Sunday, March 18, 2012

Riding With the Pilots

The tanker New Jersey Sun weighed anchor after the pilot had come aboard early in the morning of Monday, May 16, 1977. A small motor launch had delivered him to the ship. From this vessel he climbed a rope ladder with wooden rungs which hung down the tanker’s starboard side. When he reached the main deck, he was welcomed aboard by the third mate and two able seamen. The third mate escorted the pilot to the bridge, and then joined the bosun on the bow. The two ABs stayed behind and hauled in the pilot ladder and stowed it away pending future use. On the bridge the pilot was greeted by Captain Jack Taylor and chief mate Joe Reilly. When the introductions were complete the mate recorded the pilot’s name in the bell book, the written record of the ship’s transit through the harbor. The pilot’s name1 was Pizzatolla, and he had come aboard to bring the New Jersey Sun into the harbor of Galveston, Texas.

For Captain Pizzatolla, this morning’s arrival was a fairly routine operation. Standing on the port bridge wing next to Captain Taylor, he issued the engine and rudder instructions necessary to maneuver the ship out of the anchorage, into the channel, through the narrow inlet between the barrier beaches, and then through the port itself toward the Todd Shipyard on Pelican Island. This destination, a sprawling industrial complex across the stream from Galveston proper, would be the New Jersey Sun’s home for the next several weeks while she underwent an extensive overhaul. But getting the large vessel into this facility required some effort. Captain Pizzatolla called ahead on his walkie-talkie and arranged for a rendezvous with two tugboats as the ship approached the shipyard.

From his perch on the port wing, Captain Pizzatolla surveyed the scene before him and decided on his course of action. He explained his plan to Captain Taylor, who nodded and gave his consent, and then began issuing instructions to the tugboats via the walkie-talkie and engine and rudder commands to the chief mate and helmsman. With one tug pushing on the starboard bow and the other on the port quarter, with the rudder hard left and the engine going slow astern, the pilot turned the New Jersey Sun ninety degrees in the channel. She was now positioned so that she could back down into her berth with her port side to her assigned pier. But this was a tight spot. The pilot dismissed the tug on the port quarter. The second tug remained and held the New Jersey’s bow steady. Then, with the engine going slowly astern and the rudder amidships, the pilot eased the great ship into the narrow space between her pier and the adjacent floating drydock. There was no room for error here, and the operation had to be taken slowly.

The New Jersey Sun carried one rudder and one propeller. Rudders are simple enough tools, but propellers come in different varieties. They can be right hand or left hand, meaning they turn clockwise or counterclockwise when the ship is going ahead, and the propeller blades are shaped and pitched accordingly in order to get a good bite on the water and push it astern. A single engine ship like the New Jersey carried a right hand propeller. This was fine for going ahead, but when going astern, a right hand propeller caused the stern of the ship to “walk” to port. Likewise, a left hand propeller would produce a walk to starboard. By contrast, a ship such as the Waccamaw with two propellers would have one right hand and one left hand; they would be mirror images of each other, and when going astern, the opposite walking effects would cancel each other out.

As the New Jersey Sun backed alongside the pier, the walking effect produced by her right hand propeller became an important factor. Both Captain Taylor and Captain Pizzatolla eyed the stern carefully from the bridge wing as the ship eased slowly alongside the pier. Neither one of them wanted the propeller to walk the stern of the ship into the pier. When this motion of the stern toward the pier became evident as the ship moved farther into her berth, the pilot called for a quick burst ahead on the engine with the rudder hard left. The resulting propeller wash to port countered the walking effect and preventing the ship from colliding with the pier. In a backing move of over a thousand feet at slow speed, the pilot did this three times. Had there been no floating drydock moored to the next pier, a tugboat could have steadied the New Jersey’s stern and made the job much easier. The pilot really earned his fee on this arrival.

With the New Jersey Sun finally backed all the way into her berth, the crew tossed the mooring lines ashore, winched them in, and made her fast. Next they rigged the gangway. On the bridge, Captain Taylor ordered the engine rung off and the helm secured. He thanked Captain Pizzatolla for his services, signed his paperwork, and bade him farewell. The chief mate then escorted him down to the main deck and the gangway. The pilot stepped off the ship and into a waiting automobile. The driver would deliver him to his next assignment, most likely an outbound cargo ship. A routine day at the office.

For her part, the New Jersey Sun remained in the Todd Shipyard in Galveston for six weeks. When the time came for her to leave, another pilot was driven to the pier to meet her. He then performed the same duties as Captain Pizzatolla had, except in reverse. When the ship was safely outside the port, he climbed down the rope ladder with the wooden rungs to a waiting launch, and was whisked away to his next assignment, most likely an inbound merchant ship. And so the cycle continued.

This cycle of piloting merchant ships in and out of port goes on continuously in every harbor. Each port has its association of pilots, licensed Merchant Marine officers who are specialists in the waterways on which they serve. Possessed of an intimate knowledge of the port and everything in it, pilots know everything there is to know about the local tides, currents, weather patterns, navigable channels, shoal areas, anchorages, bottom topography, bridges, tunnels, and all aids to navigation including buoys, lights, and daybeacons. They know every pier and wharf and how best to approach and depart from them in all conceivable conditions. Pilots are expert shiphandlers. They simultaneously give instructions for engine and helm settings and tugboat positioning and maneuvering, often orchestrating solutions to the most complex situations so that it all looks like an art form. Their level of proficiency and the value of their services cannot be overstated. Outside of the seafaring profession, though, pilots rarely receive any recognition for their work.2

The Coast Guard examinations for pilots’ licenses are famously difficult. Many pilots already hold unlimited Master’s licenses from years of deep sea experience. While an unlimited license is valid over the limitless oceans, a pilot’s license is specific to a certain place. A man with pilotage for Galveston, for example, cannot bring a ship to Houston. There are also pilots who cover wider areas than single seaports. This would include pilots who bring ships through major inland waterways such as Long Island Sound or Chesapeake Bay. The transit times in such areas are many hours long, and typically at the end of the run a docking pilot comes aboard and relieves the original pilot. Sometimes called coastal pilots or bay pilots, they, like the harbor pilots, must also pass rigorous and demanding examinations, as well as complete a comprehensive apprenticeship. For a while I considered pursuing a pilotage endorsement for the port of Norfolk, Virginia. I thought this might be a nice addition to my license once I had reached the level of unlimited Master, and I had sailed in and out of Norfolk so many times on several ships that I came to know the port and the lower Chesapeake quite well. This idea never came to fruition, though.

Norfolk was a short pilotage run, about two hour’s transit time from the Virginia Capes. By comparison, Baltimore was a twelve hour transit from the capes. On my next-to-last day aboard, the New Jersey Sun travelled this long route. She picked up a pilot from the Maryland Pilots’ Association at the Chesapeake Bay entrance at 12:00 noon on the Fourth of July, 1977, a bright sunny day with excellent visibility. Both the Eastern and Western Shores of the bay were clearly visible as the ship headed north. The bay itself was punctuated at intervals by lighthouses that were built on steel skeleton foundations, webs of metal that rose up out of the water. After darkness fell, brightly colored fireworks shot up at many locations along both shores. Through this festivity the pilot brought the ship almost the length of the Chesapeake to the Francis Scott Key Bridge on the outskirts of Baltimore. There a docking pilot came aboard. He and two tugboats conveyed the New Jersey Sun the remaining distance to the Hess pier. She was made fast at midnight. A long day’s work for the Chesapeake Bay pilot. He had taken his lunch and dinner on the bridge and ate as he worked. After the docking pilot relieved him, he slept on a settee just aft of the bridge until he was able to go ashore.

Another pilotage run of twelve hours that the New Jersey Sun made took her between the Gulf of Mexico and the oil docks of Garyville, Louisiana. She went upstream on June 28 and 29, spent seventeen hours alongside the pier, and returned downstream on June 30 with the oil that she subsequently brought to Baltimore. Two long runs on a winding and curving river channeled between high levees. Except for New Orleans and the delta, most of it looked the same. The pilots knew all the subtle differences in the riverscape, though, and hence always knew exactly where we were.

Several years later the Comet rode the Mississippi to New Orleans from the Gulf. This was a pleasant transit on a warm Saturday, January 7, 1984. Arriving at the entrance to Southwest Pass at midday, the Comet proceeded up the narrow channel to Head of Passes, the meeting point of all the tributaries of the Mississippi River Delta. She changed pilots at nearby Pilottown. The first pilot left the ship there and would subsequently take another vessel down to the Gulf. The pilot who relieved him then took the Comet the rest of the way upstream to New Orleans. A peaceful and picturesque place, the marshes of the Mississippi Delta stretched for miles in all directions, bisected only by the dredged channel and its low bordering levees. These pristine wetlands contained vast acres of low-lying lush green foliage interspersed with brownish river and gulf water topped by a leaden gray sky that stretched to all horizons. It was very pretty, but in an unusual way. And it was very peaceful. 

This serenity was breached only on arrival that evening in New Orleans. One very brash young officer looking for adventure demanded, “Hey, Pilot, where’s the action in this town?”

The pilot, far older and wiser than his interlocutor, advised him to be extremely careful about looking for action in New Orleans. “Y’all kin git yahself killed raht outside the gate heah,” he cautioned. Explaining that he knew the city as well as he knew the river, this gentleman counseled the young mate to be careful and avoid the vice dens of the city. Following the scriptural injunction that “every man should take righteousness in his hands. . .and lift a warning voice unto the inhabitants of the earth’ (D&C 63:37), he provided moral as well as navigational direction.

The Comet herself had to be careful on her way back down the river three weeks later. Caught in a blinding winter rainstorm with dense fog six hours below New Orleans, she anchored off Duvic, Louisiana, at 2:30pm on Thursday, January 26. Unable to see more than two hundred feet, she remained at anchor sounding fog signals until 10:30 the next morning. After listening to the Comet’s fog signal for twenty hours, the residents of quiet little Duvic must have been very happy to see her leave!

As the Comet transited the Southwest Pass enroute to the open Gulf, her pilot did something unusual. In a very narrow stretch of waterway, he stepped over to the helmsman and said jovially, “Why don’t you take a break for a few minutes, young man?” Then the pilot himself took the helm and personally steered the ship down the center of the channel for the next ten minutes or so. With a look of intense concentration on his face, he deftly handled the wheel, making short, sharp corrections to keep the ship on course. When the pass widened out again, he relinquished the wheel to the helmsman, who seemed very grateful to have his job back. By way of explanation, the pilot mentioned to both the mate and the helmsman that no one had done anything wrong; it was just a very tight spot in the pass and he always found it easier to steer the ship himself than to be constantly calling for minute corrections in the ship’s heading.

During my time on board, the Comet made several long pilotage runs. On each of her two transatlantic voyages she picked up an English coastal pilot off Brixham, England. These pilots assisted with navigation through the English Channel and the North Sea and rode the ship to Trondhein and Bremerhaven in November and December of 1983. Local harbor pilots then maneuvered the ship in and out of both these ports. Returning westward, the coastal pilots again assisted in the traffic lanes until they disembarked off Brixham.

In Panama, an American canal pilot brought the Comet through the locks, across Gatun Lake, and through the narrow confines of the Culebra Cut. This transit took eight hours on a very hot Tuesday, January 31, 1984. In the cut, with the ragged edges of mountains rising out of the water on both sides of the ship, the pilot turned to the bridge watch and remarked, “This is the part that God did not intend to be a canal!” In between helm instructions, he then described the difficulties encountered in digging through this mountain range during the canal’s construction. Partly inspired by this man’s casual conversation, I later read the great book about the Panama Canal in my leisure time on the Bartlett.3

On the other side of the world, the Comet made a very long pilotage run first through the narrow strait that separates Honshu and Kyushu, and then through the Inland Sea of Japan enroute to Iwakuni. Three separate pilots came aboard for this long route: the first for transiting the strait, the second for the nearly nine-hours-long voyage through the heavily trafficked Inland Sea, and finally a docking pilot. This operation, along with a six-hour period of loading cargo in Iwakuni, filled the entire 24 hour cycle of Tuesday, March 13, 1984.

Such long runs are exceptional, though. Most pilotage routes take up only a fraction of these transit times and cover much shorter distances. The shortest in my experience is Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Typically, the passage from arrival at the sea buoy to mooring at the pier took only 45 minutes. Furthermore, the weather was always good. This was not always the case elsewhere. Holy Loch, Scotland, stood at the opposite extreme. The pilotage run there took perhaps an hour, but the weather made it feel much longer. The anchor detail and the linehandlers on the Victoria always dressed for drenching rain, thick fog, and cold winds, and they often got all three. The Scottish pilots were always completely unfazed by these conditions.

Closer to home, New York has long been one of my favorite seaports. In the 1970s and 80s, I sailed in and out of there on the State of Maine, the Charger, the Vandenberg, and the Comet, and served as night mate aboard the Vanguard and the Hayes. Additionally, I always enjoyed riding the ferries between Manhattan and Staten Island. After the children arrived, they joined me on these short voyages across the harbor. One of the greatest shows on Earth, New York almost always had something going on. Merchant ships of all descriptions dotted the water and the shoreline, filled the anchorages, shifted between berths, passed beneath the bridges, and arrived and departed through the Narrows between Staten Island and Brooklyn. This great movement of commerce called for pilots to bring the ships into, through, and out of the port. Aboard the ferries, more pilots wended their vessels’ ways through the traffic. The children always found this activity fascinating. They watched carefully and asked many questions. One day, something very special took place.

On a warm and hazy Friday, August 23, 2002, James, Steven, and Michael sailed with me from Manhattan aboard the ferry Governor Herbert H. Lehman. As the ferry got underway from the city, we gathered at the bow and spotted a large container ship inbound in the Narrows. A few minutes later, we saw a large tanker emerging from the Kills, the small channel that separates Staten Island and New Jersey. Estimating that they would meet off St. George, our ferry’s destination on the northeast corner of Staten Island, we watched and waited. Then the northbound ferry Andrew J. Barberi got underway from the St. George terminal and quickly crossed ahead of both ships. Through the binoculars we identified the inbound container as the Zim Mediterranean of Valletta and the outbound tanker as the Falcon of Piraeus. The Governor Lehman approached closer to both of them as their course changes carried them to the now-obvious meeting point in front of the St. George ferry docks. The binoculars were no longer necessary. Even using the camera proved awkward as both ships became too big to fit in the viewfinder.

James, Steven, and Michael watched closely as the shipping drama played out in front of them. The Governor Lehman maintained a steady course but cut her engines to reduce speed as both the Zim Mediterranean and the Falcon adjusted their courses to pass safely port-to-port in front of the ferry. The Lehman coasted to a stop with the Zim’s starboard side perhaps 400 feet in front of her and the Falcon less distance than that from the Zim’s port side. The Falcon became momentarily obscured from our view by the larger Zim. From where we stood on the Lehman, the Falcon and the Zim were first bow to bow, then side by side, and finally stern to stern as they passed each other on their reciprocal courses. No sooner did water open up where their sterns had been than the Governor Lehman rang up full ahead and resumed her voyage to St. George. The Zim turned more to port to enter the Kills, evidently enroute to the big container docks in Newark and Elizabeth, New Jersey. We gained a clear view of her broad transom stern piled six-high and thirteen-across with containers which would soon be off loaded onto trailer trucks and freight trains. We had a similar view of the somewhat smaller but still impressive Falcon as she turned to starboard to pass beneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and into the Ambrose Channel. With these two vessels now safely past and well on their way, the Governor Lehman eased anticlimactically into her berth in St. George.

All these vessels’ movements in this congested situation were carefully controlled by pilots. No doubt they had all spoken to each other on channel 16 on the bridge-to-bridge VHF radio and had agreed upon a safe and convenient place to meet. With their intimate knowledge of the harbor, their expertise in shiphandling, and their years of experience, these pilots were eminently qualified to direct these large merchant ships worth hundreds of millions of dollars in circumstances where there was almost no margin for error. A routine day at the office.

James, Steven, and Michael were suitably impressed. They seemed to intuitively recognize that bringing such massive vessels around sharp corners and into narrow channels and through congested harbors required an expertise above and beyond the ordinary. Unfortunately, this goes largely unnoticed and unremarked by those with no connection to the sea. Once in a while, though, word does get out.

The new Queen Mary 2 of the Cunard Line arrived in New York on her maiden voyage on a misty Thursday morning, April 22, 2004. Because of the historical significance of the Cunard Line and the Queen ships, the city took notice. The following day, The New York Times reported on this event with special attention to Captain Robert D. Jones, the harbor pilot who brought the new Queen Mary into port:

Standing on the ship’s bridge with a walkie-talkie in one hand and a pair of binoculars within reach of the other was Captain Jones. He is not the captain of the Queen Mary 2, but the harbor pilot who guided it on the last few miles of its maiden voyage to New York.

Through it all, Captain Jones never touched the throttles, never turned the wheel. But his was the last word on where to steer the ship, how fast it could go, and where the trouble spots lay in the harbor’s complicated underwater geography. He long ago memorized where the navigational buoys are—knowledge that helps when, as was the case yesterday, he cannot see them for the early-morning fog.

So he knew when and where, off Brooklyn, the ship had to make two crucial turns on its way to Manhattan.4

The Times noted that Captain Jones had previously piloted the Queen Elizabeth 2 in and out of New York, one of over 8,000 ships he had boarded in his long career. Additionally, the paper recorded his assessment of both Queens’ maneuvering capabilities and acknowledged the tremendous efforts required for safely docking the new Queen Mary. Alluding to the risks inherent in such an operation and the ever-present possibility of something going wrong, the Times graciously left the last word to the pilot:

After 45 years as a harbor pilot, Captain Jones, 69, will retire today. “You’re only as good as your last job,” he said, “and this was pretty good.”5

In the early evening of Sunday, April 25, 2004, the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Elizabeth 2 sailed from New York in tandem, bound for England. Darkness had just fallen as the two ships were piloted down the Hudson River from their midtown piers. As they approached the Statue of Liberty, fireworks erupted into the sky and cascaded downward onto the surface of the water. The sky and the sea sparkled in celebration of these grand vessels. My sons and I watched from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, and we all agreed that it was “pretty good.”

But the Queen Elizabeth 2 was embarking on her last transatlantic voyage. Soon afterwards, she would be withdrawn from service and retired. On the night we saw her, she was crossing the bar for nearly the last time. Likewise, all the ships of my youth had also crossed the bar and put to sea for the last time, most of them bound for dismantling in a scrap yard. All of us, too, will metaphorically cross the bar and put to sea for the last time, bound for the grave yard, no doubt hoping as we depart that it was all “pretty good.”

Then we will meet our Pilot, the One whose navigational instructions during the voyage of life we will have hopefully followed. Like the pilots who board our ships, the Supreme Pilot holds all the necessary and detailed knowledge that we need for a safe transit. All we need do is consult him, for we are assured, “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Matt. 7:7). Our Pilot will give us moral guidance, just as the Mississippi River pilot on the Comet gave to the young mate looking for “the action” in New Orleans. He will be completely unfazed by adverse conditions, like the Scottish pilots aboard the Victoria, and his calmness will soothe our souls. Like the Panama Canal pilot who knew the intent of God concerning the isthmian mountains, he will not leave us to wander aimlessly through an artificial world. But we must first take him aboard:

Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me. Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you (D&C 88:63-64).

Our Pilot will convey his directions to us via the Spirit, through the still small voice, through inspiration, and through the leadership of the Church, not only when we are transiting pilotage waters, but throughout our long voyage. In the end, we may anticipate a happy conclusion to our travels when we meet our Pilot in propria persona:

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.6

And when we meet our Pilot we will find that it is not just “pretty good,” but very, very good.

1 I regret that I cannot remember the names of many of the pilots who boarded the ships I sailed on, but for some odd reason I recall Captain Pizzatolla’s name and perhaps a half-dozen others with particular clarity.
2 See Matt Jenkins, “Running the Bar,” Smithsonian, February, 2009, pg. 62-69. This is a very informative description of the work done by the harbor pilots serving Portland, Oregon.
3 David McCullough, The Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1977.
4 James Barron, “A Queen Arrives in New York, and Even in the Jaded Big City, Jaws Drop,” The New York Times, April 23, 2004, available at
5 Ibid.
6 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Crossing the Bar,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1970, p. 756.