The reporter advises that during this weather pattern it is not unusual for North Westerly wind strength to exceed 40 knots with total wave and swell height reaching 5 metres. The shallow water in the area from [Location 2] to [Location 3] results in the forming of steep waves with a short period of about 8 seconds.
A waverider buoy in the vicinity of [Name] Passage gives a real time indication of sea conditions. Operations at night become extremely testing as the approach of larger waves cannot be seen in advance. The presence of semi-submerged logs and other floating storm debris adds to the inherent danger. However, pilot launches have been operating out of Port [Name] in such conditions.
The reporter states that Regional Harbour Masters have the authority to close a Port should conditions become hazardous for launch operations, and this power is regularly exercised along the coast. The exception; however, is Port [Name]. There is no resident Harbour Master at Port [Name] and storm safety action is directed towards land and wharf operations. Port [Name] routinely remains open while the other Ports are closed, resulting in pilot boats operating from this Port to continue operations, seemingly regardless of sea conditions.
Due to the pilotage competition regime, the reporter advises that there is increasing pressure for crews to "extend the envelope" in these extreme weather conditions. This pressure is coming from many sources and includes pilots and pilot companies. It occurs when one pilotage operator operates when the other operator has ceased operations as a result of an adverse risk assessment having been conducted. To meet this challenge the Launch Master is subtly pressured to extend his personal judgement "a little bit", or in an extreme case the decision to operate is taken out of the Launch Master's hands when the wind exceeds 33 knots and the decisions are made from a [Location 4] office.
The reporter is concerned that that there will be an incident of injury or damage should these launches continue in these conditions. The reporter believes that the resolution to this situation is to have the Regional Harbour Master close Port [Name] to launch operations when wind and/or wave conditions reach pre-determined limits.
Operator's response (Operator 1)
[Operator] is responsible for the safe navigation and operation of vessels under the [legislation]. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) regulates Domestic Commercial Vessels (DCV) under the Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 (Cth) and is the primary safety regulator for the operation of pilot vessels. [Operator] co-regulates DCVs for the movement of vessels when operating in pilotage areas. The National Law places the onus on the owner and master of pilot vessel for safe operation of the vessel.
[Location] and Port [Name] are in the Operator’s [region].
The conditions described by your respondent do exist when NW Monsoon conditions intensify. However, there are Extreme Weather Event Contingency Plans in place for all [State] ports including Port [Name]. Port [Name] is not an “exception” and safety action in the port, as in all ports, from [Operator] is directed at maritime operations and assets.
During the last NW monsoon season there were several days when prevailing conditions were not suitable for operations, and on each occasion the Regional Harbour Master made contact with the local managers of the pilot operations to discuss suspending operations.
These companies have an intimate knowledge of the area and the decision was made on these occasions that they would both manage operations for daylight only and be suspended when conditions were not suitable to operate. These companies have extensive Safety Management Systems which include operating parameters in adverse weather.
The owner and master of pilot vessels are directly responsible for ensuring they operate their vessels safely and it is AMSA who is responsible for regulating this operation generally. The [Operator’s] RHM will however continue to monitor pilot vessel operations in all pilotage areas within the [region] to ensure they comply with the relevant Extreme Weather Event Contingency Plans.
Regulator's response (Regulator 1)
Having received your report (attached), AMSA has been able to conduct a preliminary investigation regarding the safety concerns raised. Some of the concerns are outside of AMSA jurisdiction, however we note the reply from [Operator], which outlines the Regional Harbour Master (RHM) role and actions taken previously by the RHM to consider the suspension of pilot vessel operations at Port [Name].
- The coastal pilotage providers have marine bases in Port [Name] operating today a total of 5 pilot vessels across providers;
- All these pilot vessels operate under the National Law for Domestic Commercial Vessels, with additional compliance requirements specified under Marine Order 54 (Coastal pilotage);
- All the pilot vessels have a valid Certificate of Survey and Certificate of Operation;
- AMSA inspectors have performed compliance inspections on 3 of these 5 vessels in Port [Name] between November 2018 and February 2019. The vessels inspected are operated by all Pilotage Providers;
- A compliance inspection is focused on verifying compliance of the vessel with the construction and surveys standards, and adequacy of the vessel’s Safety Management System with the requirements outlined in Marine Order 504 (Certificates of operation and operation requirements —national law). Minor deficiencies were recorded, which have since been corrected;
- The Pilotage Providers’ Safety Management Systems are audited by AMSA Coastal Pilotage as provided for under Marine Order 54 (Coastal pilotage). This audit includes an assessment of compliance related to pilot vessel operations. The last comprehensive compliance audits found no systemic concerns or non-conformities related to compliance with the requirements under Marine Order 54. The Pilotage Providers Safety Management Systems refer to pilot launch procedures and risk assessments which are to be conducted before departure, in particular:
- specific mention of “Go / No-Go” decision-making related to pilot transfer operations by launch due to weather constraints, underpinned by the notion that such safe work practices are a condition of employment and are to be considered regardless of commercial pressure;
- specific procedures / work instructions for the conduct of pilot launch transfers which includes a requirement to check weather and sea conditions before departure, with prescribed “key indicators” reflecting sea condition limitations (which include limitations for wind and swell etc.), in addition to various other risk-mitigating requirements including risk assessment worksheets and standing risk profiles associated with pilot transfer via launch;
- The Marine Safety (Domestic Commercial Vessel) National Law Act 2012 also provides duties for the owner and the Master of a domestic commercial vessel to ensure safety of the vessel, marine safety equipment and operations.
It is acknowledged that the decision to close the port of Port [Name] rests with the Regional Harbour Master. Notwithstanding the co-regulatory arrangements between AMSA and [Operator] for the operation of pilot vessels within port limits and in coastal pilotage areas, the safety issue reported to the ATSB is of concern to AMSA. While the compliance inspections and audits conducted to date corroborate the establishment of adequate risk mitigation arrangements, our local Marine Safety Inspectors will perform a series of focused inspection campaigns to verify the effective implementation of these arrangements on the pilot vessels in Port [Name]. Further, AMSA will also review the appropriateness of relevant sections of each pilotage provider’s Safety Management System in the context of any environmental limitations associated with pilot launch operations, as part of ongoing pilotage provider compliance audit activities provided for under Marine Order 54.