The Bideford Pilot with Roger Hoad and the Crew of the Two Rivers II
Note the calm and skilful team work as the pilot boat crew head out night and day, winter and summer over the notorious Bideford bar to meet big ships out at sea, put the pilot on board and escort the ships safely up river into Bideford, Appledore or Yelland harbours.
Filmed and edited by Matt Biggs, music by Tom Watkins, directed and produced by Jo Stewart-Smith
Filmed and edited by Matt Biggs, music by Tom Watkins, directed and produced by Jo Stewart-Smith
The Bideford Pilot - the making of video blog.
Matt Biggs, our cameraman on the pilot boat film will cheerfully admit this was the most challenging boat story I asked him to shoot. The drama we were after: Roger Hoad, the pilot, climbing a rope ladder out at sea, while the tiny pilot boat is locked in a dance with the giant cargo ship happens in about 10 to 20 seconds and we would have one chance to get this. Plus the pilot boat has an open deck - so no safety rail running around the edge like most boats. I'd been on the pilot boat a couple of times before we filmed - but only while it was safely moored in Bideford quay! I discussed going out on a recce with Roger, so I could tell Matt exactly what to expect and plan how to film it. But as this was our Bideford story we wanted to follow the journey of one ship - up river and back out again.
And as we discovered, even the pilot crew doesn't know exactly which tide a cargo ship is coming in on - until it sets sail (often from Wales) a few hours beforehand. Plus with boats stories - out at sea - no journey is ever the same - and this was definitely true for the pilot boat. We had a deadline to finish the films and couldn't bear the thought of going out without a camera and missing the chance to capture something dramatic. So we decided to jump on board ready to film, the first chance we were offered and go with what we got... And we got some interesting comments from Matt as the big ship suddenly loomed up out of the darkness and seemed to be racing towards us creating a giant wave... But I'm jumping ahead - first I had to meet the pilot crew, research the story and get permission to film.
The pilot boat is the modern equivalent of the pilot families who used to race out to meet big ships at sea. The gig which reached the ship first put their pilot on board and got paid - the losers got nothing. So while researching our gig racing film, I'd seen the tiny pilot boat out on the water and taken pictures of her escorting big ships in. The funny thing is I assumed she was more modern... I didn't realise that the pilot still has to climb a rope ladder just as John Pavitt the coxwain says in the film "for all the technology that has come along nothing has changed from the pilot’s point of view. He is still hanging on to a rope ladder on the side of the ship under any conditions and it’s the crew of the pilot boat that have to get him safely off and on….
Roger Hoad, Bideford harbour master and pilot, quickly put me right. As he did on a lot of things during our first meeting in the harbour office -like when to call a boat a ship! To avoid making a mistake I dubbed this my 'ship stories' film. I also discovered that the tiny harbour office is very popular, especially on a wet and windy day. All sorts of people walked in including Michael the crane driver and Thom Flaxman (crew). I was clearly the least interesting visitor, either that or Roger had arranged it on purpose to show how busy he was. As the visitors made themselves at home making cups of tea, I learned a lot listening to their conversation and stood my ground to get the odd question in.
The banter was about bikes not ships. Roger has a foldaway bike - a bit like the ones politicians use for the 'green' publicity shot of them cycling into work. He cycles to work along the coast path to check that the narrow channels in the river haven't changed. 'The channels shift all the time' he told me, -'especially after rain. Sometimes when we leave the quay we have clearance of as little as ten centimetres. In high pressure we can lose up to half a metre so we have to be aware of weather conditions too -it would be a bit embarrassing to ground a ship...'
To make sure this never happens, Roger and John also walk several miles along the estuary each week at low tide. I really wanted to get the shot of Roger cycling along the Tarka Trail- but once again for a five minute film with so many 'shipping movements' to fit in - it didn't happen. Watch the clip of Roger talking about finding 'marks' in the estuary to keep the ships on track.
Roger was keeping his powder dry about whether he would allow a film crew on board, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I showed him our latest film, 'Fishing for Clovelly herring with Stephen Perham.' He was clearly impressed and although he didn't let on, at the time, it turns out that Stephen is one of his relief coxwains and great friends with the team. I think what really won Roger over was the chance to show people what the pilot crew actually do. "So much of our work is done at night,' he told me. 'Bideford residents wake up, open their curtains and there's a ship by the quay. In a day or two she's vanished. Even my bosses on the council or the harbour board don't really understand what the job is."
After leaving the office I went on to meet John Pavitt, coxwain and Thom Flaxman, crew. Both were equally unflappable about their work on the pilot boat. Thom's 'day job' is secretary of North Devon yacht club based just across the water at Instow. (His office has surely one of the best views in Devon.) He popped into see Roger one day (seven years ago) to ask if he could go out on the pilot boat and after that one trip got offered a job. Today he is also relief coxwain and there is huge trust between him and Roger as the coxwain holds the pilot's life in his hands. Thom told me, "every pilotage job is different because the conditions are never the same. I never stop learning - there are so many variables." Thom has plenty of stories to tell about piloting in rough weather with a big sea running - see final clip. But on camera, out on the boat all we got from Thom was that his job was to look out for hazards and make sure Roger didn't fall off! All we got from Roger is that 'Thom eats a lot of sweets.' True!
Out take from Thom below which didn't make the final cut.
I'd spoken to John Pavitt the previous August when as skipper he sailed the Kathleen May up river and into Bideford. His links with the Kathleen May go back years. In his younger days he was known on the river as 'action man' because he was always available to jump on a boat - fix something or help someone. And if there is a big 'gig' on the river like the towing of the aircraft parts out to sea - or a ship breaks down, John is still the man to call upon. As Roger says in the film - John spent 34 years on the Appledore lifeboat and remembers the time when there were five pilots on the river! John knows so much about the boats and the river I could have easily asked him or Thom to narrate a boat story but we decided this story of pilotage belongs to the pilot - Roger.
One big question was which ship to follow? I'd left Roger's office armed with lists of all the different shipping movements for the previous year and the tide times for Appledore, Bideford and Yelland. I decided to try and make a film about the ball clay ships - because it is a true Bideford - river Torridge story. But the clay ships only come in two or three times a year... To find out when the next ship was due Roger referred me to the harbour master website - but to book a cameraman I needed a bit more warning! I discovered that Sibelco (who now own the quarries at Pietersmarland) contact a shipping agent when their Spanish customers are ready for more clay. The shipping agents check the tides, choose a suitable window -usually Spring tides - and then it's their job to locate a ship, the right size and capacity, travelling in roughly the right area, which can fit the journey to Bideford into their schedule.
Both Sibelco and the shipping agents, Pike Ward, were extremely helpful and in March, I found myself tracking the first prospective clay ship of the year, the Belgian flagged MV Marley as she inched across the map of Europe. I was already signed up to Marine Traffic - with my own fishing fleet of local boats, so all I had to do was add 'my cargo ships'. It can be a bit like watching paint dry. You can pinpoint a ship in harbour. If you're lucky Marine Traffic will show its destination and ETA. Sometimes you can even find the harbour website and watch stick-like people busy unloading or loading. But you have no idea what's going on in the captain's head..
In March at least half the pilotage takes place at night but we all agreed not to film in darkness. It would look dramatic but we would only have a limited field of view and more importantly our lights could affect the crew's vision. The Marley was delayed, but finally she reached Newport in Wales with about 48 hours left in the window. Then Roger informed me she couldn't unload until she had a dry day! I was willing the captain to sail in by day - surely he'd rather come up an unknown river and see our beautiful estuary and town in daylight? Finally the Marley was booked on the perfect early afternoon tide and Matt and I were ready. I was up early to watch her leave Newport. I rang John as she hadn't moved and he told me she could easily slip across on a single tide and they were still expecting her. As the hours ticked by, I imagined the water draining from the dock. Marley was tucked away in the back of a locked basin, with a narrow channel between her and the sea. It looked like she was sleeping. Turned out this wasn't far from the truth. The captain had given the crew a day off - in Newport rather than Bideford?! I stood Matt down. And on the tide when we should have been filming her - she simply inched towards the lock gates - ready to sail at night and arrive at Bideford bar around 3 o clock in the morning. Damn!
To make sure we had our Bideford story we filmed the ball clay being loaded on the quay. (It used to travel from the quarry at Pietersmarland down the Rolle canal - see my blog on the heritage boats page.) I chatted to lorry drivers like Roxanne from M Way & sons and Michael the crane driver, thinking that like so many of the characters I meet each could narrate their own little film. I learned a lot about ballast and readying a ship and being patient! I went on board to the bridge to speak to the Ukrainian navigator and ask him about the return journey I noticed that he didn't glance out of the window to look where he was going. He got out the charts. I guess it's a bit like sat nav. And the sat nav voice is Roger!
Finally she was ready and Matt and I filmed the Marley heading out from Bideford - first from the old bridge and then jumping in the car we raced up to the lifeboat station and then to the recycle point, running with the kit as fast as we could across the sand to the shore line to get the shot of the pilot boat escorting her out to the bar.
I now understood why John and Thom appear so casual about when they are called to work. There is no point watching paint dry. Better to wait for the text that simply tells them when to report at the harbour office. Sibelco informed me that there wouldn't be another clay ship for Bideford before the end of June at the earliest. With four more films to make that Summer I decided to switch and follow a logging ship heading to Yelland - another fascinating Devon story.
The next day I drove Matt to Yelland Quay, on the river Taw, to film spruce logs being loaded. Managed by Euroforest they come from woods all over Devon such as those owned by Clinton Devon estates. Tucked away off the Tarka Trail and out of sight there is plenty of space at Yelland for lorries to unload and turn without worrying about traffic or noise pollution. Unused for 25 years the quay opened up about three years ago and it was Roger who surveyed the channels working with Trinity House and a depth sounder checking that it was still feasible to bring big ships in. It's busier than Bideford now with sand and gravel deliveries for local building yards. Roger is passionate that transporting logs to Germany by ship, is cheaper, more efficient and environmentally friendly saving perhaps 50 to 60 lorry journeys across Europe.
And so at high water on a glorious April evening we found ourselves on open deck of the pilot boat - heading down the estuary to meet the Roseburg. We passed Appledore shipyard and the James Joyce, which the shipyard workers built for the Irish Navy. Thom hoisted the flag and pointed out the wildlife and the landmarks, like the yacht club where he works and the buoys they use for navigation. Matt and I went round the boat trying out different angles, working out where we could safely stand and film Roger climbing up onto the ship. (Pilot boats have no safety rail to avoid the pilot getting crushed to death between the vessels.) Meanwhile, catching up on gossip, the crew could have been three friends on a trip out to a sports fixture.
Further out to sea, we waved at the crews of the Appledore all weather and inshore lifeboats out on exercise. Then suddenly the Roseburg was in sight and it all happened very quickly with John turning the pilot boat so we were starboard to port. Matt and I suddenly felt very vulnerable and tiny out on the open deck.. There was a heavy bump as tiny boat and giant ship met and joined together. Roger climbed on board nimbly and quickly, turned and waved back at us before climbing up the bridge. If he needs to remind me to call a ship a ship then I need to remind him not to look at the camera!
The return journey, escorting the fully laden Roseburg back out to sea was even more dramatic. John told me this was the more stressful part of the job for him - because if he didn't get Roger off -he'd end up staying on board until Spain, Norway - the States - whatever was the next port of call. Checking the load and the Russian crew's preparation for departure seemed to take forever. The light was fading fast and it looked once again as though we might miss the story. We jumped on board the pilot boat anyway and as we headed upriver Matt tested three different cameras - Gopro, DSLR and video and we went with the video camera which was at least registering the last of the sunset. Daylight always seems to last longer when you're out in it but it was 'night' by the time Roger was ready to come off the Roseburg. This time John didn't turn and so we had the sensation of a giant ship looming out of the darkness on a direct collision course. As the ship got closer, she created a foaming, white wave which built in height as the gap between the vessels narrowed. I was clinging on to Matt at the back of the boat on the open deck, trying to steady him as he had two hands on the camera. I felt him tense as we both had the same thought - that wave will wash over us! 'Are you hanging on to me Jo?' he cried through gritted teeth. 'I'll be mighty pissed off if we lose this footage now.' Boat and ship coupled together and somehow we stayed dry. This time the two vessels seemed to stay locked in their dance for several minutes as I craned up to the deck looking for signs of Roger. Finally he appeared and climbed down swiftly. We expected him to come round towards us - but he took one look at us and went round the back - and we caught him and Thom coming in from the port side. 'In the nick of time.' Matt declared 'One minute later it would have been too dark to register.' We waved the Russians off into the night as they headed for Wismar in the Baltic sea, via the Kiel canal.
So we got our story! And Matt and I and the film stayed dry. We had a few more glorious days out on the estuary filming in that magical evening light as the pilot boat escorted various ships in or out. One big boys adventure was manoeuvring the giant barge, shaped like an enormous, flat, billiards table, which came to pick up the aircraft carrier parts, built by Appledore shipyard. This required serious teamwork, coordinating eight boats including the powerful giant tug the Strathdon which towed the barge, two smaller tugs -one pulling, one pushing, the shipyard's Lundy Puffin and the lifeboat crew on standby. John Pavitt, 'action man' was in charge of operations, and busy racing around in his RIB, checking that everything was going OK. So Thom Flaxman was pilot boat coxwain. On her way in, the plan was to turn the mammoth vessel, outside the shipyard on the slack tide. We followed them across the bar - and they arrived at the shipyard about an hour later than planned. Slowly she turned, perfectly lined up, but by now they were fighting an ebbing tide and the Strathdon, unable to moor in dry dock had to race back out to sea - so they left the barge moored in the shipyard gutway until the next tide. The journey in and back out with the barge parts took several hours - and made about ten seconds of the film!
If your interest has been piqued by our film I recommend joining the email list and receiving a notification when Roger updates the harbour website. He has an amazing, encyclopaedic knowledge of shipping and always adds a few brief, wry, notes on the weather, captain, crew, cargo and type of ship. Sometimes you have to read between the lines -such as this one from the 6th November. 'MV TELAMON loaded with over 3,000 tonnes Petersmarland ball clay has broken down just a day away from CASTELLON in Spain and is currently drifting while repairs are carried out. So far she has been Not Under Command for nearly 24 hours.' Presumably not under command means that the ship's captain has no control - unless the crew were all taken off the ship?
On dark, wild, winter nights, you can be entertained from your armchair, imagining the pilot boat out in all weathers. As Roger told us, 'ships don't stop for Christmas.' On 27th December Roger reported 'the master (of the Celtic Endeavour) and crew departing on Christmas morning, and having an especially rough passage in the southern Irish Sea with the south westerly gales..... were very glad to be in after their rough passage ... and the Mate had been up all night. Some will make the trip to Barnstaple for shopping, one needing a new European sim card so he may ring his daughter.'
Cycling with my family along the Tarka Trail on that one glorious, sunny day between Christmas and New year, I hoped we'd spot the Celtic Endeavour but she was holed up due to an electric fault which John Pavitt was helping to fix! We saw the pile of stone on Yelland Quay and through the Christmas decorations at East the Water, I caught a glimpse of the pilot boat on Bideford Quay, waiting patiently. That day was the calm before storm Frank! and the pilot crew had to escort the ship back out through winds of 30 knots racing up the estuary. Over to the understated Roger: 'The Master was concerned at the conditions...and the disembarkation as he thought that he would be blown out of the channel ....where the rolling and pitching of the ship made the long ladder too dangerous for the pilot, and pilot boat. In the event all went well.....Pilot boat crew John Pavitt and Thom Flaxman did a good job unmooring, and taking pilot R.Hoad off the ship in quite testing conditions." Note Roger's praise of his crew and for testing conditions read - the kind of seas that most sailors would stay away from. Watching the three at work together, I think they can be so matter of fact and relaxed about the dangerous job they do because they know each other so well and trust each other's experience and teamwork.
This teamwork carried over into our Bideford screenings when Roger invited Michael the crane driver and Paul Gyurgyak, the relief pilot who he is training to take over the role, to join the crew up on stage. Peter Christie, well known Bideford historian and as town councillor, Roger's boss joked 'now I know what you get up to.' I hope if this film does anything it raises awareness that Appledore, Yelland and Bideford are still active trading ports and that the pilot boat is on call all year round. I used to think it was all about getting a ship across the notorious Bideford bar. Now I know that getting the pilot on and off the big ships, turning a ship in a narrow river channel against a flood tide or persuading a new master to trust you when there is only a few centimetres of water below his keel - or a gale roaring up the estuary, are all equally challenging tasks! As I write, a freezing, north westerly is blowing into the night, once again howling at nearly 30 knots. And I read from Roger that they will be out in the dark and the cold, bringing a ship safely in while we sleep in our beds. 'Rough Waters' below was shot by Thom's son, Jake Flaxman, during a slightly tougher journey than we had. Thanks Jake for permission to show the video.
It was a huge privilege to learn from and witness the teamwork of Roger Hoad, John Pavitt and Thom Flaxman, a big thank you to them all for welcoming Matt and me onboard Two Rivers 11. Thank you also to Thom for helping compere our Bideford premier and asking questions of all the fishermen and women.
Many thanks to Tom Watkins of Yard 1 for producing the dramatic music to match the soundscape. And finally another big thank you to the lovely and talented Matt Biggs from Artaura Productions for working with me again, for keeping his cool while big ships loomed out of the darkness towards us and for the fun we had editing together and getting this film down to five minutes without over crowding it. Jo Stewart-Smith Jan 2016
Roger's updates: http://www.torridge.gov.uk/harbour_latest