Awaiting the Tower: the pilots’ “dream” of a green light / GALLERY

Genoa - The Largest port in Italy has no instruments to measure wind or currents.

Genoa - The Largest port in Italy has no instruments to measure wind or currents. It does not have sufficient lighting - except where the owners of the docks have provided their own - and at the most important entrance to the port, just beyond where the new Pilot’s Tower designed by Renzo Piano will stand, there isn’t even a green navigation light. Even the smallest port in Italy has a green navigation light on one side of its entrance, and a red one on the other side, to guide large ships, fishing boats, and other craft in the dark of night. Genoa does not have one. The green light must be set up at the corner of the new wharf where the Boat Show will be held in October. It is nearly deserted for the rest of the year. It hasn’t been built. It needs a special base if it is to be built on the embankment, for which there are several designs. But nothing has been done about it. Currently, at the mouth of the port there is only a red light, which until recently was so faint that some foreign captains who didn’t know the place confused it for one of the traffic lights on Genoa’s Corso Italia.

Bigger ships in the same port

While manoeuvring in reverse to back into the space between the Sampierdarena docks, the prow of a large container carrier nearly scrapes the seawall. From the bridge one sees only the open sea behind it. The hull passes only a few feet from the edge of the breakwater. It looks like a bus on one of those hilly routes, which swings around every curve mere centimetres from parked cars, trees, signs and pedestrians. The port is just like the city: streets and garages too small for SUVs, docks and quays too narrow for the latest generation of ships. And, as in the city, improvement projects proceed slowly, so slowly that they almost seem motionless. That goes not only for strategic projects that will be necessary in the future, but also for those that are essential for the present, like the Pilot’s Tower that was knocked down on the night of 7 May 2013 by the “Jolly Nero” causing nine deaths. The rebuilding of the tower is a year and a half behind schedule. Small, useful and low-cost items are also lacking. Want to know about the wind conditions? You have to ask at the Matitone [San Benigno North Tower] skyscraper. Genoa is a windy port. The Sampierdarena basin was built in the shape of a comb, with the wharves running parallel to the direction of the north wind. If fluffy foam forms on the sea, the wind is already moving faster than 20-25 knots. The pilots, who are waiting for the new tower to be built, have set up shop on the Ponte Colombo Wharf, near the mooring crews. It is a nice spot, but visibility is zero. To see how the wind is blowing, one looks at the flag bearing the cross of Saint George on the roof of the Matitone skyscraper, on the other side of the elevated highway. But the port is 25 kilometres long, and the wind changes thanks to the hills and valleys behind it. Anemometers would be helpful. The “Wind and Ports” plan to install them was launched in 2009, and three years later they were placed all along the seawall. They have never entered into service, unlike the ones at Savona, La Spezia and Livorno, the other ports that were involved in the plan.

The perils of the currents

“The climate is becoming tropical,” John Gatti, the captain of pilots in the port of Genoa, commented, “When I started working here, the wind was almost always blowing from the North on windy days. Now the wind comes from the Southeast for half the year.” The Sirocco [i.e. Mediterranean Southeast wind], which blows straight into the mouth of the port, blowing across its single red light, creates a long and invisible stream of current all the way to the ILVA docks, which is still called “Italsider” around here, or at the very most “ex-Italsider”. The current pushes ships and makes their manoeuvres more difficult. The same at the Polcevera docks, particularly on days when the rain fills them with water. “We could also use current meters... which are simply sensors submerged in the water. Ten years ago they might have cost something, but now, like all technology, they are much less expensive, and all our competitor ports have them in place.”

“Safety is competitiveness.”

For Gatti the point is this: “It is right that we think of major projects, of strategies. But competition with the major ports starts with little things: anemometers and current meters are certainly not the sole prerogative of Rotterdam. Safety equipment not only prevents accidents, but brings economic benefits. If I had instruments to analyse the currents, the exact force of the wind... and also regular dredging, good lighting at night, up-to-date maps of the seabed, I could make the port safer, and therefore more efficient and functional, especially now that ships are becoming larger and larger, and the port, consequently, smaller.”

The Pilot’s Tower

“The Pilot’s Tower is the opposite,” Gatti concluded, “Someone might start to say: “You’ve done without it for three years and you are doing the same thing.” But no major port in the world lacks a tower: not only because ships are much larger, because one needs to observe the manoeuvres. I repeat: it is a matter of competitiveness. Ferries, which shuttle back and forth every day, could be guided from the tower via the VHF radio, we were able to see them. Nowadays we have to send a pilot on every single one, on the way out and the way in. These are costs that the shipowners ultimately have to pay.”

Private companies are running for shelter

The fact that safety and competitiveness go together is perfectly clear to the terminal operators, the owners of Genoa’s individual docks. Spinelli is planning to cut back part of its wharf to allow the ships to enter more easily. The PSA Terminal at Voltri Pra’ has changed its bollards and fenders to upgrade them for the latest generation of ships. It has installed lights on the seawall, as was also done at Sech, Genoa’s container terminal. There is really no choice: it seems that electrical cables were never installed for lights on the entire seawall from east to west.

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