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With the Harbour Pilots

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‘Ordinarily at this point I’d be looking at her,’ Will Mitchell told me as we approached the Cefas Endeavour, a research ship owned by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Acquaculture Science, a mile offshore the Cornish port of Fowey. ‘I’d be looking at the size of her, how she moves, where we’re going to board her. But I’ve worked this vessel before.’ It was a Wednesday lunchtime in July and the sky was overcast – a rare interruption in a week of fine sunshine – but the sea was almost flat. Mitchell and I were on the Gallant, a 15-metre cutter belonging to the Fowey Harbour Commission, along with Nathan Perkin and Alan Toller. All three men work for the Commission’s pilotage service. Perkin reached the Endeavour’s captain on the radio, then looped the Gallant round to come alongside the bigger ship to starboard, where a rope ladder was waiting. ‘Hold tight, I don’t like paperwork,’ Mitchell joked, but clambering onboard was easy in such a calm sea.

When entering or leaving a port – especially a port like Fowey, a natural harbour in a river mouth – a big vessel has to be guided by a pilot who knows the local conditions. There are two pilots working at Fowey in rotation, bringing ships in and out at all hours and in almost all weathers. Mitchell has been a pilot at Fowey for twenty years, and a seaman since 1981, when he joined the Blue Star Line as an apprentice.

Later that afternoon we went out to sea again to bring in the MV Veendijk, a 90-metre general cargo ship built in Goa, sailing under a Dutch flag. The deckhands were Filipino, the captain and chief mate Ukrainian, and at least one of the seamen Croatian (he was hoping to get the evening onshore to watch the World Cup semi-final).

Roughly due north of the western tip of Brittany, Fowey was an important site in the Middle Ages for the export of tin and the transhipment of all kinds of goods. ‘Vessels from Genoa to Grimsby crowded its quays,’ according to one historian. Today the main export is china clay from the quarries near St Austell, around 750,000 tonnes of it a year. Of 170 ships putting in to Fowey in 2016, 158 were connected with the industry. The MV Veendijk was taking a load on for shipment to Monfalcone, in the Gulf of Trieste. After that, the captain didn’t know where they’d be headed, but thought it would probably be somewhere in the North Sea.

The docks are about half a mile upstream of Fowey itself. As we chugged slowly through the town I looked around the Veendijk’s bridge. There were folders of information on the various procedures to be followed, a small tear-off calendar from a supplier in Groningen, a coffee machine, an evacuation map, a lifejacket locker, a certificate from a yard in Gdansk declaring the navigation equipment in working order. Mitchell had introduced me vaguely as his ‘friend’; the chief mate, Andriy, asked what I was doing. ‘I can see you are not a seaman.’

Born in a small town on the Black Sea, he has been at sea since he got his certificates in 2008, and on the Veendijk for two years. Before that he worked bigger cargo ships. You get a bigger cabin on a bigger ship, he told me, maybe even a gym, but bigger ships mean ‘bigger troubles’ and more work to do. He liked the Veendijk well enough.

At Mixtow, where a small creek makes space for a kind of turning circle, Mitchell turned the ship around so its bows were facing downstream, and used the bow and stern thrusters to bring it sideways to dock. Andriy and I watched the jetty come closer while Toller and Perkin waited to catch the mooring lines, thick as an arm, thrown by the deckhands. Not all pilots are the same, Andriy said. Some will bring you up too hard and damage equipment or bust the deck railings. Then you have to waste a whole day getting them welded before you can cast off again. After that the ship owners will keep a close eye on you. But this pilot, he said as we made contact with the jetty with barely a bump, is ‘perfect’. He looked back down the river towards the town. ‘In winter it’s boring, there is nobody. But in summer it’s a nice place.’

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