pilot ladder must be prepared on the side and at the distance (from water) agreed upon with the pilot, taking into consideration the wind and the pilot boat’s free board. The ladder must always be lowered as close to the water as possible and usually a combination between the gangway and the pilot ladder is necessary.

Preparing the gangway for pilot's embarking (1)

Preparing the gangway for pilot's embarking (2)

Preparing the gangway for pilot's embarking (3)

Preparing the gangway for pilot's embarking (4)

Some specific flags must be hoisted on the mast before and immediately after the pilot boards the vessel and the most important of these are the National Flag of the country and the white and red flag symbolizing the presence of the pilot on the bridge. Then the duty ABs or ordinary seamen proceed to the pilot ladder to wait and assist the pilot upon climbing up.

Hoisting the flag

Hoisting the Pilot on board signaling flag

The pilot may approach from any side in a small pilot boat or in a powerful tug boat, depending on the state of the sea, he climbs the ladder and follows the way up to the bridge where he commences the maneuver procedures as they are requested.

Pilot boats (1)

Pilot boats (2)

Pilot boats (3)

Pilot boats (4)



Pilot going up the gangway (2)



He always acts as a guide and a liaison between the vessel – captain, equipment, crew – and the outside elements and no matter how important his guidance is, the pilot has the role of guide and adviser, but the ultimate decision remains in the hands and on the shoulders of the captain.

Maneuver on the bridge wing (1)

Maneuver on the bridge wing (2)




Most of the pilots approach the vessels on pilot boats, but in some ports the pilots come on board by air, being transported in helicopters which can come down on special areas on deck, forward, in the aft or on top of the containers. If there is no place for a touch down, the pilot is winched down on the bridge wing while the helicopter floats on air, at a certain altitude.

Pilot coming on the vessel by helicopter (1)

Pilot coming on the vessel by helicopter (2)

As the berthing maneuver approaches, the entire crew is ready and prepared, everybody takes his place on the bridge (captain, chief officer and duty AB), in the engine control room (chief engineer and duty engineers) and on deck – third officer and 3-4 crew members in the aft station, second officer, bosun (boatswain) and 2-3 crew members in the forward station.

AB on the bridge




By this time, the aft and forward stations had already been prepared – ropes had been properly arranged and winches tested.

Handling the ropes forward (1)

Handling the ropes forward (2)




Handling the ropes in the forward station



At this point, another very important element is ready to join in ‘the party’ and this is the tug. A tug is a very powerful engine boat which can pull or push a vessel in order to help it move towards a certain place.

Tugs (1)

Tugs (2)

Tugs (3)

The berthing maneuver usually requires one or two tugs, depending on the state of the sea and wind and depending on the moves the vessel has to make in order to get alongside. Some maneuvers can be very short and simple; others are longer and more complicated. The bigger the space of maneuvering is, the easiest the berthing is. The reverse is also true and even more complicated if a soft breeze turns into a moderate wind (or even stronger).

An average berthing maneuver can last up to 30-45 minutes. The maneuver is shorter if the vessel gets alongside with the same side and it can last longer if it includes swinging. The swinging can be performed on arrival, but also on departure, depending on the pilot’s decision who mostly takes into account the weather, the tide or the vessel’s specific requirements (for example, the vessel needs a little touch up paint on the portside and the captain asks permission for berthing portside alongside in order to allow the crew proceed with this particular job).

During the berthing maneuver, the tugs are made fast by the crew in the positions agreed upon with the pilot – in order to fulfill the needs of the vessel –  center lead, quarter, shoulders.

Making fast the tug in the starboard quarter– Making fast the tug in the starboard quarter –

Making fast the tug in the starboardside quarter– Making fast the tug in the starboard quarter –

Tug fast in the aft– Making fast the tug in the aft –

Once the tugs are secured, they will start pushing or pulling depending on the commands given by the pilot and they will help the vessel approaching the berth safely. Sometimes, both tugs are pulling/pushing at the same time and after a few minutes the role and places change. One tug may pull in the starboard side shoulder while the other may push in the starboard side quarter.

Tug pulling in the port side side shoulder– Tug pulling in the port side side shoulder –

Tug pulling in the portside quarter– Tug pulling in the portside quarter –

Tug pushing in the portside shoulder– Tug pushing in the portside shoulder –

Tug pushing in the starboard side quarter– Tug pushing in the starboard side quarter –

Tug pushing in the starboard side shoulder (2)– Tug pushing in the starboard side shoulder –

Tug pushing in the starboard side shoulder– Tug pushing in the starboard side shoulder –

If the vessel needs a 180° swing the tugs are very important and their coordination is essential. The same perfect coordination is vital when the place for maneuvering is very limited and the vessel has to move ‘meter by meter’ in order to come into position along the designated pier.




Getting alongside in the port of Veracruz Mexico

Getting alongside in Veracruz Mexico

Getting in position alongside in Veracruz Mexico

Veracruz Mexico getting alongside

As soon as the vessel has approached the pier the crew must proceed to another important action – the tying up at the berth with ropes.

The designated AB must throw the heaving line ashore and after that, one by one, all the ropes are sent on the pier and placed on the right bollards by the port mooring men.


Throwing the heaving line ashore

Mooring men handling the ropes– Mooring men handling the ropes –

The ropes are tied using the ship’s winches and the berthing maneuver is completed when the vessel is in position with all the ropes properly placed and tight ashore. Most of the pilots leave the vessel on the shore side, using the gangway which had been prepared and fixed on position during the berthing maneuver. Sometimes, the pilot may require the use of the ladder from the seaside as he is expected to board the pilot boat immediately and proceed towards another vessel which is waiting for entering or leaving the port.

Pilots going down the gangway

Unberthing the vessel is almost as challenging as the berthing and it is usually shorter and faster. If the swinging has not been performed during berthing due to different factors, it will be performed during the unberthing maneuver, involving one or two tugs undergoing the same actions and always obeying the pilot’s commands.

During berthing/ unberthing and during long passage approaches up rivers/ departure down river the captain is always present on the bridge, along with one duty officer (chief officer during berthing/unberthing and duty officer during approaches) and one AB.

Before the pilot comes on the bridge the steering of the vessel is always set on manual and handled by the duty AB. The AB will continue to do the steering for the entire duration of the maneuver – until the vessel is safely alongside – and sometimes two or more ABs change the watch during long river passages. The same thing happens during unberthing and the AB will keep steering at the wheel until the pilot is off, the vessel is safely on its track, outside the port limits and into the sea.



In the Engine Control Room, engineers are always ready to step in and remediate any problem which may appear and the good cooperation between the two departments is the key to a successful and safe voyage.

A safe voyage brings along a happy and satisfied crew and even work may seem less difficult if it is properly and carefully divided between alert and aware crew members.

A safe maneuver means a farther step towards the end of the voyage. In order to reach this point safe and sound, seafarers must do their job as professionally as they can, stay safe for the sake of their families and colleagues and always watch their back as well as their fellow seafarer’s. A good team always makes any difficult job look easier and a safe environment is the best friend any seafarer can have.

2 Responses to Entering and departure maneuvers

  1. Aart de Zeeuw says:

    What an awesome site! Ar you an officer? If not you should be one. Cool pics and timelapses specially the one in Napier 🙂 Greetz, departure Pilot Rotterdam october 1st.

    • travelc1 says:

      Hello there. Sorry for my late answer, but I’ve just caught a little internet connection and I found your message. I am not an officer – although I should have been after so many voyeges – but my husband is and I am just travelling with him as often as I can. I am glad you found my site interesting.

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