We spoke with the President of the British Columbia Coast Pilots to learn more about sharing the waterways of the Salish Sea–a complex area with strong tidal currents, recreational boaters, fishing vessels, marine mammals and commercial traffic navigating in and around one of Canada’s busiest ports.

Captain Nathan Boutilier, a licensed marine pilot with more than 25 years of maritime experience, explained that having a marine pilot on board helps ensure safe navigation of deep-sea vessel through local waters, thereby contributing to the safety of the marine environment and other waterway users. Under Canada’s Pilotage Act, a licensed marine pilot is required by law to have navigational conduct of all deep-sea ships over 350 tonnes transiting in designated pilotage areas, including the marine shipping lanes in the Salish Sea.

This duty, dating back to the first licensed marine pilot in 1858, has become increasingly important in the modern era. Ship Masters of incoming foreign deep-sea vessels may be unfamiliar with the complexities of Canadian waterways. “I ask the Ship Master if they’ve been to the Port of Vancouver or the surrounding area and often they haven’t,” Captain Boutilier recounted when describing a marine pilot’s navigational role in Canadian waters.

Did you know? Deep-sea vessels typically move at speeds between 8 and 10 knots (~14 to 18 km/hr), depending on their transit location. From the shore or water's edge, they may not appear to be moving quickly, but this is an illusion.

Another crucial aspect of maritime safety is the need for all types of vessels, including deep-sea vessels and recreational boats, such as kayaks, sailboats, fishing vessels and canoes, to co-exist safely in shared waterways.

Captain Boutilier reminded us that due to their size and momentum, deep-sea vessels cannot immediately stop or change direction to avoid small boats in their path. “Deep-sea vessels are moving quickly and with a lot of inertia, so it is difficult for them to stop,” he explained. “Turning is the fastest way to slow a vessel, but sometimes you don’t have room, so the challenge becomes stopping a ship in a short period of time.”

To ensure the safety of all marine waterway users, pilots continuously monitor recreational traffic ahead of the deep-sea vessel. Captain Boutilier adds that from the wheelhouse–the ship’s control centre usually situated at the top of the vessel’s accommodation block–the person on watch and additional lookout crew has a broad view of the surroundings. However, he noted there may be blind spots in front of the ship that limit visibility, especially if an object is too close or crosses directly ahead of it.

Because of this, the Pacific Pilotage Authority and Transport Canada recommend that small boat operators wait for deep-sea vessels to pass and then cross behind them for safety. If recreational or fishing boats navigate too closely to a deep-sea vessel, Captain Boutilier advised that pilots use the ship’s whistle to warn of their presence. Additionally, escort tugs and the port escort harbour patrol help notify marine waterway users about approaching deep-sea vessels in the Salish Sea and the Port of Vancouver.

In navigating these dynamic shared waterways, collaboration among marine pilots, escort tugs, escort harbour patrol and recreational boaters is crucial for ensuring a safe and efficient maritime environment for all.

As recreational boating season begins, Captain Boutilier shared four tips to help prioritize safety on the water:

  • Employ AIS Systems: Consider using AIS (Automatic Identification System) technology on your boat to enhance awareness of your location and make sure to keep your navigation lights on.
  • Maintain Safe Speeds: All vessels, including recreational and fishing boats, should operate at safe speeds, especially in constrained areas.
  • Be Aware of Traffic Lanes: Familiarize yourself with the shipping lanes in your area, keep a lookout for transiting deep-sea vessels and avoid crossing in front of an underway ship.
  • Practice Open Communication: Keep monitoring radio channels 12 and 16 for important traffic updates and maintain open communication with other vessels.