Challenges of the Navigation on the St. Lawrence: a Maritime Pilot Perspective

Our St. Lawrence River is one of the most challenging rivers to navigate in the world. Several peculiarities explain its unique character. In order to elucidate and understand the challenges associated with navigation, we met with Captain Alain Arseneault, an experienced pilot of the Corporation des pilotes du Saint Laurent Central and the President of the National Center of Expertise in Maritime pilotage. He shares with us his experience at sea, from the preparation of missions to their execution and finally, his opinion on what will be the future of navigation.

Navigable year round, rain or shine, also in icy conditions in the winter, this 1197 km stream originates from the Great Lakes. It has a flow of nearly 10, 100 cubic meters caused by its numerous tributaries. It has the distinction of being shallow and narrow within the continent.

“ The navigation channel can only be 200 to 300 wide” emphasizes Alain. “ For example, in my piloting area between Trois-Rivières and Montréal, the navigation channel is largely mechanically dredged to maintain a good depth. In summary, he continues, the St. Lawrence is rather a special river because of the ice, the weather which can be very changeable, high tides and currents.”

Maritime Pilotage: ensuring the safety of ships, the environment and populations

Pilotage* exists throughout the world particularly in confined waters and around large ports. In Canada, it is a public service whose priority is to ensure safety of the ships, their crew and the environment.

“Unlike an airplane pilot who knows his aircraft very well, but who has no knowledge of the environment in which it operates,” compares Alain, the maritime pilot is an expert of a given section of the St. Lawrence River.”

At the end of his training, the pilot must have a thorough knowledge of his section and be able to navigate it, regardless of the conditions and the type of vessel. He must know the bathymetry of the channel in case the vessel has a mechanical problem and should run aground. It must be able to do so while minimizing the impact on the ship, people and the environment. Although the pilot has an in-depth knowledge of the environment in which he operates, the maritime conditions are constantly changing, hence the need to have access to accurate and up-to-date data.

A bit of History: the Cartographer Ancestor of the Maritime Pilot

Pilotage has always existed since the beginning of the colonization. When the first European explorers arrived in America, they sailed their vessels as far as they could safely by plumbing probes* to gauge depth. Subsequently, the cartographer set out in a rowboat with his crew to draw a map and assess the seabed. Once the location was mapped, the ship would move forward two or three miles and the cartographer would do the exercise again. Thus, the cartographer is somewhat the ancestor of today’s maritime pilots.

On the importance of Data to Navigation

Data plays an essential role, as it supports pilots to make the best decisions for the safety of the mission. 

“ You should know the pilotage is still done visually.” Alain recalls. “ Of course, we have navigation aids such as radars and electronic maps in real time. However, Alain continues, a piloting mission that can last between 6 to 8 hours, the pilot focuses exclusively on the positioning of the vessel. As a result, the pilot does not have time to search through multiple data sources to find the information. It might distract his attention and could become more dangerous. Given the specific nature of the St. Lawrence River, it only takes a brief moment of inattention to get out of the channel.”

“ This is why SLGO’s Marine Conditions application is used a lot by pilots. The data is collected in one place and formatted according to our needs.”

However, it is important to note that the data available on SLGO’s Marine Conditions is complementary to the navigations tools on which final decisions are made.

The data on SLGO’s platform are as much used in the planning of a piloting mission as during navigation. For example, water levels are used to determine the speed of a vessel from one sector to another. Wind forces can determine whether at the Ports of Montreal one or two tugs are needed to dock the ship.

“ To get a broad idea of my trip”, says Alain, “ I consult my Marine Conditions dashboard that I have personalized for my sector in order to have at a glance, important real time data for my mission. In addition, I regularly consult the dynamic vertical clearance in order to calculate the space available under the bridges.”

The Future of Navigation

We are currently in an international movement, where there is a desire to digitize all data in order to support autonomous and eco-responsible navigation, one that uses less fuel with artificial intelligence systems.

According to Alain, navigation will use increasingly voluminous real-time data. However, the current LTE technology* limits this data sharing. Autonomous commercial navigation will only be possible when communications between land and ships are unrestricted and 100% reliable. “ At the moment it is not the case”, says Alain, “For instance, when I am driving on highway 20 and 40 between Montreal and Québec, I am unable to maintain a phone call connection for more than 20  – 25 minutes. Consequently, we cannot navigate autonomous vessels under such conditions since there must be no fault in communication. In restricted waters, the margin of error is small, therefore, the data must be reliable and without restriction.  

The future, he said, would be to on-board navigation systems*which could allow crew to make better decisions to ensure safe and efficient transit. The more accurate and verified data there is, the smaller is the margin of error. “We can see it, for example with dynamic vertical clearance,” says Alain. Before, I checked the draught, there was squat*, the height of the bridges were mapped, but the data has been the same for several years, knowing that steel deforms with time and heat.”

Certainly, the future in navigation is to data and SLGO will continue to take data to the next level by  collaborating with data providers, on the one hand, and users, such as pilots, on the other hand. Thus, SLGO ensures that it provides maritime pilots with quality data through its decision support tools such as Marine Conditions.

Navigation Lexicon

LTE technology: The acronym stands for Long-Term Evolution. This is a standard in wireless telecommunications. This technology allows the use of mobile broadband.

On-board navigation system: Autonomous electronic and computer system specialized in a task, often in real-time

Pilotage: assistance given by a maritime pilot to a captain in order to navigate difficult passages in confined waters, channels, ports or seaways, such as the St. Lawrence RIver in order to ensure the safety of the trip.

Plumbing probes:  to sink a plumb bob (french only), weighing about 1kg, connected to a graduated rope, in order to measure the depth under the ship and map the seabed.

Squat: Physical phenomenon that appears when a vessel is in motion with shallow water depth below the keel, therefore the draft is greater compared to the available depth.

Ève Morin Desrosiers
Coordinator – Communications and partnerships