COVID-19: A key worker’s view from the river
Nick Brown, from Paddock Wood in Kent, is a pilot with the Port of London Authority (PLA), who works guiding visiting vessels from all over the world safely up and down the tidal River Thames.
Not usually a career in the spotlight, the vital work of Nick and his colleagues has come to the fore during the COVID-19 lockdown, as they work round the clock and in all weathers to keep the port open and maintain essential supplies of food, fuel and medicine to London and the wider country.
Fresh from his most recent roster (28 April – 6 May), here he describes the highs and lows of a life afloat during the crisis.
The early stages of the crisis were manically busy for us.
In fact, March was the third busiest month for freight on the River Thames ever.
We adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach, to make sure we maintained a robust service to our customers, but activity has now dipped, with fewer vessels arriving.
During an average nine-day shift period, I board ships from all corners of the globe..
When on call, we access an online allocations system from home. It gives us a general idea what vessels we will be looking after on each shift.
The shortest job – say from Gravesend to Warp Pilot Station at Sheerness - usually involves a round trip from Royal Terrace Pier in Gravesend of about four hours.
At the other end of the scale, escorting a deep draft tanker inwards from the Sunk at Harwich to Purfleet Navigator Terminal can easily run to 15 hours, door to door. And that’s when things go smoothly.
Delays caused by the weather or vessels suffering mechanical malfunctions are a fact of life. No fun at all at 3am on a freezing, foggy February morning.
The vessels we guide up and down the estuary have vast capacities and can be carrying a wide array of goods. They are floating warehouses really.
It’s a little-known fact 90% of imports consumed in this country arrive by sea. Sealed in containers, ships’ cargoes are not always obvious as you embark. But on a daily basis, the goods we steer into port cover the full scope of UK retailing.
There’s food, of course – pasta and tinned tomatoes from Italy, canned tropical fruits from even further afield and the raw ingredients for Tate and Lyle’s sugar factory in Newham.
My snack bag, packed superstitiously each day with the same ingredients – nuts, apple, banana and satsuma – is a tribute to the diversity of foods that arrive in London each day by boat. (I might as well confess now my other small ritual of always ensuring my epaulets of Poseidon are facing the right way -- wouldn’t want the God of the sea facing the wrong direction.)
But we deal with bulk and white goods too, everything from electrical appliances to furniture, not to mention cars, fuel and manufacturing supplies, such as steel.
Ups and downs
If truth be told, I feel very lucky to be a pilot.
I knew it was the career for me right from the start. I remember the pilots who boarded my vessels in my early career on the Medway and thinking “what a job.”
The sensation of professional pride I get at the end of every completed mission is overwhelming and has not diminished one iota over the years.
Being out on the water at the quietest times, best of all on a clear, sunny day, with wildlife all around, is hard to beat too.
Naturally, there are downsides to the work: Like shifts on a winter’s night, being buffeted by gales, sleet and snow, as you climb the nine-foot vertical ladder, our access route to the largest vessels from the tiny-by-comparison cutter boats that take us out to them. Getting them aligned in a storm can be a tricky and time-consuming process.
It’s not often we are unable to work because of the weather. It all comes down to safety
Last year I couldn’t get off a container ship at the pilotage station at Ramsgate and had to go with it all the way to Rotterdam and fly home the next day.
The wind direction makes all the difference, especially when it blows form the North to East quadrant. This allows the sea to build up its swell and become very rough, making boarding and landing to and from ships very dangerous.
Being required to board ships at any time of night or day, at any point on the estuary, also involves hours travelling to and fro, by taxi and by the pilot cutter transfer boats.
Life as a pilot on the river can be a lonely one too, even in normal circumstances.
To reduce the spread of COVID-19, new measures have been put in place which reduce face-to-face contact with our colleagues who monitor river safety from our control centres at Woolwich and Gravesend.
Adding to a feeling of disconnection at this time, it’s been strange not to be able to have a chat with colleagues at the start of each job, collecting the paperwork for the vessel we are about to board.
We are a close-knit community. Many of us sailed together on the high seas before becoming pilots. There’s a lot of mutual respect.
The crews of the ships coming in from all corners of the globe have been understandably fearful since the COVID-19 lockdowns kicked in worldwide.
Not so much for their own safety, but for that of the friends and family they left back home, weeks or even months ago.
In the main, they are very familiar with being away from loved ones for extended periods of time, but the anxiety on board ships in recent weeks has been tangible, transcending any language barrier. The mood is sombre and a little sad.
For example, I have spoken with crews just ending a six-month contract with no idea of how or when they will next be able to go home.
I can’t deny that it’s been an extra worrying time for us too as pilots. It would be inhuman to totally block from your mind thoughts of catching the disease whilst at work.
Fortunately, before boarding any ships we have been able to receive verification via the London Port Health Authority that no-one on board has COVID-19 or is displaying symptoms.
Naturally, the crews try to observe social distancing with us, where possible, whilst we are on board, but living for so long at such close quarters, effectively they are a household, so it’s not considered necessary amongst themselves.
To any young person attracted by a career at sea, I’d say go for it.
My advice is get your master mariners qualification and stick with it.
Life at sea is hard when you’re coming up through the ranks and away from the family for months at a time, but the reward of qualifying as a master mariner really is worth all the sacrifices.
It’s a qualification that opens many doors in the world of shipping, whether that be at sea or ashore.
Before joining the PLA in 2016, Nick worked for London-based marine consultancy Eagle Lyon Pope. Previously he was pilot on the River Medway for Peel Ports. He started his career working on aggregate dredgers, frequently visiting the Thames and Medway estuaries and has also served as a captain on cross-channel ferries, operating from Dover to Dunkirk.
Outside of work he’s a qualified athletics coach and regular runner. He also enjoys fishing and golf, activities he has been missing greatly during the lockdown.