The Port Phillip Sea Pilot organisation provides an important service to the people of Victoria. It is unique in its history, structure and importance to the state. It offers an expert service to shipping in Port Phillip and Western Port bays, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

    A pilot is an experienced and qualified seaman possessing extensive local knowledge of the channels, depths of water, currents and dangers within and around the port for which he is licensed. He knows the local port rules, is familiar with each berth and swinging basin and is aware of the capabilities of the tugs placed under his direction. He is also an expert and experienced ship handler.

    The history of sea pilotage goes back many hundreds of years when seamen with local knowledge offered their services to ship's captains to navigate their vessels through the often dangerous waters at the entrance to ports. Today, throughout the world, nearly every port has a pilotage service, with the pilots licensed by the Government of that country and usually employed by the local marine authority. In all but minor ports, pilotage is compulsory except for local ships where the master holds a current pilotage exemption for that port.

    The pilot is responsible for the safe conduct and navigation of the ship from the time he assumes control from the master after boarding at sea until the vessel is safely moored at the allocated wharf, or vice versa. This includes all steering and engine orders, the placement of tugs and direct orders to the tugs by means of portable V.H.F. radio.

    The history of Port Phillip Sea Pilots goes back to the 17th June 1839, when the first licence was granted to George Tobin by Governor Gipps of New South Wales on condition that "the appointment must not bring any expense on the Government." The service is unique in that it is fully owned and operated by pilots in keeping with the terms of the original appointment. Pilot services at other major Australian ports are mostly Government operated, and it is only in recent years that moves have been made in some states to allow pilot services to operate privately as they have done so efficiently on Port Phillip for well over 150 years.

    All Port Phillip Pilots are experienced ex-ship-masters who have gained the additional experience and qualifications needed to be granted a licence by the Marine Safety Victoria. At present, there are 30* pilots including those who are also licensed for Western Port.

    The original pilots camped on the beach at Queenscliff on the site of the present Pilot Station, and were taken to and from ships by 30ft. whaleboats frequently manned by convicts.

    In 1851 Victoria was granted independence from New South Wales and at this time there was a spectacular increase in the number of ships due to the gold rush. A number of ships were lost at the dangerous entrance to Port Phillip mainly due to ship masters attempting to enter without a pilot and not having sufficient local knowledge of tidal and weather conditions. The Government was petitioned to take over the service and to supply a cruising pilot cutter to put pilots aboard ships at sea. The brigantine "Boomerang" was the first in 1853 and was shortly followed by "Corsair" and "Anonyma".

    In 1854 there were 56 pilots and costs were escalating. The Pilot Board was formed with representatives from Commerce, the Marine Industry, Underwriters and Government members to control the pilotage fees and the pilots' remuneration. The pilots were then invited to buy the three cutters, form three companies and to take over the service on a cooperative basis. "Cruising cutters" was a system whereby pilots stayed onboard the cutter outside the Heads and therefore were available "on demand".

    Prior to 1901, sailing pilot cruising cutters were "Boomerang", "Corsair", "Anonyma", "Proserpine", "Rip", "Mavis" and "Hawk". In 1901 the pilots took delivery of their first steam powered pilot cutter, "Victoria", 46 metres in length, built at Williamstown. "Victoria" was followed by "Alvina", "Akuna", "Akuna II" and in 1953, "Wyuna", a twin-screw diesel electric pilot cutter 63 metres long. "Wyuna" served until November 1979 and was then sold to the new Nautical College at Launceston for use as a training ship. The system for getting pilots on and off ships at sea was for the ship to stop dead in the water with the wind and sea broad on the beam. The pilot cutter would round the ship's stern, manoeuvre into the lee and lower the 18ft. workboat which, with a crew of two, transferred the pilots to and from their ships.

    In the early 1970's with a view to the replacement of "Wyuna", a study was made throughout the world for a better system for putting pilots aboard ships. In 1972 the Service purchased a 12 metre G.R.P. (fibreglass) twin screw diesel launch in England to assist in servicing the the new tanker port of Western Port. Pilots here were gaining experience with this and experimenting with helicopters, initially landing on the ships and later winching the pilots on and off.

    A decision was eventually made in favour of the launch system and new ones were ordered 13 metres in length. With the launch system in operation, the pilot boards directly from the launch with the ship steaming at about 7 knots. The high degree of seamanship and skill shown by the launch coxswains during this procedure is relied on by the pilot and the deckhand, who assists the pilot to board from the exposed foredeck of the launch. In heavy weather this can be a hazardous operation but with experience the pilot knows when to leave the pitching deck of the launch and to grab and scramble up the rope ladder to the security of the ship's deck. Helicopters are still an option for the future when they become more cost effective.

    Pilot stations were then required to control the operation and to house the pilots both at Queenscliff for Port Phillip; and at Flinders for Western Port. The Queenscliff Station was built on State Government land leased to the pilots and occupied by them since 1839. It contains a control centre, manned 24 hours a day and houses the pilot whose turn it is in charge and also up to 12 pilots waiting their turns for inward ships.

    The station for Western Port was built at Flinders near the Naval gunnery school on land leased from the Commonwealth at West Head. Due to a severe downturn in shipping, this facility was sold to the Navy in 1995. The pilots now work Western Port from Melbourne.

    A facility for the repair and maintenance of the launches was the next requirement and land was leased from the State on a reclaimed area adjacent to the boat harbour at Queenscliff where a large workshop was constructed. This houses a staff of six who are capable of repair and maintenance work on the boats as well as fitting out new launches. When a new launch is required the fibreglass shell comprising the hull, deck and cabin is constructed in Western Australia, then shipped to Queenscliff. Here it is fitted with two 230 HP Cummins diesel engines, electrical systems, radar, V.H.F. and domestic radios, rescue equipment and any modifications to ensure maximum safety of the pilots and crew. The launches operate a 24 hour day service through the Rip regardless of tides and weather. The Pilot Service is often called upon for search and rescue work and has saved many lives over the years. In late 1996, a new type of bigger launch from Chivers, Western Australia was introduced.

    The head office was at Williamstown, where part of the Customs House had been occupied by the pilots since it was built in 1873. Here the President, who is elected from and by the pilots each year, managed the service business. He is assisted by a clerical staff who deal with accounts and administration. On the sale of the Customs House in 1990, the Head Office was relocated at North Melbourne. Experienced boatmen are rostered around the clock to drive launches at the top and bottom end of the Bay. A 24 hour per day Operation Room is set up at Queenscliff, manned by experienced P.D.O.'s (Pilot Dispatch Officers), who advise pilots of shipping movements and ensure that pilots are placed when and where required. A fleet of cars is maintained to transport pilots to and from their ships at Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port. Modern communications link up the office, cars, launches and stations. Launches and stations are also fitted with marine V.H.F. radio, so that contact can be made directly with shipping, Harbour Control at Melbourne, Lonsdale Lighthouse and Western Port Control.

    Thirty pilots do all the pilotage work through the Heads, the bay Channels and the Ports of Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port. Each owns an equal share of the assets of the service.

    Shipping is a very high cost industry when considering the capital costs of ships, tugs, shore installations, containers, etc. and the high running costs for fuel, maintenance and crews. Fuel alone can cost a large container ship close to half a million dollars from Australia to England. Overall running cost can easily average $2,000 per hour, every hour, every day. Consequently, shipping is a 24 hour a day industry and pilots are available at any time to play their part. Port Phillip Pilots being self-employed are not union members and are never involved in industrial disputes or delays to shipping. In an average year over 4,000 ships are piloted through the Heads and over 4,000 other pilotage acts are performed in shift ships, river pilotage etc. in the ports of Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port.

Ships and port facilities have improved considerably over the years and the channels have been deepened and widened. Ships up to 12.1 metres draught can be navigated through Port Phillip Heads. The Yarra River, up to the container terminal at Swanson Dock is dredged to 13.1 metres, the main Geelong Channels, 12.3 metres, while at Western Port the maximum draught is about 15 metres, depending on tide. The Rip is still a very dangerous area for all craft because of the strong tidal flow and the uneven nature of the sea bed and is at its worst when a full ebb tide of up to 10 knots meets a southerly gale. This and the fact that slack water is three hours after high and low water explains why so many ships were wrecked there in the early days. The ship's captain timing his arrival for low water and expecting to get the first of the flood tide through the entrance found that he was caught in the strongest part of the ebb tide, and in trying to enter could be swept on to Point Nepean.

    Ships have changed considerably during the history of this service, from sail to steam, powered by coal or oil fires, but today nearly all have diesel engines, some up to 40,000 horsepower. Speed and reliability have increased dramatically, some can do in excess of 25 knots but the average would be about 15, so it is rare for a ship to be held up by the tide at the Rip.

    Probably the most spectacular change is in the increase in the size and type of a ship. 100 years ago, 2,000 tonnes displacement was a large ship, 40 years ago, 10,000 tonnes was a large ship; today 100,000 tonnes is an everyday occurrence in Western Port, and in Melbourne, high speed container ships up to 70,000 tonnes are common. Most ships today are built for specific cargoes, such as container, tanker, roll on roll off, car carriers, bulk carriers and general purpose ships, and as a result, their appearance and handling qualities differ considerably. For example, a large loaded taker would not be much affected by wind but the pilot would have to commence reducing speed about 10 miles before the berth. The other extreme would be a car carrier with a draught of six metres and a freeboard of 30 metres. This could be stopped quickly, but would be very much affected by the wind. Big, deep draught ships in narrow channels require the pilot's full attention; a lapse of concentration or even trying to avoid a small boat could result in a major accident with a considerable impact on the environment from the subsequent oil spillage.

    The pilots work a roster system with their week commencing at 0800 Tuesday. The roster is two weeks on, one week off plus annual leave, and they take it in turns for a week as pilot in charge of Queenscliff Station. One or two pilots are required for Western Port. The remainder take it in turns for ships from sea to a berth either at Melbourne or Geelong or vice versa and usually do two jobs in one day. Delays in the arrivals and departures of ships are common due to weather, cargo problems, etc., but it is a matter of pride to the pilots that they are always there when required.

    The time taken for a pilotage job varies considerably, but averages six hours for Geelong, five hours for Melbourne, three hours for Western Port and up to twelve hours for Melbourne to Western Port. With the uncertainties of shipping, much time is spent on standby at home or at the pilot station, or travelling by car to a job, or even waiting in a launch at sea.

    In 1989 Port Phillip Sea Pilots celebrated their 150th anniversary. During that year the structure and operation of the Service was changed to meet current and future demands. Changes have occurred in the past but what has not changed is the Pilots' continuing commitment to the high standards established by their predecessors. Port Phillip Sea Pilots are proud of their 150+ years of service, their traditional independence and their professionalism, and look forward to continuing a service to shipping and to the Victorian people that is as efficient as any pilot service in the world.

*As at June 1996


The Honour Board [Click To Enlarge]






Here is a basic sketch of the areas that Port Phillip Sea Pilots are licensed to work in. The red dotted lines are the primary routes that all vessels use in order to navigate to the port of Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port.