Navigating life on floating foreign territory

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Yao Zeyan, 45, has never been abroad, but he steps on to a different foreign territory almost every day. He is a navigator at Nantong Port, the first place foreign ships dock after sailing from the sea up into the Yangtze River.

"Each foreign ship represents a floating territory of its own country. We are the first Chinese to greet them and the last to see them off," Yao said.

Working 10 hours a day and 340 days a year, Yao has piloted more than 6,000 ships from 60 plus nations during the past 24 years, without a single accident. The distance he has traveled in that time is about 600,000 kilometers, equivalent to sailing around the Earth 15 times.


In his colleagues' eyes, Yao is a born pilot, but only he himself knows how much he has done to earn the accolade.

Born in a small village on the northern bank of the Yangtze River in east China's Jiangsu Province, Yao knew nothing about navigation when he graduated from high school. But he liked being on the water and passed requirements of eyesight and height necessary to be a pilot, so he chose navigation major when applying for college.

But only academic study cannot make a great navigator.

Yao will never forget his first navigation experience in 1985. Then 22, he had just graduated from the Wuhan water transportation college (now merged into the Wuhan University of Technology) and landed a job at Nantong Port.

The time was just six years after China had implemented the reform and opening-up policy and two years after the Yangtze River had witnessed the arrival of its first foreign cargo ship from Panama. Nantong, one of China's earliest 14 port cities, was in its third year of opening up to foreign investment.

The first foreign ship Yao boarded was from Greece. "I felt excited and nervous at the same time," he said. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not get a clear picture from the radar, since the system was different from what he learnt at college. The Greek captain lost his patience and told him to give way to his own crewman.

Yao was very embarrassed. From then on, he became determined to learn as much about technology as possible and improve his navigation skills. He has recorded all his navigation experiences, with ships ranging from 500-tonne freighters to 300,000-tonne oil tankers. His notebooks, if piled up, reach more than a meter high.

He has collected thousands of pieces of data about navigation gadgets and etched in his mind every detail of the 300-kilometer water route from Shanghai' s Wusongkou Port at Yangtze River's estuary to Nanjing City, capital city of Jiangsu.

He has now the best radar skills among China' s 1400 navigators. From deep study of radar and GPS devices, he has found a simple solution to correct the delay in navigation marking on the electronic chart, which has long been a headache to many ship pilots.


His study efforts and diversified practical experience have helped him ward off many hazards and maintain an accident-free record, a miracle for many of his peers.

The Jiangsu section of Yangtze River, where Yao navigates ships, is known for its traffic density and complex water environment, with daily flow reaching 2,600 ships on average and up to 5,000 ships at peak time. Small fishing boats appear abruptly and make it risky to navigate

"In our career, we don't expect great things to happen. Safety is all we pursue," Yao said.

When navigating a ship in the port, he focuses all his attention on every step of the navigation process. When navigating a ship out of the port, he always boards the ship a quarter hour ahead of schedule to check the anchor, tides and surrounding environment.

His most thrilling experience happened in 1999, as he was piloting a liquefied gas carrier from the port. Sparks from welding by dockworkers floated out over the river and fired water covered with a layer of waste floating oil. Flames soon enclosed the carrier and a few cables were immediately burnt out. If the liquefied gas on the ship was ignited, it would end in a huge tragedy.

Realizing the extreme danger, Yao told himself to keep calm. "Sailors, let go all the cables and put out the fire," he ordered, while steering the ship out the fire circle.

His composure prevented the whole crew from panicking, and his sophisticated knowledge of the surrounding waters enabled him to divert the ship to safe waters promptly, saving lives and financial losses.

"It reminded me of the capsizing of the Titanic. I thought of nothing else but simply wanted to share my life and death with the ship," he said.


As one of the first navigators in China, Yao has witnessed foreign captains' changing attitudes toward his profession.

"At first, they doubted our skills. Now, they are generous with their compliments," he said.

Once, he piloted a Korean ship from Shanghai to Jiangyin Port, 150 kilometers away. He greeted the captain and crewmen in Korean, overcoming distance between the two sides immediately. After working together with the captain for four hours, he won the most unforgettable praise when he finished the navigation, because of his exemplary skills and responsible working attitude.

"You are the number one pilot in China," the Korean captain said to him. Yao has also learnt English, Japanese and Russian to better communicate with crewmen from different countries.

"When you go into a navigation cab, you enter an international community, where you are not only an individual, but also a representative of the nation," he said.

Yao always has a comb and a mirror with him. After boarding a foreign ship, he will comb his hair after taking off his hat. "It shows my courtesy and respect for our foreign friends," he said.

He teaches apprentice pilots to take off their gloves before entering navigation cabs or living areas on foreign ships so as not to taint the rail and doorknobs. He also reminds them to avoid clinking noises when using knives and forks while eating and remembering to say "thank you" after the crewmen take their commands.

"What we bring to them is not only safe sailing, but also a good image of the export-oriented economy in the Yangtze River Delta," he said. But he has to be tough sometimes. In November last year, he boarded a cargo ship from Italy and found the Chinese national flag on the mast was tattered. At his insistence, the captain finally replaced it with a brand new flag.

"It's about the nation's image. We shall not neglect it," he said.


During his navigation work in the past 24 years, Yao has witnessed the port grow busier and busier.

In the first few years, he seldom saw containers, but now the port is filled with containers of various goods. The ships have become larger and more ports have been built along the Yangtze River as well.

"The change is huge. Take iron ore imports as an example," he said, "China transported iron ore from south China's Hainan Province in 160-meter-long and 18,000-tonne freighters in the mid 1980s. Now, iron ore is shipped from Brazil, Australia and India, in freighters 130 meters longer and 10 times larger capacity," Yao said.

Meanwhile, China's total foreign trade volume has grown from 20.6 billion U.S. dollars in 1978 to 2.5 trillion U.S. dollars in 2008, according to official statistics.

Thriving trade has pushed Yao to keep honing his skills on larger ships. In 2002, he piloted a 300,000-ton VLCC (very large crude carrier) out of the shipyard of Nantong Cosco Khi Ship Engineering Co. Ltd. In 2003, he towed a 100-meter-high offshore oilrig to a shipyard for repair.

In many people' s minds, navigation is a boring job, but Yao does not think so.

"Every day, I go on different ships, meet different people and receive their gratitude because of my service. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment to avert various hazards," he said.

Devoting most of the time and energy to work, Yao seldom has weekends and holidays off. During his very rare free time, he likes to take a walk in a park or read books, particularly biographies of historic heroes.

"I admire Sun Yat-sen's selfless dedication to the revolutionary cause a lot," he said, adding that dedication is also the most important quality a good pilot needs, in addition to talent, technical skills and sociability.

Yao has been crowned a national model worker, one of the country's top 10 pilots and received many other honors for his excellent work performance.

"But I wish I could have less credit and therefore less pressure. But as long as I bring safety to the ships, I feel relieved," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency September 23, 2009)

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