Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Marine Pilots

Linda Styrk


April 1, 2018

Puget Sound Pilot, Captain Peter Giese, jumps from a ship to a waiting tug. Photo courtesy of the Puget Sound Pilots.

What does a pilot do?

One might think responding to "What do you do?" for a role that's been around since biblical times would be met with quick recognition and understanding. That may have been true 150 years ago when Washington's legislature decided to provide a regular pilotage service and passed the first Pilotage Act in 1868. However, in today's world of frequent fliers, a conversation regarding this ancient esteemed role might go something like this.

What do you do?

I'm a marine pilot.

I always wanted to fly planes. My brother-in-law flies for...

Actually, I'm a marine pilot.

Oh, you fly sea planes – cool! I took a flightseeing tour on one last year...

I don't navigate planes, I navigate ships.

Oh, you're a captain! We met the captain on our last cruise...

Must be cool to travel the world!

Did you ever come across pirates near the coast of Africa?

I'm not the captain of a ship, I'm the pilot.

Huh? (about now, they finally start listening!)

What do you do?

I navigate all types of ships when they enter state inland waters.

But you're NOT the captain of the ship?

Correct. Pilots are independent of the ship and captain.

Pilots take control when the ship is in state inland waters.

Oh. I thought the captain always had control of the ship.

I'm confused - what do YOU do?

I board and takeover control of the ship when it's in state waters that require a marine pilot.

Why doesn't the captain do it?

Although captains have expert knowledge of their ships, they don't have expert knowledge of the many inland waters they navigate. That's where state licensed marine pilots are the experts.

So, what exactly do you do?

When the ships enter state waters, I board the ship, navigate them in the waterways, anchor them in the bays and berth them in the harbors. Then do it in reverse when ships leave.

Oh, I see. What attracted you to become a pilot?

After years at sea working my way up the ladder and sailing as captain, I wanted more variety and challenge in my work and more time with my family. So, I decided to become a state pilot.

How do you get more variety, challenge and time with family as a pilot?

Well, first and foremost, my pilotage expertise is geographically anchored to a state designated pilotage area. For example, Puget Sound pilots work within the Puget Sound area, LA and Long Beach pilots work within the San Pedro Bay area, and so on. This means, as a pilot, I work closer to home and have more opportunities to be with my family. Secondly, because of requirements that certain ships employ a state licensed pilot when entering state waters, I get to work a variety of ship types and sizes in a variety of different traffic and environmental conditions. This provides a lot more opportunity for unique and challenging piloting scenarios throughout the year.

What kinds of ships do you pilot?

All kinds. Mostly container ships, tankers, car carriers and various cargo ships throughout the year, plus cruise ships during the summer season, which primarily runs May through September.

I've heard about those big super-sized container ships. How big are they?

Big. Really big! There are some operating in Europe that are more than 1,300 feet long, 190 feet wide and can carry more than 21,000 TEU's.

Wasn't there a big super-sized container ship in the news around here last year or so?

Yes. You're probably thinking of the Benjamin Franklin, CMA-CGM's 18,000-TEU ultra large container ship that first called Long Beach, Oakland and then Seattle in February 2016. At more than twice the length of the Space Needle and wider than a football field, it was truly impressive to see how much of the Seattle city skyline Big Ben spanned when it was in Elliott Bay.

I think I heard something about a big cruise ship, too.

Yep. They're getting bigger, too. You probably heard about Norwegian Cruise Line's new ultra large cruise ship called the Norwegian Bliss. The Bliss was in the news when the port of seattle and NCL entered into a public-private partnership to upgrade the Bell Harbor Cruise Terminal to accommodate this new 4,000-passenger ship. At more than 1,000 feet long and 130 feet wide, the Bliss will surely make news again as the largest cruise ship to ever call Seattle.

Cool – When will that happen?

She's still being built in a German Shipyard but expected to be christened at the end of May. After that, Norwegian Bliss will be at the Pier 66 cruise terminal every week to take passengers from Seattle to Alaska throughout the summer.

So, why do the ships keep getting bigger?

Because companies achieve better economies of scale with the bigger ships. For example, if two ships' operating costs are about the same to travel from port A to B, but one ship can carry twice as many cargo units or passengers as the other, the cost per cargo unit or passenger will be much more favorable for the larger capacity ship. Which means the larger capacity ship can offer lower rates to attract more cargo or passengers, make more money per cargo unit or passenger, or enjoy a combination of both. So, as soon a one shipping line starts down this path of upsizing its vessel fleet, the operators of the smaller capacity ships, if they want to remain competitive in that market, are compelled to follow.

Sounds like an expensive venture! How much does it cost to build one of those mega-ships?

A lot! New ultra large cruise ships and containerships cost about a billion dollars, give or take.

So, what is it like to handle one of those behemoths?

Challenging and exciting. What many people don't realize is that while the ships keep getting bigger, the natural geography of the waterways stays the same. So, when the ships get wider, longer, taller and deeper, the overall mass of the ship is greater, the visibility from the bridge is more constrained and the available area to maneuver becomes proportionally less.

Sounds challenging and exciting. I have a niece who's really active and loves the outdoors especially areas in and around the water. I think your role might be of interest to her. What does it take to become a pilot?

Going to sea to work your way up to captain, then passing numerous Coast Guard and state pilotage exams to prove expert knowledge of local inland waters and ship handling skills.

Why does the state license the marine pilots? I thought it was just the Coast Guard.

Safety. Both the Coast Guard and the state want to ensure against the loss of lives, loss of or damage to ships or property and to protect the marine environment. The Coast Guard wants to ensure mariners have a common understanding of the rules of the road for ships, how to read nautical charts, use standard navigation equipment and perform roles on the bridge of the ship. The state wants to mitigate the risks of ships when they're in state waters, so they require ships of certain sizes to take on state licensed pilots that have been tested and trained according to the state's standards, which typically includes substantial local knowledge, ship handling and situational awareness training and testing.

How long does it take to get licensed?

To get licensed as a mariner can be done rather quickly. There are lots of schools such as the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, the Seattle Maritime Academy in Ballard and California Maritime Academy. To get licensed as a pilot can take around twenty years. The first ten working your way up to captain and a few years or more sailing as captain just to qualify to take the state pilot exam. Assuming one passes the exam and is accepted into the pilot training program, it can take two to four years to complete the training program.

Wow, that's a lot longer than I imagined.

It's a very exacting role with zero tolerance for error – kind of like a surgeon. So, the state wants to make every effort to ensure a pilot trainee can prove safe handling of a ship in any conditions that may occur onboard the ship, above the water, below the water, along the adjacent shoreline or in the navigational routes, before they issue a state pilot license.

To get my niece interested in becoming a marine pilot, would you mind sharing an example of a day in the life of a pilot?

Sure. It all starts with a call from dispatch with my job assignment details. Let's say I'm assigned to reposition myself out to the pilot station to be available for inbound ship traffic expected later that day. I drive from Seattle out to the pilot station in Port Angeles. The pilot station is where pilots prepare, eat and sleep when on call awaiting their next inbound ship assignment – like firemen on call at a fire station. I'm assigned to bring in a ship coming in from Ningbo, China and estimated to arrive Port Angeles at 1:00 in the morning.

The ship is headed to Pierce County Terminal in Tacoma and expected to arrive there at 6:30 a.m. So, I hit the rack to get some sleep until my wake-up call at midnight.

I get up and first verify there was no change to my ship assignment and then start prepping, including calculating tides, currents, checking weather conditions and status of tugs, the second pilot and Harbor congestion in Tacoma. After that, I get my backpack ready with all my navigation info and equipment, don my float coat and helmet and head out. It's dark and bitter cold as I walk down the ramp to the pilot boat. A full moon might make the whitecaps on the waves more visible than normal this time of year, which is a welcome contrast to the usual dreariness of a cold winter's night assignment.

I board the pilot boat along with another pilot who is boarding another ship right after me. We head out to my ship first. The swell is moderate and water a bit choppy – pretty good conditions for this time of year! As the pilot boat approaches the ship and starts coming up alongside, I head to the boarding platform, secure my gear and position myself for jumping onto the pilot ladder. I cast a keen eye over the Jacobs ladder to quickly assess the condition of the manila rope and wooden treads for any obvious risk of malfunction. I look up at the crew peering down and waiting to assist me aboard.

With a deep breath and well-timed jump, I launch myself from the pilot boat onto the Jacobs ladder. I start climbing up while the pilot boat stands by in the event the ladder breaks or I fall and need to be quickly recovered from the water.

After the multi-story climb up the side of the ship, I'm finally safely aboard. The crew quickly leads me to the bridge and ship's captain. We conduct a master-pilot exchange, a formal conversation to exchange essential information about the ship, its equipment, its location, condition and everyone's role on the bridge, before I take the con as pilot.

The purpose of the master-pilot exchange is to verify what is in good order and compensate for any deficiencies, including equipment and crew. The bridge team's vigilance, coordination and English language capabilities are critical to safe transit, especially in pilotage waters.

During this particular assignment the helmsman misinterpreted some of the rudder commands and courses given, so I direct the Captain to replace the helmsman with their very best. As always, I diligently verify all commands, engine orders and notices to reduce speed by observing and checking the instrumentation on the bridge. Other than routine radio calls to check in with nearby vessels and the Coast Guard, the first four hours piloting through the main shipping channel are smooth sailing with no pleasure boat traffic in light swells and light winds.

As I see Elliott Bay emerging on the port (left) side and the Seattle city lights reflecting onto the water, I give an order to the mate on watch to reduce speed. This will minimize the ship's wake while passing Alki Point, Vashon Island and other wake sensitive areas on the way to Tacoma. Another hour or so and I see Commencement Bay coming into view.

Three tugs approach, one of which has a second pilot onboard that will be boarding my ship to assist in navigating the 5,400-TEU vessel into the narrow Blair Waterway, which ranges from 700 feet wide to 450 feet at the goal posts where the 11th Street bridge was removed.

Although the 935-foot long, 131-foot wide, 42-foot draft vessel is not nearly as big as many of the other ships I handle, it is a challenge threading the needle with vessels at berth on both sides of the waterway.

I make keen observations of all conditions. I note the smoke coming out of the mill is taking on an unfavorable horizontal angle. In other words, there will be a strong gusty crosswind while trying to keep the ship aligned going up the waterway. This is when the adrenaline starts pumping.

Concurrently, the second pilot boards, coordinates the tugs to put their lines to ship, and appears on the bridge. We have a quick exchange to organize our roles. The second pilot will be taking the con and I will be assisting with an information feed which includes handling communication with waterway traffic, the Coast Guard vessel traffic center and addressing any waterway obstructions.

I take a quick inventory of what I see. There is a 983-foot long, 6,500-TEU ship on the starboard side being unloaded with 3 cranes boomed down across the ship and extending beyond its 131-foot beam. On the port side there is a ro/ro ship loading tractor-trailers aboard for its weekly service to Alaska. Tied up alongside are a tug and fuel bunker barge with an oil containment boom floating around its perimeter – further constraining the waterway. Up the waterway is a big 10,000 TEU ship, 1,145 feet long with 150-foot beam and 42-foot draft berthed alongside the starboard side and our berth destination two miles up the waterway.

Many of the captains we ride with have told us this is one of the narrowest waterways a vessel of this size goes anywhere in the world. We will need to be at the top of our game to pass safely with the strong gusty crosswind in this narrow waterway.

Now it's time to thread the needle. The tugs are critical for maneuvering the ship up the waterway and alongside the berth. The aft tug acts as a brake to retard the ship's momentum, as we need to keep the propeller moving and maintain steerage of the ship. The other two tugs will alternately pull or push to mitigate the wind and hydrodynamic forces that come into play as we make our way up the waterway that narrows to an available width of 330 feet as we pass alongside the 10,000-TEU ship.

As the bow of our ship comes into the shadow of the 10,000-TEU ship at berth, it temporarily blocks the force of the cross wind and commands are given to ease the power of the tugs on the bow while we maintain counteractive tug power on the stern. As we continue to pass, the wind will be almost fully blocked and it will be critical that we precisely adjust the tug power as the bow is exposed to the wind again. This is where the art of being a pilot really comes into play – finessing the forces you can control, the ship and tugs, versus the forces you can't control, the wind.

Concurrent with the tug commands, I am giving the second pilot support – confirming helm commands, engine orders and providing a constant flow of information. Using my PPU (Personal Pilot Unit), I validate distances in feet, vessel speed, rate of turn, course over ground verses ships heading and providing all relevant visual observations. A PPU looks like a typical laptop computer but is a sophisticated and specialized piece of safety equipment that provides a multitude of piloting navigation information at a glance.

As our bow emerges from the shadow of the ship and the sail area is again exposed to the force of the cross wind, the second pilot dramatically increases the power of the tug to counter balance the force of the wind. During this critical point in our final approach we make a dynamic 43-degree rotation of the ship from the channel azimuth of 133 degrees to the dock azimuth of 90 degrees while berthing the ship.

As we are rotating, we are slowing and positioning the 983-foot ship alongside 1,100 feet of available dock space at Berth B. I stop feeding information so the second pilot can fully focus on this extremely critical stage of the vessel maneuver. The tugs are at a heightened ready state to immediately respond to any toward or away from the dock commands from the second pilot. The shoreside linesmen are at the ready to receive the lines from the ship's crew and secure the vessel to the berth. There is no margin for error with ships, cranes, docks and people at risk if anything goes wrong.

Once the ship is in position and all fast to the dock, the gangway is dropped, and the tugs let go, we exchange thanks with the captain and pass along shopping opportunities to the crew. As we head to the gangway we make our way past customs, immigration and longshoremen as they board the vessel. We hop in the terminal van to be shuttled to the gate and feel satisfied with another safe landing and a job well done! Then I check my phone app to see what the next assignment looks like and the cycle starts over again.

Glad to hear you landed that ship safely! I can see your job wouldn't be for everyone, but I'm definitely going to tell my niece about it!

Great – have her give me a call if she wants to learn more about it.

Will do, thanks!

Many things have changed since Washington's legislature passed the first Pilotage Act in 1868, but much has remained the same. State-licensed marine pilots continue to board ships entering regulated state waters. So, what was going on back in 1868 that compelled Washington's legislature to take such action?

A Union Army veteran of the Civil War, Marshall F. Moore, was serving as the 7th Governor of Washington Territory from 1867 to 1869. During his tenure, the US purchased Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, expanding interest and activity in the Pacific Northwest. At that time, Port Townsend was the hub of maritime activity and the designated Customs Collection District for Puget Sound. All ships from foreign ports cleared Customs there and paid tariffs on controlled goods. Smuggling was rampant to avoid these tariffs and swift revenue cutter ships pursued the smugglers. Pilots competed to offer their services to ships entering Puget Sound.

Since bigger ships garnered higher compensation than smaller ships, pilots raced out on their pilot row boat or sail boat to be the first to garner the big ship jobs. Meanwhile the small ships received passive or irregular attention.

At that time Puget Sound had over 30 vessels enrolled in the district and 39 others making regular trips. This large fleet together with nearly as great a number of ships as coming from foreign ports for lumber, made business good for towboats and pilots wherever these modern necessities could be. The Washington Legislature called for the appointment of a board and the establishment of a regular pilotage service. (Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest)

And what's going on now in the Washington Legislature? The Joint Transportation Committee commissioned a study of best practices in marine pilotage. The study researched and benchmarked other pilotage districts to identify best practices in governance, rate setting and increasing diversity of the pilot corps. It was noted that Washington's compulsory pilotage program has proven to be one of the most effective and efficient safety mitigation measures for protecting Puget Sound from harm. Nearly a quarter million assignments over the past three decades without a major incident has garnered Puget Sound recognition from US Coast Guard Captain of the Port, Linda Sturgis, as the safest major port (pilotage district) in the nation. Washington's program success is also affirmed by having a pilot ready to board an inbound ship upon arrival at the Port Angeles pilot station 99.9% of the time. In January, the study consultants, Community Attributes, presented their findings and recommendations to the Joint Transportation Committee. The legislature subsequently acted upon one of the key recommendations to transfer rate setting from the Board of Pilotage Commissioners (BPC) to the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). Substitute Senate Bill 6519 passed both chambers unanimously and will move forward to the Governor's desk for signing before session end. The BPC will remain accountable for enforcement and administration of other aspects of state pilotage including pilot and trainee licenses, pilot exams, pilot training program, pilot continuing education, vessel exemptions, review of marine safety occurrences and related annual reporting.

A car ship passing the WUT terminal in Tacoma shows the constricted waterways in which pilots operate. Photo courtesy of the Puget Sound Pilots.

Looking into the future, pilot districts are experiencing the same challenges as other maritime industry sectors. The tsunami wave of retirees is rolling out, but only a ripple of replacement candidates are rolling in. To assure these candidates include an ample pool of females and people of color, greater exposure to this challenging and exciting career needs to occur long before a captain's license is achieved. Another finding from the pilot study was recognition that the limited diversity among pilots nationally was a maritime industry issue. To increase the diversity of the pilot corps, a pinnacle mariner role, the maritime industry channels that supply the candidates – tugs, ferries, ocean-going vessels and to a lesser extent the Navy and Coast Guard – must be diverse. To have the greatest affect in addressing this maritime industry deficiency, the study recommended the state take lead in addressing this situation. In partnership with other maritime interests and educators, there is a need to increase visibility to maritime career pathways. Wouldn't it be great if junior high and high school students knew about alternative careers to writing code and developing algorithms? And more school curriculums included hands-on experiential learning about the maritime industry? Perhaps, together, we can make it happen!

Ms. Styrk is the Executive Director of the Puget Sound Pilots, handling all business operations and external affairs for the highly skilled, expertly trained ship pilots who navigate and dock commercial ships safely within Puget Sound waters, including tankers, cargo vessels and cruise ships.


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