I was fortunate enough to meet David Barnicoat, one of Falmouth's harbour pilots, for what turned out to be a heartwarming meeting. It's wonderful to find someone who really loves what they do. In March Cornwall Today.
David Barnicoat has a refreshing attitude to his career. “I don't honestly think I've done a day's work since I left school!” he says. “It's been one fantastic hobby.” He shares this “hobby” on BBC Radio Cornwall's breakfast show on Wednesday mornings, and in his weekly column in the Falmouth Packet.
David is the only ex-Trinity House pilot still working in Falmouth. The safety of shipping, and the well being of seafarers, have been the prime concerns since Trinity House was granted a Charter by Henry VIII in 1514. In 1809 Falmouth became a Trinity House Outport, a status which it held until the de-regulation of Pilotage in 1988 when Falmouth Harbour Commissioners took over its administration.
“I'm possibly the only former Trinity House pilot working in Cornwall,” David says. “There aren't many of us left in the UK, but we remain fiercely proud of our deep-seated historic ties with Trinity House and always will.”
David was born and brought up in Falmouth. “I grew up on the harbourside and from the age of 5 I wanted to be a pilot because of my father,” he says. “He was a Tug Master and then became Assistant Dock Master, so when I was 7 or 8 I would go out with him. He taught me a lot.”
David's training involved 15 years at sea. “In order to become a Falmouth pilot you need to hold a Master Mariners Foreign Going Certificate of Competency. This involved a lot of study, gaining vital sea time and watch keeping experience. When I became a trainee pilot I had to work three months without pay learning the ropes,” he explains. “I did 4 years cadetship with the Blue Star Line of London and served with them till I came ashore, working in refrigerated cargo vessels, heavy-lift ships and container vessels.
David decided to become a pilot rather than stay at sea for several reasons. “I'd always wanted to be a pilot in my home port. Also, in the late 1970s you could see the demise of British shipping with a large number of foreign seamen being employed and I didn't want to sail with a non-British crew for the rest of my life.”
How does he manage now as a pilot, communicating with foreign crews on ships? He grins. “Most crews speak fairly good English but you can usually get through with a bit of Anglo-Saxon Merchant Navy language! I know the helm and engine orders in Russian, but we speak English all of the time.”
He is one of six pilots in Falmouth who are all self employed. “We go on 12 hour watches – from 8am-8pm or 8pm-8am but we have long rest periods which are strictly adhered to for Health & Safety reasons,” he explains. “Falmouth Harbour Office is the operational control centre for pilotage, but when a ship radios in for a pilot we can be called at home: as long as we are within one hour of the port.”
The job involves piloting ships into the bay, the harbour, into the docks, up the River Fal to Truro and to the stone quarry at Porthoustock on the Lizard Peninsula, but the work has changed over the years.
“When I first became a pilot we used to take ships to Penryn, little tankers to Coastlines Wharf, and to Dean Quarry on the Lizard,” he says. “But now there's nothing going to Penryn, Coastlines, or Dean Quarry, and the River Fal lay-up berths aren't as active as they used to be in the 1980s although there are 9 ships laid-up there now due to the recession.”
A few ships are still piloted to Truro every month, but Falmouth docks have changed. “They are geared more towards Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Ministry of Defence contracts, but they work on other vessels and we have the 24 hour bunkering operation now.”
The weather plays a vital part in a pilot's work, but David says it has to be “very bad” before they are prevented from bringing a ship into port. “It depends on the type and size of ship and where it's going: it's nothing you can quantify. A risk assessment is undertaken for each ship, which involves detailed paperwork.
“Everything now is regulated. Safety and the Environment are the two main words imprinted on a pilot's brain,” he says with a grimace. “I hate paperwork – and 'jobsworth' people with no experience who make stupid decisions.”
David has piloted many well known ships including the Royal Yacht Britannia on two occasions, but he loves a challenge. “I like the difficult jobs like the 100,000 tonners brought in and put on Duchy Wharf. It gets the adrenaline going and afterwards you have a great satisfaction.”
Shipping casualties can be exciting, such as the Egyptian factory ship Baltim, that went aground at the entrance to Helford, back in the 1980s. “It was quite rough with a heavy easterly swell and as the pilot boat came in, I leapt onto the pilot ladder to get aboard. Baltim was banging on the rocks but after about 45 minutes there was a big swell and I managed to get her off,” David says cheerfully.
Doesn't he get nervous? “When things start to go wrong you do get concerned but the worst thing you can do is panic,” David explains. “You have to look at the situation logically, make a decision, and stick by it. If you panic, everything compounds very quickly.”
The Falmouth pilots are responsible for piloting all the cruise ships in and out of the harbour. “We will have 30 this year which means about 30,000 passengers arriving in Falmouth; many go to tourist destinations around Cornwall, which is very good for the economy.” Then there is the much publicised proposed dredging of Falmouth Harbour. “The pilots are kept well briefed by the Falmouth Harbour Commissioners. We're hoping for some good news; this would be a massive boost for Falmouth and West Cornwall.”
It isn't just a love of the sea that inspires David: he has concerns for the welfare of seafarers, too. He likes to visit ships in port at Christmas with Mission to Seafarers volunteers to deliver presents to the crews. “The Mission do a marvelous job, throughout the year” he says quietly.
Thinking ahead, what has David planned for the future? “I don't want to retire (at 65) but the day is coming, so I'm trying to channel my interests elsewhere. I'm like one of my mentors, the late Peter Gilson - I'd like to continue researching local and maritime history,” he says firmly, “and leave my huge photographic collection for generations to follow.”
David is also a talented photographer, though he is too modest to admit this. He has also written a book about the shipping of the Port of Falmouth and the Pilotage service and “I'm going to write another one but I'm not sure of the subject yet!” He smiles thoughtfully. “I'd like to travel too – back to my old haunts down in Australia and New Zealand.”
David's enthusiasm shines through, and it is a joy to meet someone who loves their work as he does. “I have more passion for the job now than when I started over 30 years ago,” he says quietly. “I just love the sea and ships. It's been a great honour and immense privilege to have served as a pilot in the Port of Falmouth, a port I love with all of heart. It's my life, really.”