Norwegian Jade Ships Bridge

While international shipping has embraced the use of new technologies to enhance the mariner's toolkit for safe navigation, ships still look to our professional marine pilots to assist in the safe navigation of vessels along our coast and in the Fraser River.  The requirements for the safe navigation of ships are embodied in the Canada Shipping Act 2001 and other key pieces of marine-related legislation in Canada.



Collision Regulations

The underlying principles in safety of navigation on the high seas and waterways of the world are laid down in the “International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972”.

The Rules were adopted as a Convention of the International Maritime Organization in October 1972 and entered into force in July 1977. They were designed to update and replace the Collision Regulations of 1960, particularly with regard to Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS) following the first of these, introduced in the Strait of Dover in 1967. Of necessity, they have been amended several times since their first adoption.

Each country that is a member of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designates an "Administration" or federal authority or agency for implementing the provisions of the COLREG convention as it applies to vessels over which the federal authority has jurisdiction. In other words, the IMO convention including the almost four dozen "rules" contained in the international regulations is adopted by each member country signatory to the convention. Each national or federal administration is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the regulations as it applies to ships and vessels over which it has legal authority. For example, Transport Canada regulates Canadian vessels and the United States Coastguard regulates U.S. flagged vessels. In effect, there is a set of national navigation laws (regulations) which conform to the international convention. Each administration is empowered to enact modifications that apply to vessels in waters under the national jurisdiction concerned, provided that any such modifications remain consistent with the COLREGs.

Ship’s officers are examined in detail at each stage of their career for continued proficiency in understanding and application of the COLREGs.

All countries employ marine pilots to enhance navigational safety within coastal waters on the basis of the high degree of detailed and expert knowledge that a marine pilot brings to his or her specific port or coastline.

Canada is no exception. The country is divided into four pilotage authorities, that being responsible on the west coast of Canada being named the “Pacific Pilotage Authority” which was created in 1972 under the authority of the Canadian Pilotage Act and reporting to the federal Minister of Transport as a crown corporation.

The mandate of the Authority is to maintain safe and effective marine pilotage and related services in the coastal waters of British Columbia, including the Fraser River.

pilotage areasbridge pilot

In British Columbia, pilotage is physically conducted by the BC Coast Pilots Ltd. formed in 1973 but whose history can be traced back to 1858. At any time, BC Coast pilots comprises around 100 highly experienced pilots conducting the safe navigation of vessels of all categories and sizes on the coastline and within the ports of British Columbia with an accident free record of 99.98% out of over 11,000 assignments per year.

In the Fraser River, a small group of usually 7 to 8 specialized marine pilots conducts the safe navigation of vessels on that waterway. These pilots are in the direct employ of the Pacific Pilotage Authority. All pilots receive regular skills training refreshers both in simulators and in manned models.

simulator1 simulator2

bridge simulators

The Authority budget for training is in the $500,000 range per annum. The Authority itself is fully financed by the marine industry as required by the Canadian Pilotage Act.


Tug Assistance to Vessels

British Columbia is fortunate in having two world class tug operators covering the major traffic areas of the coastline in the form of Seaspan Marine and Smit Towage. Both companies have invested heavily to provide our major ports with an enviable level of tug assist to both incoming and outbound vessels.
seaspan smit


The Modern Ship’s Bridge

The navigation bridge is situated on the uppermost deck with a clear view of the sea ahead and abeam. It is constructed that the navigators get clear vision for 255o or more. From the conning position, vision should be from 112.5o port to 112.5o starboard. Forward windows are designed to provide a clear view without reflections.

A ship obviously navigates 24 hours a day on open deep sea voyages but also sometimes in restricted coastal shipping lanes in variable weather and sea conditions.

The ship's bridge serves as a control and command station for the entire ship including mechanical and electronic functions. All systems and equipment must meet IMO standards and must be extensively tested and approved prior to installation and during their life-span.

The most common activities carried out on bridge can be described as:

  • Safe navigation and regular fixing of the ship’s position
  • Avoidance of collision
  • Setting of ship’s course and speed
  • Constant monitoring weather and sea conditions.
  • Coordination of Communication – external and internal

bridge1 bridge2

Primary electronic navigation equipment on a modern ship’s bridge:

1. Ships more than 10,000 GRT are fitted with at least two radars, each being Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) equipped.

2. From July 2012 onwards, all vessels of 500 GRT and above are required to be fitted with an electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS). The advantages of this technology are:

    • Increased awareness and efficiency
    • Integrated availability of data
    • Increased real time navigational accuracy
    • Accurate passage planning
    • Automated, prompt and accurate chart updates

3. Depth indicator (water under keel)

4. Vessel speed indicator

5. Engine and rudder status indicators

6. Manual steering and autopilot stations

7. Control of main engines and bow thruster(s) where fitted

8. Advanced weather information systems for passage planning

Integrated Bridge Systems (IBS), are now commonly installed to provide efficient access to and monitoring of passage execution, communications, machinery control, safety and security.


Tanker Traffic in British Columbia


Tankers have been safely conducting incident free business on the coast of British Columbia for many decades.

Unfortunately the marine industry has been caught up in a debate which comes down to whether one believes in development of Canada’s oil sands and the export of product off-shore. It must however be understood that when the high level of mis-information is stripped away, the world cannot live without oil resources and given this reality, no jurisdiction in the world has contemplated the sort of restrictions on tanker traffic that many are campaigning for in British Columbia.

Standard tanker sizes are:

Class Deadweight tons

Product 10,000 - 60,000
Panamax 60,000 - 80,000
Aframax 80,000 - 120,000
Suezmax 120,000 - 200,000
VLCC 200,000 - 320,000 (very large crude carrier)
ULCC 320,000 and above (ultra-large crude carrier)

The tankers currently servicing Kitimat are product tankers whilst those servicing Vancouver are up to and including the Aframax category.

Contrary to popular belief, the risks for tankers are the same as for non-tankers. The three major areas of risk for all ships are natural hazards, vessel equipment issues and the human element. The BC coast has similar issues to countless other navigable coastlines with strong tidal currents, narrow channels and sometimes adverse weather conditions. Winter conditions on the west coast of Canada can produce severe weather with very high winds but, on the plus side, in most cases once a vessel enters the channels they are often more protected than in the open water areas.

tankerport1 aframax

A modern tanker port and a VLCC lightening to an Aframax off Southern California

When dealing specifically with tankers there is, without exception, extensive consultation before any changes are made to an accepted practice. A recent example of this is the change from 12.5m draft for tankers in Port Metro Vancouver to 13.5m. This proposal took five years of analysis and consultation with significant changes to procedures and practices in order to ensure that safety was not negatively impacted.

Arguably, the procedures now in place in Port Metro Vancouver actually enhance overall safety. To achieve this, fast time simulations and full-mission bridge simulations were conducted in addition to live testing using tugs and a loaded tanker to verify the accuracy of the simulation results. As a consequence, changes were made in the handling of tankers using a different methodology for the use of tugs and supported by the introduction of personal pilotage units (portable electronic navigational units). As a consequence, the level of safety for tankers in Vancouver and along the BC coast has been further enhanced, and industry is confident that a similar exercise can be repeated in the north.


Tanker transiting Second Narrows Bridge

Over the past several years, as first the Enbridge Northern Gateway and more recently the Kinder Morgan expansion project, have come to the attention of the general public. As a result, a number of misconceptions regarding tankers and the movement of tankers in our waters have been given coverage in the media. Most of it is not supported by the plain facts, for example:

Misconception #1 There is a moratorium on tankers.

Misconception #2 Tankers have increased significantly in size since 2007

Misconception #3 Tankers are being brought into harbours with just 1.3m under the keel under Second Narrows bridge.

Misconception #4 A tanker incident in the north will spill more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Misconception #5 Tankers are accidents waiting to happen.

Misconception #6 The Douglas Channel is barely wide enough to accommodate a very large crude oil carrier (VLCC).

Misconception #7 Weather conditions on the east coast of Canada are nowhere near as severe as the weather conditions on the West Coast.


Double hull construction for tankers is now mandatory

The data in the table below only shows the larger tankers calling on the North Coast but there are also a great number of tug and barges supplying diesel and petroleum to remote areas. including Haida Gwaii. While there is a voluntary exclusion zone on the West Coast, the only moratorium in place is for oil and gas drilling.

The exclusion zone is voluntary and was put in place following a drift study by the Canadian Coast Guard in 1988. The voluntary exclusion zone was put in place purely to ensure that a passing tanker en route from Alaska to the United States had sufficient time to get a tug in the event of an engine failure.


Year Number of tankers handled on the North Coast Largest length Deepest draft
2006 12 186m 12.2m
2007 16 186m 12.0m
2008 18 189m 12.8m
2009 22 186m 12.8m
2010 24 186m 12.1m
2011 18 186m 12.4m


Pilots have been handling crude oil tankers in the Port of Vancouver for almost 60 years and contrary to popular belief they have not increased significantly in size since 2007. While we have seen an increase in numbers of tankers, the sizes of the tankers have not changed significantly.

Year Number of crude oil tankers in Vancouver Harbour Largest length Deepest draft
2005 39 243m 11.85m
2006 30 245m 12.0m
2007 44 249m 12.49m
2008 62 249m 12.26m
2009 70 249m 12.5m
2010 71 244m 12.4m
2011 41 250m 13.0m


The Under Keel Clearance (UKC) allowance of 10% of a ship’s draft (amount of water between the vessel’s hull and the sea bottom) has been the topic of significant discussion with many groups stating that supertankers with just 1.3m under the keel and a deep draft of 13m are allowed to pass through the Second Narrows. This is not correct. The underkeel clearance at Second Narrows is closer to 13m between the hull and the sea bottom. The 10% allowance is only applicable at the extreme of the allowable channel width which is not where the ships are when transiting the Narrows. The pilots use their Personal Pilotage Units to ensure that the vessel remains in the centre of the channel which gives significantly more water under the keel than the 10%. The green line in the diagram below is the required 10% but as can be seen the actual under keel clearance is over 12m.

The oil spill that is most referred to by various groups as “the reason why a significant spill is inevitable” is the Exxon Valdez spill which occurred in 1989. The most recent statements suggest that the very large crude carriers that would come into our waters for the Kitimat Gateway project would spill significantly more oil in the event that a tanker grounds. What is ignored is how much progress has been made since the Exxon Valdez spill. With the new tank configuration and double hulled rules as well as the requirements for escort tugs and two pilots, the situation is incomparable to the conditions that existed at the time of the Exxon Valdez. Were the conditions of the Exxon Valdez to be replicated using a modern day tanker, no spill would have occurred.

Another issue that is raised again and again by concerned citizens and groups opposed to tankers is that the passage from sea to Kitimat is too narrow to accommodate a VLCC. One of the narrowest sections of the channel is 0.8 nautical miles wide or 1,480m. A VLCC is 350m long and up to 50m in beam (width). In comparison, we have been handling Aframax vessels through Second Narrows for many years without incident. The channel is just 136m wide at the narrowest point and an Aframax vessel is 42m wide. We are therefore entirely confident that if we can do this safely in Vancouver Harbour under Second Narrows Bridge, then it can be done between the channels from deep sea to Kitimat.

douglas channel

Narrowest point of Douglas channel has ample sea-room for two large vessels to pass in safety


With respect to the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, expertise within the marine industry has been recruited and and has actively participated in simulations of the passage, including with the most adverse of weather conditions and adverse currents. After the testing, the BC Coast Pilots who have for many years been running vessels up and down the Douglas Channel, have determined that a VLCC can safely navigate the entire channel without tugs. However, in order to raise the level of safety, escort tug(s) will be utilized for the entire passage. In addition, industry participated directly in the TERMPOL submission which is a Transport Canada led document to review the project safety from sea to terminal.

Prevailing weather conditions have also been raised on a number of occasions as reasons not to service VLCCs on the northwest coast of British Columbia. Information readily available from the Environment Canada website clearly shows that the weather conditions on our coast are very similar to the conditions on the northeast coast of Canada. Importantly, the East Coast has been handling VLCCs for many years without incident.



While the weather conditions in the graphs above indicate both coasts can experience high winds, we rarely have vessel delays as a result of not being able to board a pilot.

Given that the weather conditions on both coasts can be challenging, the Pacific Pilotage Authority recently commissioned a study on the feasibility of using helicopters out of Prince Rupert to take pilots on and off the tankers (both LNG and crude oil) en route to and from Kitimat. In this way the tankers will be kept well clear of the coast line when the pilots are boarding or disembarking.


The marine industry is extremely proud of its safety record on the coast of BC which regularly exceeds a 99.90% success ratio. In 2011 12,144 ships were handled with but four minor issues for a 99.97% success ratio. In 20 years, there has been only one pollution incident while a pilot was on board. This occurred when a freighter (non-tanker) was pushed back alongside the dock during a squall and struck a piece of metal extending from the dock. If this had been a double hulled tanker there would have been no spill.

This level of success is not achieved by chance. The pilotage examination process is one of the most stringent a candidate will face and an enormous amount of time and money is spent on training to maintaining safety levels.


Incidents by year
Year Assignments (Incidents) % of Incident-Free Assignments
2006 12,945 (8) 99.94%
2007 13,012 (7) 99.95%
2008 12,598 (4) 99.98%
2009 11,122 (6) 99.95%
2010 11,446 (2) 99.98%
2011 12,144 (4) 99.97%


Whilst on average the Pacific Pilotage Authority spends over $500,000 per annum on training, in 2010, this rose to over $1.2 million when the tanker handling requirements for Vancouver harbour, were upgraded.

Thank you for taking time to read this narrative which we hope will assist you in gaining an appreciation of the facts surrounding the outstanding record of safe ship navigation on the coast of British Columbia. Project opponents declare a major oil spill to be inevitable, however we beg to differ. The facts support a track record of safety which no other form of transportation has yet been able to match.