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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Running a Maine Pilot Boat

(originally published in Offshore Magazine)

". . . this is the tanker Mechanic Gorovnik, do you read me? Over."
The voice comes over the VHF thick with an accent; it's strong and precise, but sounds faint because the caller is more than 30 miles away.
"Mechanic Gorovnik," we answer, "this is the Crown Pilot. We are underway to meet you. Captain, may we have your ETA at the station one-and-one-half miles southeast of the two-whiskey-bravo buoy?"
"Yes, Crown Pilot. We will be one and one half miles southeast of 2-W-B at 0-2-3-0. . . in approximately one hour, one hour. Over."
"Mechanic Gorovnik, Crown Pilot. Roger your ETA at 0-2-3-0 hours. We will be there waiting for you. . . Captain, at this time, we would like to request a port side ladder, a port-side ladder, with the ladder set one-and-one-half meters above the water, and a boarding speed of seven knots, seven knots. Over."
"Crown Pilot, Mechanic. I am reading a port-side ladder, one and a half meters above the water, and a boarding speed of seven knots. Is this correct?"
"Yes, Captain. Correct. Is there anything else at this, time, Sir?"
"No, Crown Pilot. We are all set. Thank you."
"Very well then. We will meet you one-and-one-half miles southeast of the two-whiskey-bravo buoy at zero-two-thirty hours. This is the Crown Pilot clear on channel 10, standing by on channels 16 and 13."
"Mechanic Gorovnik standing by on channels 16 and 13."
Sound familiar? It might if you've ever monitored radio communications between The Penobscot Bay and River Pilots' Association (PBRPA) and the ships they guide in and out of Maine's midcoast waters.
The PBRPA, a Belfast, Maine company, has a complement of five pilotsóCaptains Dave Gelinas and Rob Spear (the principle partners), and Captains Skip Strong, Jeff Cockburn and Richard Carver. These five men, as well as approximately a dozen other licensed pilots from other Maine companies, are responsible for making sure that inbound and outbound ships stay out of harms way. Petroleum products, road salt, gypsum, even tapiocaóan important ingredient in the manufacture of certain paper productsóenter our waters under the watchful eyes of the pilots.
The pilots get the ships in and out of the bay, and the captains of the pilot boat get the pilots on and off the ships.

The Challenge

I've been working on the water for over 30 years, the last 25 as a professional captain. I've caught giant bluefin tuna and shark, swum with and rescued whales, been a treasure hunter and dive tender, and run all sorts of vessels from ferries to water ski boats. Yet, from a boat operator's point of view, speaking just from my own limited experience, nothing compares to the challenge of running pilots to and from ships in exposed waters.
What's it like? Well, picture yourself at the helm of a 36-foot vessel running at 14 to 16 knots. in near gale conditions. You're in the lee of a 650-foot ship, 20 or 30 feet from the hull. Ahead and astern, beyond the protection of the tanker, the sea is a broiling mess of gray-white foam. Close by, spray circles in a venturi of turbulence and back drafts.
You can smell the ship's cargo, diesel, jet fuel, gasoline or number six heating oil. You can smell fresh bottom paint. Sometimes, when a ship is carrying asphalt, which is cooked by internal fires or steam coils to keep it from solidifying, you can actually feel the heat radiating from the hull.
I remember when I first started, I would get momentarily distracted, hypnotized almost, by these and other sensations. One of the weirdest things is the eerie sense of motion, or, I should say, the lack of motion. It happens when the pilot boat gets alongside and matches the ship's speed. Suddenly, there's the illusion that both vessels have stopped dead in the water, despite the fact that the sea between them is sliding backwards at 7 to 16 knots.
No question about it, it's an interesting way to spend time on the water. How did the opportunity arise? Well, Dan Merriam, the pilot boat's primary captain, called me a year and a half ago to ask if I'd be interested in filling in. I went a couple of times as mate and snapped to the job like a hungry bluefish on a chunk of fresh herring. I was motivated by three things: the supplemental income, the thrill of the work, and the boat itself.
Crown Pilot is a modified, twin-screw, 36-foot Hatteras sportfisherman that has been retrofitted with 18-inch fendering, speed props, grab lines, and enlarged rudders. She has good electronics and low-hour, 350-horsepower Crusader engines. For the most part, she's your basic early 1970s fiberglass Hat, a decent sea boat with a deep-V hull, modest flare, and a high profile bow. (Thank you Jack Hargrave for a beautifully designed sea boat!)
How does she perform?
Let's just say that we've taken this boat out in some very significant seas and we've never put the bow under. Other small boats might be as able, but we haven't tested them the way we have Crown Pilot. After all, what sane person would choose to go out in a small boat in a gale, or worse, a winter storm?
When you run a pilot boat, however, you have no choice. You have to be ready to go any time day or night, and you have to be prepared for rough seas. With operating costs of $8,000 to $15,000 a day for foreign-flagged vessels and $20,000 to $25,000 a day for United States-flagged vessels, big ships hardly ever wait for the weather.

[Note# This boat quickly tired of the job and had to be replaced by a real piot boat designed and built for the demands of close quarter contact and heavy seas. By the time I left the pilots, the Crown Pilot was virtually done for. On my last trip, a small fire broke out in the bus heaters and one of the engines failed. Though a good design, she was over thirty years old; never was she meant to do this kind of work.]

Wrestling with Wind and Waves

Piloting can be a dangerous job, but clearly the toughest part is when the pilot steps from one vessel to another. Over the last 100 years, men and women in this profession have had ladders unfasten and fall out from under them. They've had pilot boats yank them off of hulls and slam them back into them with grave consequences, including broken bones and internal injuries. Pilots have been crushed between boat and ship, fallen onto decks from heights of twenty to thirty feet, and been sent into the drink. Avoiding mishaps such as these requires patience, as well as a certain "technique."
The method Dan and I use for maneuvering the Crown Pilot alongside a big ship is as follows:. Step 1. Spread your legs like a sumo wrestler to lower your body's center of gravity and get a good view through the top of the pilot house windows. Step 2. Hook two fingers of your right hand into a spoke of the steering wheel and grip the throttles with the fingers of your left hand. Step 3. Start sidling in.
At this point, timid adjustments of rudder angle just don't cut it. In worst case scenarios, I'm spinning the wheel hard over to hard over, as fast as I can, rudder stop to rudder stop, just to keep the vessel going straight. At the same time, I'm cycling the throttles up and down, the port engine, then the starboard. Faster, Slower. First one then the other.
Every ship is different and every run has its own peculiarities. We might have perfect weather, calm seas, and a great lee from a deep-draft, high-sided ship; laden tankers with low sides, and tugs with barges are the worst. We might be thinking the trip alongside will be a breeze. But then five feet away from the vessel's hull, we'll hit a strange current or a queer wave.
The combination of high winds and seas, the dead of night, and snow make the job particularly challenging. I remember one night when blizzard conditions made radar contact extremely difficult; Crown Pilot was virtually lost in the troughs. When we neared the pilot station, the ship lighted her decks and turned on her big searchlight. At a quarter mile, she looked like a fuzzy white ball. But that night the ship provided an excellent lee. We pulled alongside and made our exchange easily. The pilot was Rob Spear and I remember being pressed hard against the ship and having to hold the boat steady for a fairly long time until he was up and over the tanker's rail; hard as I was against the hull, I was concerned that if I pulled away too soon, the ladder would come with me.

Critical Timing

Big swells double, even triple, the risk. Picture this: a pilot is waiting to get on a ship in an eight-foot swell. The vessel's ladder is set four-to-six feet above the top of the highest wave. With the pilot boat in the trough and the ship rolling away at the top of a swell, the bottom rung of the ladder can be 10 to 15 feet over the pilot's head.
In a situation like this, the captain of the pilot boat has no choice but to "stick" the landing, and by this I mean that when there's a big swell, putting a pilot on a ship is more like shooting skeet than anything else. The skipper has to wait for the right moment and hit his target squarely. He has to get in and get out fast, preferably when both Crown Pilot and the ship are rising or falling at the same time.
With an outbound ship, we wait for the pilot to start down the ladder before we begin closing the distance. Ideally, we try to arrive at the exact moment he's ready to step off the ladder and onto the boat. The less time he spends in that precarious position, the better.
With an inbound vessel, we wait for the ship or tug to slow to boarding speed. As soon as it does, and the pilot steps into position on our bow deck, we start heading in.
Meanwhile, the pilot knows what to do. He knows not to step off the boat until he's sure he has a good handhold and a solid purchase on the ladder. Going the other way, he knows not to step for the boat until the time is right; at the very least, he'll wait for a landing zone that won't disappear when he gets there. However, anyone who thinks coming alongside a ship is a challenge, should try stepping on and off a Jacob's Ladder when everything around is a maelstrom of motion.
"Crown Pilot, Mechanic Gorovnik. I am slowing to boarding speed and will be at 7 knots shortly."
The vessel's deck lights come on, as do our's, and the ladder appears out of the dark. I speed up to get close, then slow in order to keep pace with the ship. The mate opens the cabin door and positions himself on the stern deck. He has a ring buoy and safety line at the ready and will wait and watch intently as the pilot climbs up and over the ladder.
Because a northwest wind is kicking up a 4' chop, we ask the captain to twitch the ship a little to port. He complies immediately and the seas start to subside. As the vessel slows to 7 knots, we start in. Twenty seconds later we're done. In other words, the pilot is safely aboard the ship and we can ease our way clear. . . slowly, surely, increasing throttle and helm, until we're far enough out of its wake to pull in fenders and secure the boat for the steam home. This night, we decide to stay in the shadow of the ship. We follow it for awhile, an hour or so, then bear off and lay in a course for home. Thirty minutes later, the boat's all fast at the Marina, in Rockland, waiting for the next time.


Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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