The approach to the estuary of the river Thames is something that would give a computer a headache. Ships are coming and going to and from every direction and they all descend on a little area called NE Spit pilot station, to either embark or disembark the pilot. Then there are numerous ships, such as regular ferries and ro-ro boats who have pilot dispensation and come racing by without having to stop at all. That makes the approach an interesting puzzle and one that needs concentration and focus on collision avoidance. Hence I am normally on the bridge before we enter this area to give a helping hand to the navigator or to take over when it becomes particularly hair raising. (The latter I tried to avoid at all cost, as I do not have that much hair left to start with)
As I wanted to go for a 4 am Pilot onboard time in order to dock at 8 am, it meant that I was on the bridge by 3 am. By that time we were on a nice and reduced speed and could slow down quickly if needed, without upsetting the chief engineer. The ships engines are always ready to maneuver but when you run at full sea speed, it is better that you slow down gradually so the engine temperature can adjust to the lesser output needed. If you pull the engines back at full sea speed; the engineers can get very excited. So every navigator tries to avoid that.
This morning we only had one ship to contend with, which was also going to the pilot station and it was a big gas tanker. The pilot station advises in which sequence the pilots will board ships and the ships are supposed to line up accordingly. As our tanker was first, I was quite happy to get out of his way and line up behind him. Pilot boats normally like a little bit of speed when coming alongside and the average boarding speed is about 6 – 8 knots at most pilot stations. Our gas tanker however had decided to stop in the water and he was the recipient of some remarks indicating that the pilot boat driver did not agree with that. I did not see a problem here this time, there was almost no wind and the sea was nearly flat. Normally a bit of speed helps to “glue” the pilot boat alongside when there are waves and thus provide a stable boarding platform for the pilot. We had our pilot onboard a few minutes later and we at once on our way to Tilbury. With running at full maneuvering speed (16 knots) that takes about 3.5 hours, including slowing down when going over the shallows (to reduce squat) and when passing construction work on the river to reduce wake). Dubai Ports is building a new container terminal about 2 hours up river and that terminal is supposed to steal some business away from Felixstowe and Southampton. So we slowed down and had a good look at the Dutch Dredgers spouting up soil ground to create a flat area for the container podium. I believe the whole thing has to be finished by 2012.
With a glorious sun rising above the Essex County side and no more than a gentle breeze blowing over the river, we arrived off the dock. With the flooding tide, the preferred way of docking is portside alongside with the nose into the tide and that meant swinging around in the river. That is quite a peculiar maneuver as you try to swing the ship around in place, while the current is pushing you up river and the breeze tries to play with the funnel at the same time. So it is a sort of balancing act of getting the ship lined up with the dock, while being pushed away and at the same time trying to stop the ship by stemming the current when nearing the correct position. The Harbourmaster put out a nice board with “bridge” on it and that is where the bridge has to be lined up with. Then there is the assistant Harbour master who counts down the meters until the gangway is in position and then there is the security officer in the gangway door, who does the same in feet.
The pilots who see this many a time, normally like to stand back and hope for a laugh, but he was disappointed this time. I had my own mark from last time, so I just stopped there and the assistant Harbour master came quickly to an agreement with the security officer about how many feet there were in a meter; so the consensus was that the ship was in position without having the “bow to go three feet forward and the stern to go three feet aft” …at the same time, as sometimes happens.
Just after 8 am the immigration officers stepped onboard and as the procedure went very quickly so by 10 am all guests were cleared and could go ashore. That was the official arrival time, so it had been worth while to arrive a bit earlier. We will stay here until Saturday afternoon 2 pm. Today is go-ashore day for the guests of this cruise which is now ending, tomorrow is change over day and then Saturday morning is sightseeing time for the newly embarked guests. The weather is supposed to stay dry and warm for the coming three days.