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Port duties

Pilotage is particularly important in the Port of Bridgwater because of the large tidal rise and fall, some 12 metres on a big spring tide, and the constant movement within the navigation channels.

The port authority has responsibilities (mainly under the port's enabling act of 1845) relating to:

  • provision of pilotage services under the Pilotage Act 1987
  • maintenance of navigation channels and navigation aids
  • safety of shipping and the public
  • rights of access of vessels and the public
  • navigation and mooring
  • administration

Port duties

All commercial vessels over 30 metres length visiting the port use a pilot, and no-one has ever applied for a pilotage exemption certificate. The number of commercial vessels using the port has increased steady since the beginning of 2000 and currently we pilot between 75 - 85 vessels a year. 

Two pilots availability is needed around high water spring tides, as sometimes two vessels are moving at the same time. A minimum of three authorised pilots are thus required to allow for leave and sickness cover. (There is insufficient water depth for commercial shipping during neap tides.) Shipping has stabilised at around 75 - 80 ship visits per year.

Training pilots before authorisation is very much 'hands on' as pilots here customarily take the wheel or tiller, the winding nature of the river and the tidal effects making this the most effective means of transiting the eight mile river passage. There has been some debate in 'Seaways' about this practice, but it is not contentious here, with over 99% of ship masters happily giving the helm to the pilot. Normally about forty acts of pilotage are required prior to authorisation, and newly authorised pilots are given relatively straightforward jobs at first, preferably in daylight with good under keel clearance. Sometimes an authorised pilot will accompany and observe another more practiced pilot on a pilotage act for experience. Because of the strong currents manoeuvres tend to happen quickly and regular practice is essential.

Part of the training involves walking the Parrett river banks to survey the changing channels at low water at two weekly intervals or less, an activity which is also required for authorised pilots. The shifting sand and mud banks dry at low water and are clearly visible. Channels in the river are self scouring, flood dominated in dry periods, ebb dominated after heavy rains and somewhere in between for much of the time. When conditions are changing the deep water channel can move from one river bank to the other in two or three days. Although the channel cross sections remain in approximate equilibrium, there is a tendency for situation to occur during the summer with flushing by the winter rains when biological binding of the sediments is reduced. It is estimated that around 100,000 tonnes of mud and silt move in and out of the Parrett estuary from Bridgwater Bay during a single spring tide.

Alterations in ship manning patterns over years have affected methods of manoeuvring at the berths. It is no longer safe to assume that communication between master and crew will be effective. Readers will be aware that very mixed nationality manning is now commonplace and often the language problem means that swinging a ship using precise timing for the release of a spring or anchor may not be a safe operation. We frequently swing, by placing the bow of the ship on a mud river bank and allowing the current bring the stern round. This operation is always explained to the master before starting as part of the ongoing passage plan, but masters with a poor grasp of the English language sometimes seem surprised.

Conservancy and traffic management

The port covers a large area with around twenty five square nautical miles of mainly inter-tidal sand and mud banks off the coast (Brean Down to Hinkley Point), and over fourteen nautical miles of tidal estuary and river (Parrett, Brue and Axe), but with a comparatively low level of trade and low density leisure usage. This means there is a significant conservancy responsibility with a low income. Over the years this has led to low cost options such as the use of refurbished second-hand buoys. We also try not to be the first with new technology, and have only recently started gradual conversion to solar powered navigation aids. My harbour assistant and senior pilot boatman now takes delegated responsibility for day to day navigation aid and boat maintenance. An external contractor changes the steel buoys in Bridgwater Bay for shotblasting and painting every three years and replaces the chains. A container repair company spraypaints the buoys under cover and 'bakes' the paint on, which we find far more effective than traditional methods.

Recent major channel alterations in the port approaches have necessitated several hydrographic surveys which are commissioned from private contractors. (Investigating reasons for the channel changes, the largest for around 200 years, has led me into the fascinating and complex world of coastal and estuarine physical oceanography and sediment dynamics.) No dredging of navigation channels is undertaken within the port but some berths require the occasional 'grabbing off' of mud and silt.

Shipping movement are controlled by the pilots to fit in with the requirements of private berth operators, and although there is no formal vessel traffic management system (VTMS) there is a radar in the pilot house and vessels are given VHF radio advice when approaching the boarding station. Fortunately all berth operators understand that the long term commercial interests of the port are best served by working with adequate safety margins, and we are not put under pressure to carry out operations we consider unwise.

Recreational usage

Around five hundred people are involved in recreational boating clubs in this area, and several hundred jetty passes are issued to more casual users. The authority considers that when possible self regulation is preferable to enforcement and to that end issues a Code of Practice which was formulated after wide consultation (see appendix). Local clubs have been very supportive and the code was well received, probably because of the wide consultation and involvement.

As another move towards self regulation, I have co-ordinated a local water users forum since 1991. Although the authority provides limited administrative assistance this forum is deliberately independent and informal, and is made up of representatives of the major recreational user groups and others such as the local boat builder and the Coastguard sector manager. Minutes of our meetings are widely circulated as one of the aims of the forum is to improve communication and reduce polarisation. The forum was first started after the Sailing Club and the Water Ski Club had arranged races in the same water at the same time unbeknown to each other.

The only class of recreational users which consistently has an uncooperative minority is the personal water craft (jet ski) operators. They cause annoyance and perceived danger to other small craft users, and ambiguity about their legal status makes enforcement of byelaws difficult.

We have considered zoning and increased control of leisure craft, but the high costs could not be justified by the somewhat spasmodic and weather dependent nature of leisure usage in our waters. My authority does not provide recreational moorings, and my involvement here is mainly to ensure that navigation channels are not impeded by private moorings, though the co-operative attitude of local clubs means there are few problems.

Other duties of the harbour master

Other duties of the harbour master include:

  • planning
  • conservation and environmental enhancement
  • economic development and tourism
  • leisure and recreation
  • pollution control and monitoring
  • inland waterway management

For more information about any of these duties, please contact us.

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