Piloting giants through the eye of the needle

From between the heads of Port Phillip Bay, the Prominent Ace, a giant container ship, is a blip on the horizon that could be mistaken for a whitecap. It gradually looms into fuller view in all its 10-storey immensity.

But it will travel no further into the bay until a Port Phillip sea pilot in a speedboat meets it on the open sea – five nautical miles out from the heads – and launches a peaceful takeover.

As they have done for the past 175 years, Port Phillip sea pilots are speeding towards the visiting ship so they can safely steer into Melbourne’s port. The rubber rim of the speedboat chafes aga8nst the metal hull of the container ship with a deep, animalistic growl as the pilots climb one by one up a rope ladder dangling down the ship’s side. Two crew members greet them and guide them through the 200-metre-long ship’s belly – which is loaded with thousands of imported cars- and up to the bridge, where they assume control.

Sea pilots require intimate knowledge of the bay’s shipping channels, its depths, tides, currents and winds.

Steering the ship between the heads is the most precarious task. The channel is just 245 metres wide, leaving a mere 60 metres of wriggle room on either