English as an International Working language
I have recently investigated several contact accidents as well as one grounding and one of the common causes of the accidents, and in almost every case mentioned in the report, that the Master and the Bridge Team did not understand the instructions given by the pilot to the tugs and vice versa. In one case where we had two very similar contact incidents with a few months on the same vessel the Flag Sate asked for a detailed investigation and from the evidence provided they drew the following conclusion with regard to a working language.
Bridge to bridge communications between pilot and tug’s master in the local language is an apparent contravention of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), as ammended 1974, regulation V/15, paragraph 15.4 which requires that English be used for bridge to bridge safety communication s unless all involved speak a common language. It is recommended that the Master requires the Pilot to use English to communicate with the assisting tug. If that is not possible, it is then recommended that the Master request the Pilot to repeat in English all orders made to the tug.
SOLAS actually states “On ships to which chapter I applies, English shall be used on the bridge as the working language for bridge-to-bridge and bridge-to-shore safety communications as well as for communications on board between the pilot and bridge watchkeeping personnel*, unless those directly involved in the communication speak a common language other than English.
It is essential for any form of team work to be successful that everyone involved understands what is happening and what orders and information are being given. This is never as true as on the bridge of a vessel where the Bridge Team has to work with unseen persons onboard tugs, Vessel Traffic Control and Pilots of every nationality known and a host of different languages. There can be only one common working language at sea and this has been fixed by the IMO as English. The airlines have managed to overcome this hurdle and insist on English and so it can be done at sea.
It is very common for the Pilot to talk to the tug in his own language as many of the Tug Masters throughout the world do not speak any English and it is not possible to legislate or force them to do so. What the bridge team can do is insist that the Pilot explains the orders given or information received to the bridge team in English.
Too often in the reports received following incidents under pilotage it is seen that the pilot has come onboard and the Master has relinquished control of the vessel to the pilot. The Pilot is only an addition to the bridge team and an assistant to the bridge team leader – not a substitute. If the Pilot does not accept that he is part of the team and will not work with and share information then the DPA and the Port Authority must be informed. We can and we will take action where pilots are not prepared to be part of the bridge team but equally so we have to have the Masters and Officers acting accordingly.
Captain John F Dobson, DPA / CSO
* The IMO Standard Marine Communications Phrases (SMCPs) (MSC/Circ.794), as amended, may be used in this respect.