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You're a what? Harbor pilot.

From the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the docks along Baltimore's waterfront lies a journey of 150 miles. In 1986, nearly 30,00 commercial vessels, freighters and tankers from around the world, cruised up the bay. Every one of these ships carried a captain, a crew, and a bank of navigational instruments. But once in the bay, they needed someone else a pilot-to guide them into port and out again.

Twentieth century experience obscures the historic traditions of the pilot. Mention the word today and we likely envision someone seated at the controls in an airplane's cockpit. But when the oceans were civilization's frontier, pilots opened our eyes to the world beyond the horizon. And when the discoverers approached our shores, pilots guided the caravels up the channels to anchor. Today's pilots, descendants of these mariners, play the same role.

"I guess the generic term is 'harbor pilot'," says Brian Hope, a Maryland pilot. "We call ourselves 'bay pilots', " referring to those pilots who work the Chesapeake. They are master seamen, able to handleany vessel propelled by sail or engine. They know the winds, the tides, and something no one ever sees, the bottom of the waterway. Today's big ships glide over the bottom with only a few feet to spare. An inexperienced hand at the helm could steer the ship to disaster.

"A pilot goes aboard ship as an advisor to the captain," says Hope, "and directs the course of the ship from the wheelhouse. He gives commands the rudder orders, the engine orders, and the course changes. Technically, the captain retains ' responsibility. Practically, the pilot is in command."

In most countries, pilots are older officers-captains and shipmasterswho become pilots as the culmination of a seagoing career. "The United States is unique," says Hope, Each seaboard State has its own regulations and traditions governing pilotage, as well as at least one pilot association which trains pilots and controls membership.

In the Western States, a pilot's path to the helm resembles that of pilots in other countries. "But on the east coast," says Hope, "associations like to get pilots pretty early in their careers. In Maryland, an apprentice pilot is usually someone in his late 20's or early 30's with a master's license and at

least 5 years of sea time."

Hope's maritime career set sail in the mid-1960's. He graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy and then crossed the Pacific with the Military Sea Transportation Service, ferrying troops and supplies to Vietnam. Later, he cruised with the United States Lines. After about 6 years at sea, he decided he wanted to become a pilot.

His experience and his education served him well. To become a pilot in Maryland, you must be a graduate of either the national maritime academy at Kings Point, New York, or one of the State maritime academies. Five States California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas offer maritime education. Graduates earn a bachelor of science degree either in marine transportation or marine engineering and a third officer's license, which qualifies the holder for sea duty.

A third officer must spend a year at sea to be eligible to sit for the second officer's examination. Similar requirements must be met to earn a chief mate's or master's license. To earn a captain's license, which pilots hold, an officer must sail for a year as a chief mate.

But these procedures, as straightforward as a ship's chain of command, have become tangled by economic realities. U.S. maritime employment has dropped more than 10 percent in the last 5 years. "It's tough to find a chief mate's job," says Hope. And it's much more difficult to be accepted into a pilot's apprentice program.

"Pilots' associations have traditionally been closed societies," says Hope. In many respects, they resemble guilds of times past. Only licensed pilots can guide ships through the bay and a person can only become licensed by completing an apprenticeship with the association. The apprentice selection process varies from State to State. In Maryland, the Board of Pilot Examiners, the licensing authority under the State Department of Licensing and Regulation, handles selection.

About 1,100 pilots ply the Nation's bays and harbors. Other pilots guide ships through the Great Lakes and down the country's rivers. The Maryland Pilots Association counts 83 members on its rolls. "There are quite a few applications on file," says Hope, "but we haven't taken an apprentice since 1979. Maritime traffic has been dropping."

The pilot's apprentice program in Maryland lasts 5 years. "For the first 2, an apprentice works a grueling schedule, riding up and down the bay with an experienced pilot," says Hope. "The only way to master shiphandling and learn the bay its tides, channels, and shoals-is by constant repetition."

For an apprentice, this means learning not only the passages from the mouth of the bay, but also those heading north through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. About a third of the traffic heading to Baltimore comes through the C&D Canal. This route is shorter, but sometimes more harrowing for pilots. The narrow, twisting channel leaves little room to maneuver.

After 2 years, an apprentice becomes a junior pilot and earns a limited license to pilot ships with a draft up to 28 feet; a year later, 34foot draft ships. After 3 years as a junior pilot, he becomes a senior pilot qualified to handle ships of unlimited draft.

To earn a pilot's license, or "branch," as it is called, the apprentice must pass a Coast Guard examination that "is probably the most difficult exam that I've ever taken," Hope says. "From memory, you have to draw five different charts of the bay, showing normal traffic patterns, the location of channel aids and buoys, and the different landmarks, depths, currents, and tides,. It's a week-long exam. Each day, you draw a different chart." Each chart is drawn on tracing paper and graded by placing it over the chart being reproduced. A passing grade is 90 percent.

A pilot's memory and his sense of reckoning may be his most important tools in cruising the channels of the Chesapeake. Experienced sea captains, using sophisticated navigational gear and channel markers, could probably navigate the bay in good weather. But it's the pilot's knowledge of local conditions that sets him apart. Sometimes equipment can malfunction or buoys break loose. Or the winds may shift and cause the tides to drop by a foot or more. That's why captains want a pilot like Brian Hope at the helm. "I've probably made close to 2,000 trips up and down the bay," says Hope.

Ships have gotten much bigger since Hope first went to sea and "as the size has increased, the margin of error has become much less," says Hope. "The big ships are always pushing the limits. Coal carriers, for example, can carry over 90,000 tons of coal. For every additional inch of cargo, they can add an extra 200 to 300 tons. At $10 a ton, that's a lot of money. But the additional tonnage means that the ship rides deeper in the water, closer to the bottom."

Pilots also make use of sophisticated equipment. Electronic sensors planted in the bay measure exactly what the tides are at certain points. Computers take this information and project what conditions willlikely be in the future. When captains are pushing pilots to sail, the computer printouts give added authority to a pilot's decision to wait.

Hope says that one of the most "important pieces of equipment for pilots is one with which we are all familiara two-way radio. "All pilots carry their own VHF radios and keep them tuned to channel 13 for bridge-to-bridge communication." Not long ago, most ships relied on whistles to communicate with each other, But the wind and fog can play tricks with sound. Collisions on fogbound nights were not unheard of

Many pilots have some familiarity with other languages. English is the universal maritime language, so Hope rarely encounters difficulty communicating with ship' captains, "but problems can arise with the unlicensed seamen who are at the helm." Most pilots have mastered the rudimentary commands in other languages. Hope can give orders in French, Spanish, Greek, and Italian. "There's an inherent risk," he says with a smile, "so, whenever I order a course change in a foreign language, I always point in the direction I want to go."

Pilots generally work while the rest of us are sleeping. "Most of our work takes place at night so ships can unload in the daytime," says Hope. Labor rates for longshoremen are much higher at night, and shipowners want to avoid additional costs. A typical cargo ship might sail from New York at night and arrive in Philadelphia in the morning, then leave Philadelphia at night and arrive in Baltimore with the sun.

But Hope has no complaint about the hours. "Generally, it's about a 40hour week. It's a much more normal working life than going to sea. I'm not away from my family as I would be if I were at sea," he says.

He rarely thinks about going back to sea. The life has changed much since he first set foot on a ship's deck. "When I first went to seaunloading cargo was a long process. On a typical run in the Far East, you'd make 10 different ports and stay in each several days. It gave you the chance to see so much of the world.

"The container ships have changed all that," says Hope. These ships are so large that they usually unload from a central port, and feeder ships will pick up cargo for transport to other ports. "The containers are easy to unload, so you're only in port for a few hours, which doesn't give you the chance to get to know a place like you could before. And, though the ships are much larger, the crews have grown smaller. There's less of a sense of comradeship. It's a different profession from what it was."

"Being a pilot is a wonderful life," says Hope. "I think that the vast majority of deck officers at sea would love to be pilots. To me, navigation and ship handling are the best part of going to sea, and as a pilot I have the chance to do it every day."

Sometimes ships leave the bay and head up the Potomac River towards Washington. Brian Hope is one of the few Maryland pilots licensed to guide them. To earn that license, Hope had to handle a leadline and a plumb just like pilots of old. Cruising the river, taking soundings and testing the depths, you can almost hear the echoes of another age a quarter twain . . . less twain. . . mark twain!that guided Sam Clemens, who was a pilot on the Mississippi when "the pilot was the grandest position of all."
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1987
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