Thursday, July 14, 2005

Keeping the ships from the shore

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (July 14, 2005): Four men and one woman are in charge of keeping the largest ships in Portland Harbor safe and sound as they come in and out of one of the busiest ports on the eastern seaboard.

Two of the Portland Pilots – one an active pilot with 43 years’ experience and another who retired four years ago after 43 years of his own – talked about their work recently at the Portland Harbor Museum.

The pilot company, a private firm not affiliated with any government organization, was founded in the early part of the 20th century, and “you might call it, in some respects, a closed company,” said Capt. Granville “Pete” Smith, a retired pilot who lives in Cumberland Foreside.

The pilots, all graduates of Maine Maritime Academy, hold master’s – also called captain’s – licenses from the U.S. Coast Guard and have undergone three years of training – at a ship-handling school in Europe, and five schools in the U.S. for “what-if scenarios” – and then 250 trips in and out of the harbor with other pilots.

After that comes a Coast Guard pilot exam, only part of which is to draw a chart of the entire harbor from memory, ensuring that instant recall of any point in the area is possible when the pilot is conning a ship on its way into or out of the harbor.

“There’s no chance for error,” said Capt. S.J.S. “Sandy” Dunbar.

Even after passing the test, the Board of Harbor Commissioners can ask for more training before granting a license.

“Once you get the license you get into our organization and for the first time in three years, you start earning money,” Dunbar said.

Time and tides

The formalized training is just one way their profession has changed with time.

But some things never change. The pilots work on 10-day shifts, when they are on call at any hour.

“It’s almost like being a fireman. You don’t know when that bell is going to ring,” Dunbar said. In the old days, they had to stay near the phone all the time. “Now, with pagers and cell phones, life is almost human.”

If one job comes too soon after another, the pilots may not go home. Instead, they may take a “kink” in the office on Union Wharf, or on the pilot boat. “Kinks are a little bit longer than a nap,” Dunbar said.

Pilots still meet their ships at the same place, outside West Cod and Corwin’s ledges, southeast of Two Lights, though there’s no longer a lightship there, and not even the 40-foot buoy that once marked it. Now the sea buoy – designated with the letter P, and in the phonetic alphabet of marine communications called the “Papa buoy” – is the meeting point.

It was chosen originally because it has “deep water, plenty of maneuvering room,” Smith said. “From the Papa buoy, it’s almost a straight shot right into Portland Head.”

But the way they get there is now very different.

“When we came in, we actually both started when there was a schooner as a pilot vessel,” Dunbar said.

The 70-foot schooner would motor out of the dock, sail out of the harbor to the lightship – where the sea buoy is now – and pause about 50 yards from the ship in need of a pilot. The pilot would jump into a dory and be rowed – or later, motored – to the side of the ship.

“That was a whole new experience, especially in bad weather,” Dunbar said. “The training was getting aboard – just getting to work.”

The schooner stayed so long – until the late 1960s – because “we were ingrained, being Mainers, with schooners,” Smith said. Also, “we were cheap,” and sailing was cheaper than paying for fuel.

On the schooner in the winter, ice was a big worry – as on any sailing ship – and pilots and crew alike had to constantly chip away the frozen sea spray from the deck, rails, spars and rigging.

“We lived in oilskins and rubber boots and very good gloves – and very strong hands,” Dunbar said.

A new pilot back then would get “on the job training” shadowing pilots. “A few of the pilots would let you do the work right away,” though they would be right behind the trainee, ready to make any needed corrections, Dunbar said.

Nowadays, the pilots use a 65-foot steel-hulled boat with heated decks and rails, but it’s still an adventure. “We call it getting to work and sometimes it’s a son of a gun,” Dunbar said. The pilot boat even pulls directly alongside the ship.

Now, it’s usually only a dozen feet or so until a climbing pilot reaches a gangway, required on any ship with more than 30 feet of freeboard, the distance between the sea surface and the ship’s rail.

“Prior to that … you went all the way up on a rope ladder,” Smith said.

On the way up

After the climb, there is still a modern twist. Post-Sept. 11, security on ships, especially international ones coming into a petroleum harbor like Portland, is tight.

Before Dunbar even gets off the gangway, there’s a security officer asking him for ID – even though he just scaled the side of a boat in, effectively, the open ocean, and the boat he just climbed off of says “Pilot” in huge letters, as does his jacket.

The next part is the same as ever. The pilot, still out of breath from the ladder climb, creeps across the pitching deck to the superstructure and up as many as six flights of stairs “behind some 22-year-old third mate skipping every other step,” Dunbar laughed.

There, on the bridge, the pilot greets the captain, learns about the ship and tells the captain about the port.

The pilot never takes the wheel of the ship, but is given the authority to direct its course and speed. “The skipper is the skipper,” Smith said.

The pilots don’t use GPS, though they do refer to radar to “look around,” but “our training is so instinctual that we don’t even use charts. It’s all up here,” Dunbar said, pointing at his head.”

Fast freighters take under an hour to come in, while a crude-oil carrier can take two hours, including the tugs.

“You don’t have a ship a day, you have like five,” Smith said. The port handles 60 to 70 ships a month, with some trips taking three or more hours, especially if it involved waiting for the tide to turn or for a berth to open up.

“I did three jobs in three and a half hours just a little while ago,” said Dunbar.