Unusual pilot practice leads to collision

Serious injury was narrowly avoided when a bulk carrier and two pilot vessels became embroiled in confusion as a pilot was being disembarked...

Serious injury was narrowly avoided when a bulk carrier and two pilot vessels became embroiled in confusion as a pilot was being disembarked in the busy Scheldt estuary

In the early hours of Sunday 21 January 2018, the pilot cutter Pollux and bulk carrier Nord Taurus collided one nautical mile off the Netherlands coast — moments after a pilot had managed to step safely from Nord Taurus and onto another pilot vessel, the Perseus.  

The accident resulted in severe damage to the portside of Pollux’s hull and bridge and minor injuries to several crew. Nord Taurus suffered little damage while Perseus went unscathed. 

A report by the Dutch Safety Board classified the incident as “a serious accident”, as defined by the IMO’s Casualty Investigation Code and European Union law, and has pointed to problems with the unique pilot practices used in the Scheldt estuary.

2 Nord Taurus Source Dutch Safety Board Patrick Deenik
The Nord Taurus. (Credit: Dutch Safety Board / Patrick Deenik)

COLREGs confusion

The incident began when the crew on the Nord Taurus noticed the Pollux approaching their starboard side while the pilot was stepping away from the Nord Taurus onto the Perseus

Under normal circumstances they would have given way to a vessel approaching their starboard side but assumed that the Pollux would, instead, give way because the Nord Taurus was restricted in its ability to manoeuvre as it was engaged in ‘transferring persons’ — a rule recognised by COLREGs (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea). 

The Pollux’s pilot lights were also on, which reinforced the Nord Taurus crew’s assumption that the Pollux was actively engaged in its pilot operation — which it wasn’t — and would therefore be aware that the Nord Taurus was still dealing with the safe disembarkation of the pilot.  

When the pilot was stepping aboard the Perseus, the Perseus crew noticed that the Pollux was getting very close but chose not to contact the Pollux because they had full confidence in the seamanship of the Pollux’s captain and assumed he would be taking account of the pilotage operation. By the time the Perseus crew realised the Pollux had no intention of changing course, it was too late to attempt any kind of communication.

The pilot boat Perseus passes on 1 December 2018 the access to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
The Perseus (Credit: Shutterstock)

Warning alarm

The Pollux was sailing on a pre-set course on automatic pilot while its captain concentrated on routine administrative tasks with no lookout appointed. 

Because it was commonplace for the Pollux to sail in close proximity to other vessels, its CPA (Closest Point of Approach) alarm, which warns of potential collision risks, was switched off. 

The Pollux’s captain told investigators he became aware of the potential collision seconds before it happened but, despite putting the engine into reverse, couldn’t stop it happening. 

Report findings

The accident investigation report found that the underlying cause of the incident was the unusual situation of the presence of two pilot vessels during the pilotage operation.  

Having two pilot vessels located close together during a pilotage operation would be unusual in most parts of the world, but it is routinely practised in the Schelde estuary due to the complexity of the navigation in the area and the intensity of shipping traffic. 

The report concludes that in this case the practice created assumptions and confusion that led to the accident, with Pollux’s pilot lights creating a clear impression it was monitoring the pilotage operation, which it wasn’t. It was unsurprising, the report adds, that the crew of the Nord Taurus assumed the Pollux would change heading and therefore did not warn the Pollux that they were on a collision course. 

The main lesson to be learned from the incident, according to the report, is that all parties involved in the vicinity of a pilotage operation must be fully aware of the actions being taken in the ongoing manoeuvres — and that “there must be no room for any assumptions”. 


The Dutch Safety Board has asked maritime authorities in the Schelde estuary to: 

  • formulate instructions for pilots on how to act if pilot vessels are in each other’s presence in the vicinity of a pilotage process, and to bring those instructions to the attention of coordination centres and pilots working in the Scheldt estuary. 
  • make an inventory of the pilot vessels on which watch orders deviate from the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) and bring all watch orders in line with the provisions for keeping a lookout on watch.

Perilous occupation

The need for pilots to transfer between moving vessels can be a treacherous business, with many suffering fractures after falls. Serious injuries and even deaths are not uncommon. 

In October 2016, a Port of London Authority pilot was killed after he fell and was crushed between two vessels off Gravesend. In December 2019 a Port of New York pilot died after falling from a ladder while he tried to board a container ship off Staten Island, followed in August 2020 by a second fatal ladder fall by a Sandy Hook pilot, boarding a tanker inbound for the Port of New York. 

Hull of a freight vessel with pilot ladder
Hull of a freight vessel with pilot ladder (Credit: Shutterstock)

Read the full accident report by the Dutch Safety Board. 


Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.