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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 10:07 GMT
'There's a near miss every trip'
In the bridge of the Stena Continent, a 275,000 tonne tanker
Roger Francis (centre) pilots ships through the Channel
After the Tricolor sank in the English Channel, it seemed inconceivable that two more ships could plough into the wreck. Here, Captain Roger Francis tells of piloting tankers through the crowded waterway.

It's a bit like driving a car except we have to keep to the right. The shipping lanes run north to south and the ferries nip across at right angles.

Tricolor submerged in the Channel
14 Dec: Tricolor and Kariba collide in heavy fog, sinking the former
15 Dec: cargo ship NSD Provider comes within 500 m of wreck
16 Dec: freighter Nicola runs into swamped ship
1 Jan: so too does fuel tanker Vicky
I've been a deep sea pilot for nearly 14 years and before that I was a captain. I pilot anything from tugs and tows to tankers and container ships.

In the years that I've been negotiating the Dover Straits, the standard of watch-keeping has plummeted. On a run I did last month, I witnessed three near collisions because watch-keepers failed to keep a look out.

It's the old business of the shipping companies trying to keep costs down when crewing the ships. That astonishes me - they run ships worth 25m each, yet crew them with the cheapest people they can get. So our biggest problem is keeping out of the way of the idiots.

Open in new window : Graphic guide
The Tricolor shipwreck

I work 15 days in a month, normally boarding a ship at Brixham, in south Devon, or Cherbourg and guiding it through the straits.

Sometimes I'm helicoptered out to the ship, where it either lands on the deck or I go down a wire - not my favourite thing at all, my whole world goes before me in the 40 to 50 feet I'm going down - or I get a boat out and clamber up a ladder.

The Tricolor collisions came as no surprise to me

Once I am on board, my advice is invariably taken. Thanks to my previous command experience, the captain can disappear for an often long-overdue rest.

A lot of the job is done by sight and radar, but in the past six months pilots have started using electronic navigation. I go on board with a laptop and stick up a GPS antenna outside the wheelhouse. I know where I am all the time, but it's handy to have that back-up to check.

Near misses are very common - I see at least one each trip. Ships either can't be bothered to hold their course - it might make their trip a little bit longer - or they expect others to get out of the way.

Luxury liner Norwegian Dream in port after collision
The Norwegian Dream collided with a cargo ship in the Channel in 1999
But a near-miss at sea is different to a near-miss on the roads - for us coming within quarter of a mile is cutting it fine. The unwritten rule is that if you pass ahead of a ship, you pass a mile ahead. It seems a hell of a lot on shore, but a mile on a ship that's maybe 400 yards long itself, that's quite close.

The Tricolor collisions came as no surprise to me; I've been expecting something like it for ages.

Any ship in the Channel should know where that wreck is. There's a navigational telex system that's mandatory on every ship that's been pumping out messages with the location of the ship, that there are buoys and a guard ship around it, to keep to the south of it.

Nonetheless, I think it highly likely that another ship will hit it. The Tricolor is probably going to be there for at least six months, and she's probably well buried in the seabed by now.

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