†Kongo Star, Kongo Star, this is Traffic Center Steenbank. About† The radio call comes from the Dutch pilot vessel Polaris and is addressed to a chemical tanker coming from the north off the coast of Zeeland, under a blue sky and over a green sea with foam caps, destination Antwerp.
‘Traffic centre’ Steenbank is a diamond-shaped symbol on the nautical chart, 25 kilometers northwest of the tip of Walcheren. There, seen from land behind the horizon, is the ‘crossing post’ of the pilot vessel that provides a 24/7 pilotage to incoming seagoing vessels. With his knowledge of tides, currents, shallows and buoys, the pilot accompanies such a ship to Vlissingen or even further up the Western Scheldt, to Antwerp with its refineries and container transshipments.
‘Kruispost’ is a sailing word. The pilot cutters that once ‘crossed’ here under sail are now two modern ships. The Polaris and the Procyon, named after stars according to the old custom of the Pilotage, alternate weekly. They are eighty meters long, with diesel-electric propulsion, a bridge with panoramic windows and air conditioning, modern electronics for navigation and communication and a sports hall. But the practice of pilotage is not fundamentally different from the past. From the Procyon we follow the last pilotage of that week through the Polaris.
“Congo Star, what is the height of your freeboard? About.”
The ‘freeboard’ is the distance from the waterline to the deck. Then the pilot knows how high the rope ladder is that he will have to climb aboard ‘his’ ship. “My freeboard is five meters,” replies the Congo Star. On other ships it is ten meters or more.
Seven Beaufort from the southwest, sometimes even eight. Now you have to hold on to the bridge. On deck you have to shout to make yourself understood. There are waves of over two meters; two and a half is the maximum height at which a pilot can still be sailed over with the dinghy. The ‘gag’ – another word that has survived an older era – is now an orange motorboat hanging from a crane against the side of the mothership. Two men in survival suits – gold ring in their ear; ex-fishermen, who can read and write with the sea – run it. The pilot steps on board and sits down under the canopy in the bow. Then a whistle sounds, a lyre screeches. The dinghy falls into the waves, spins away whirling, slaloms towards the Kongo Star, which is now sailing in parallel with the pilot boat, and dances against the blue hull.
The pilot – life jacket, backpack with laptop – grabs the ladder, climbs it five meters, walks to the bridge, greets the captain and takes over the navigation. If all goes well, he will be in Antwerp before midnight. Taxi home, the next day back to the sea.