Backing his truck out of the Jersey Shore driveway where he lives, the harbor pilot heads to his next assignment. Leaving home and family around dinnertime when the rest of us are coming home from work is not unusual for a harbor pilot. Many of the big ships move in and out of the harbor at night. The Garden State takes him to Edgewater Street in Staten Island where he’ll board the Pilot boat that will take him to his 4:45 am assignment.
He will most likely board the ship on a rope ladder, sometimes called a “Jacob’s Ladder,” that is released from the top deck to the level he can reach. He has to time his jump to the ladder as the Pilot boat gets as close as it can on the lee side of the bigger vessel. The Pilots Association promises coverage 24/7 365 days a year, so really bad weather may make the pilot’s transfer a very high risk trip to work. An interesting transfer is shown on a video. Google www.DisneyFantasyCruiseLine/TakingonHarborPilotin40knotHurricaneSandy.
A Florida harbor pilot, Capt. Ben Borgie, commented about risky transfers that pilots make from Pilot boat to larger ships, “The ship is rolling and the Pilot boat you’re on is not rolling in sync with the ship. It’s a smaller boat. It’s reacting to waves differently. So, as the boat’s going up and down, when you make the jump, you have to time the jump to the ladder when you’re at the top of the swell. Then you’ve got to jump and grab on and then the boat drops out from underneath you. If you don’t time your jump right or if you miss the ladder, you end up in the water being crushed between the side of the ship and the Pilot boat.” This transition between boats has been the cause of injury and loss of life to harbor pilots. In some area helicopters are used to make pilot transfers.
The Sandy Hook Pilots Association provides pilots to all foreign flag vessels and regulated American vessels entering or leaving the Port of New York/New Jersey, the Hudson River, the East River, Atlantic City, Jamaica Bay and Long Island Sound in all weather conditions. They have a boat continuously on station for ships to confirm their arrival and for the pilots to wait to be taken by smaller boat to the ships they will guide into port. One of the four boats used for transporting pilots to their ships will deliver the pilot where he will climb the rope ladder to get to the bridge of the ship under his command.
For more than three centuries the Sandy Hook Pilots have kept the big ships moving safely in and out of New York Harbor. Now that ships have increased in size, harbor pilots work harder to squeeze the enormous container ships and the largest ever passenger cruise ships into the same space their smaller versions used to fit into.
Cruise lines have developed larger and larger ships to take advantage of the interest in Alaskan cruising. The Royal Caribbean Ovation and three other large liners will visit Alaska this year and fortunately, all but one has Azipods. The Azipod is an energy efficient propulsion system that can be rotated to change direction. They do the job of a propeller, a rudder and a stern thruster while saving fuel costs. Cruise ships have at least two Azipods and some have three. The ship can still cruise if one Azipod is not working. When the Azipods work they make the ship more maneuverable. There have been problems when they haven’t worked but like any new technology, things are brought out before all the bugs are worked out.
Maneuverability is a key factor in getting ships into narrow, congested waterways like St. Thomas. With sailboats anchored and very little clearance, harbor pilots are happy to have the help from modern technology – the Azipods, the bow thrusters and their laptops with GPS units that show them where other vessels are and where their channel boundaries are.
As an accommodation to the new, larger ships, bridges have been rebuilt. In the Port of Long Beach the Gerald Desmond Bridge allowed a scant three-foot clearance until it was rebuilt and the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey was rebuilt, adding 60 feet to a height of 215 feet.
Pilot boats are expensive and the Pilot Associations that buy them often go to an established builder. Because of tightened security at US ports, pilots in some areas are now mandated to board large ships further from the harbors. The further offshore the pilots have to go to transfer to the big ships, the faster, larger and safer the boats need to be. Gladding-Hearn has been building C. Raymond Hunt design boats for pilots since 1957, tweaking the design as needed.
The Gladding-Hearn Pilot boat recently delivered to Alaska incorporates heat to meet the cold weather needs in northern climates. The Emerald Island is 75 feet and features a lot of heat – to avoid icing the decks are heated, handrails, roofs, masts and windows – all heated. They incorporated giant floodlights in the mast to light up the water ahead of them.
Nearly all the boats built for pilots associations since 1957 are still in service. They operate year-round and often in difficult conditions. Many have been sold and rebuilt for other, different pilot groups. What the pilots universally like about the Hunt design boats are the deep V hulls that provide a stable, steady boarding platform for transfer to and from the bigger ships.
Harbor pilots have unique jobs. They have to learn about the configuration of the bottom – cables, rocks, pipelines, reefs, currents, tides and navigational hazards of the area where they’ll be working. Apprentices take a final test that requires them to draw from memory the bottom in parts of the harbor. Even more unique is the job of ice pilot. The ice pilot navigates and creates a channel through the ice when the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star makes its annual visit to Antarctica. Ice pilots learn to navigate through pack ice – large pieces of floating ice – and fast ice – the ice that extends out from the shore and is attached to it. The trip is to the National Science Foundation McMurdo Station, where the ice is up to 10 feet thick.
How do harbor pilots decide there’s a future for them in the safe delivery of cruise ships, container ships, oil tankers and other cargo vessels? For some, a childhood experience gets them started – a cruise ship vacation that enables them to see first- hand what harbor pilots do, from the time they climb up the rope ladder or land on the deck from a helicopter transfer to taking over from the captain to bring the big ship through the traffic of the port. For others, a need to work outside prompted them to spend their college years in a maritime school. Nancy Wagner, the first female captain got her degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Some start as ship’s captains. Eric Dobson was a charter yacht captain who also delivered boats to the west coast until he became a harbor pilot.
After they make the decision, go through the training and start working , what do they like about being a harbor pilot? (It’s assumed they all like the average salary of more than $400,000.)
Carolyn Kurtz in Tampa says, “I have job satisfaction.”
Ed Royles in Los Angeles says, “It’s the kind of work most people do as long as they can do it because it really gets into your blood.”
Michael Anthony in Puget Sound says he “Likes the variety of the work.”