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Valdez tug pilots: tug attentive: climbing Jacob's Ladder.


So you'd like to be a pilot, a marine pilot? If you like boats, being on the water and around big ships, really big ones, and you like earning good money and having time off, you might think about this career.

But hold on. Think about this: There you are bobbing around in choppy water in a small pilot boat. Your pilot boat approaches the ship, and it's moving. As you nudge up toward the ship you look up at 60 feet of vertical hull. You've got to climb that.

Down from the deck high above comes a flimsy, flexible ladder, dangling in the wind. You have to reach out, grab it, step (or leap) across open water from one moving, bobbing vessel to another, and then climb the ladder, which in seamens' lingo is a Jacob's Ladder. And don't look down.

Sounds a little melodramatic, but this is how the marine pilots who guide big ships into port go to the office, and if you're a pilot who guides the big oil tankers in and out of the Port of Valdez you do it every day. You'd better be fit, too.


A pilot is a highly trained mariner who guides ships through congested, constricted waters like harbors. The captain is still in overall command of the vessel but the pilot is the person who guides it to its final docking at the end of the voyage. In some cases the pilot is in physical control of the ship, but even if not the captain, by custom, always defers to the local knowledge of the pilot.

The marine pilot controls the ship when it is in crowded harbors or confined waters. While the captain knows his ship well, the pilot is the expert on a particular waterway. In the case of the Prince William Sound tankers, the concern is Valdez Narrows, the narrow passage between the Port of Valdez itself, a wide, open body of water, and the larger expanse of Prince William Sound.


The winds can get tricky in Valdez Narrows, particularly for a large tanker coming in empty and riding high in the water. The huge bulk of the ship is like a sail. This is less of a problem when departing Valdez because the loaded tanker sits low in the water. But tidal currents can also be challenging in Valdez Narrows. Prince William Sound doesn't have tides as high as Cook Inlet, but its tides are still high.

Cook Inlet poses tricky navigation problems for shipper with high tidal currents, shoals, winds and, in winter, ice. Maneuvering large ships in to dock at the Port of Anchorage has become more of a problem in recent years because of silting and shoals forming on the approaches to the port.

Navigation in and out of Cook Inlet and Valdez may not be at the top of the list of concerns for most Alaskans, but about 90 percent of the consumer goods for Southcentral, Interior and northern Alaska come through Anchorage's port. The bulk of these goods move in the big container ships operated by Horizon Lines, or the rollon, roll-off vessel operated by Totem Ocean Trailer Express, or TOTE. In Valdez, tankers that navigate the narrows there every day carry oil that pays for 90 percent of the State budget and, directly and indirectly, support one-third of the Alaska economy.

The importance of safe navigation in and out of these critical points isn't always apparent. We typically think of transportation in terms of airplanes, railroads, automobiles and trucks, which we see every day, but the bulk of the world's commerce actually moves on big ships, and they're getting bigger.


The tradition of marine pilots goes back to ancient times when incoming ship captains hired locally experienced seamen who knew the local waters, often fishermen, to bring their ships into port safely. As time went by procedures were developed in each seafaring nation to insure the pilots had adequate training and experience, and regulations and licensing requirements were developed. Alaska also has a highly developed set of regulations and rules governing marine pilots, all under the jurisdiction of the Board of Marine Pilots.

One other thing the board does--think back to you, a novice pilot, jumping off that pilot boat and climbing the Jacob's Ladder as it sways in the wind --is set the place where the pilot and the pilot boat meets an incoming ship. Those locations are published by the Board of Marine Pilots for shipping companies to see.

For the oil tankers coming in and out of Valdez, the pilot station is in Prince William Sound inside Hinchinbrook Entrance but beyond the infamous Bligh Reef, which was hit by the tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989. Prior to 1989, the pilot station, where pilots are picked up and dropped off, was outside Valdez Narrows. Had the pilot station been farther out, beyond Bligh Reef, there would have been a pilot on the Exxon Valdez and the ship would not have strayed off course and hit the rock. After the tanker grounding, the Board of Marine Pilots moved the pilot station farther out, now tankers have pilots as they pass Bligh Reef.

Using pilots is the law. All foreign ships except small yachts and domestic ships of certain sizes, which certainly include large ships like tankers, are required to use pilots. However, it's not unusual for vessel owners who are not required to use pilots to hire them anyway, because it often helps them get better insurance rates.


The pilots themselves are individual self-employed professionals, and they work through regional pilots' associations, which contract with the shipping companies for their services. The association with responsibilities for Southcentral Alaska, which includes Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Cook Inlet, is the Southwest Alaska Pilots' Association, based in Anchorage.

Western Alaska, essentially Kodiak west and including the Aleutians and the Arctic, an area of increasing interest, is covered by Alaska Marine Pilots, also based in Anchorage. The western regions used to be part of the area covered by the Southwest Alaska Pilots' Association until shipping activity around Dutch Harbor reached the point where a separate association was needed. Southeast Alaska, meanwhile, is covered by the Southeast Alaska Pilots' Association based in Ketchikan. These pilots associations are given recognition by the State Board of Marine Pilots.

These aren't really monopolistic situations. There could be more than one association in a region to offer competition, and an employer (a shipping company) would be free to work with either one as long as the pilots were licensed. There were once two associations in Southeast, for example, but they eventually recombined into one group.

The associations maintain offices where the dispatches are done. The Southwest Alaska Pilots' Association dispatch center is in Homer; the Southeast association does its dispatches from Ketchikan, and the Alaska Marine Pilots' dispatch center is in Unalaska.

The "tariffs" or fees charged to the shipping companies by the pilots for their services can also be appealed to the Board of Marine Pilots. If the pilots increase the tariffs it must be justified, and there is always the avenue of appeal. There are always negotiations between the shippers and the pilot associations when the contracts are periodically renewed, but contract renewals have typically gone smoothly between the major shipping companies--the oil tanker operators, for example--and the pilots. The only contentious negotiations were those that have occurred with operators of large cruise ships.

The Alaska business model of the pilots operating as individual businesses and contracting though nonprofit associations is similar to that done in other U.S. coastal states. The only alternative would be to have the pilots be government employees, which is not done anywhere in the U.S.


Recruitment is a concern for the pilots' associations. As with many professions the work force is gradually aging. Most marine pilots are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and the mandatory retirement age is 70. On one hand, age and experience is a plus because what ship owners want is the knowledge the pilots have of local waters. But pilots must also be physically fit to scamper up and down those Jacob's Ladders.

However, another factor affecting the piloting business is the number of tankers carrying crude oil from Valdez has declined over the years as production from the North Slope has dropped. Now, about 600,000 barrels per day of oil moves through the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to Valdez and is being shipped--less than a third of the 2 million barrels of oil shipped from Valdez from 1978 through 1988, when the decline in production began.

One major producer, BP, has reduced its tanker fleet from 11 ships to four, but another factor is newer tankers brought into service are carrying more oil. The bottom line is fewer tankers mean less work for pilots, and the need for fewer pilots. Other shipping activity in support of fisheries, cargo movement and cruise ships, has remained stable, but the reduction in oil tankers has resulted in the number of pilots in SWAPA being reduced to 16, down from 24.

One other recruitment issue, however, is while being a marine pilot is a well-paying profession, a young person seeking to enter the business must make a tremendous investment of time--to gain working experience on ships and in education--and a long period of unpaid on-the-job mentoring with licensing pilots. A four-year degree is required from a recognized Maritime Academy, an institution like the California Polytechnic Academy, followed by several years of apprenticeship working with a pilot, at first just "shadowing" and watching an experienced pilot, then doing piloting work under the supervision of a licensed pilot. During these years the novice pilot is unpaid.

Once licensed, pilots also must undergo random drug screening and also do periodic refresher training in simulators. One such facility is at Alaska Vocational and Technical Center, or AVTEC, in Seward, where the simulator is equipped to visually display various Alaska port locations from a model of a vessel bridge. The pilot can practice approaches in different weather and tide conditions, and emergencies also can be simulated.- Pilots must have a deft feel for the local currents, tides and winds. The best pilots can move a large ship gently alongside a dock so touching the dock is hardly felt. This is an important consideration given many docks, particularly in outlying communities, are made of wood and can be damaged. A concern among pilots is "how tender" a dock is, meaning its condition and age, and susceptibility to accidental damage.


The primary mission of marine pilots is to help ensure marine safety, and one of the new issues facing the marine pilots in Western Alaska is whether vessels employed to support oil and gas exploration in the Arctic offshore will be required to employ coastal pilots. There are special ice-management issues involved in Arctic navigation. So far, the oil and gas companies exploring in the Arctic have opposed the request from the pilots' association, in this case the Alaska Marine Pilots association, which has jurisdiction in the area.

This may become a concern for coastal communities in the region who are worried about offshore safety and the risk of accidents. However, the areas being explored, mainly in the Alaska Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea, are in the federally managed outer continental shelf and beyond the reach of Alaska State law.

Another area of increasing concern is the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. An increasing number of vessels, including tankers and cruise ships, are now navigating this restricted waterway, and because vessels have international rights-of-passage the coastal nations, in this case the U.S. and Russia, have little leverage in imposing rules of navigation or standards for ships. There is, however, more attention being paid to this through the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency.
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Title Annotation:OIL & GAS
Comment:Valdez tug pilots: tug attentive: climbing Jacob's Ladder.(OIL & GAS)
Author:Bradner, Mike
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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