Maritime Disaster Waiting to Happen

Ship run aground approaching harbor, collision in fog, catastrophic oil spill--what's to stop them from happening? One ancient maritime craft works away behind the scenes. Unless you're out on deck enjoying sea views at the beginning or end of an ocean cruise, you're not likely to see him or her come on board. The pilot approaches in his inconspicuous launch and climbs the ship's ladder without fanfare.

From that point on, he or she (yes, there are women pilots nowadays) is virtual dictator concerning the ship's handling, responsible for bringing her safely between the ocean and her berth in port. The pilot earns that status not just by rigorous training, but by the responsibility he/she undertakes as well. If a storm is raging, visibility is zero, or the person at the ship's helm speaks another language--that's just tough. It's the pilot's duty to bring the vessel to its destination safely, no matter what the conditions.

So, what is this craft of coastwise piloting all about, and who are these men and women who call themselves pilots? Stated succinctly, it's impossible for ocean-going ship captains and navigators to recognize all the hidden quirks and dangers in each and every port they must enter. Coastal pilots train to know every aspect of their home port, and also, learn how to handle any type of ship that might come their way. Pilots can be found all around the world, in any port of consequence. In the US, all pilots are tested in book and chart knowledge by the Coast Guard, who license them, but it's the pilot's local knowledge and experience that makes the real difference.

This further safeguard is not always required. In the ports of Delaware River and Bay, for instance, state laws require that any ship of foreign registry or carrying foreign goods must take on a state licensed pilot who knows local waters. For US vessels in the coastwise trade, however, taking on a pilot with years of local knowledge and training is voluntary, which can open the door to risk. Storms and currents constantly alter underwater land contours, for example, invisible to the naked eye. Imagine a tanker or freighter several hundred feet long entering a dangerously complicated and busy estuary without the benefit of local knowledge, possibly in less than ideal weather. Believe it or not, this choice is possible.

With regard to the backgrounds of men and women who currently serve as pilots, a college degree is required, and it helps to have graduated from a maritime academy or have similar experience, but that's not always the case, and certainly wasn't so in the past. Pilots active today come from a wide variety of backgrounds, having entered the craft through a traditional apprenticeship system, as in some other professions. They learn and hone their professional skills mostly through on-the-job training and exposure under the strict watch of master pilots. As a group, pilots exhibit as much variety of personal types as the rest of society, drawn to their craft from many interest avenues, not the least of which are love of ships and the sea, the challenges to be mounted, professional standing and remuneration, and dedication to the work itself. The origins of piloting are buried in the mists of time. Any ship's captain entering an unknown port would be foolish not to welcome on board, and reward accordingly, a knowledgeable mariner offering such skills and guidance.

The earliest pilots in the estuaries of the Delaware were native Lenni Lenape, taken on board for exactly that purpose by the newcomer Europeans. Piloting then passed on to individuals who lived at the mouth of the Bay, notably in Lewes, Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey. On spying sails on the horizon, they raced one another to reach the ship and win the fee. Piloting was a secretive craft in those days, its mysteries passed down from father to son. Pilots soon saw the virtue of banding together in companies, however.

They built fast, live-aboard schooners in which they cruised off the coast, out of sight of land, and raced rival schooners, to put their man on board. This system, which is described in the sea novel, Tunnell's Boys, lasted in the ports of the Delaware until the end of the 19th Century, when all pilots in the region joined in association and built a large steam vessel for common use, doing away with rowdy competition. The Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware, created back in 1896, still functions today. >From distant, hazy origins, down through eras of rough-and-tumble racing and rivalry under oar and sail, piloting has changed. True, we live now in more civilized times, one of stricter governmental regulations, but much about piloting remains the same.

Pilots still go out day or night, in all seasons. Imagine him or her approaching a giant tanker in a small pilot launch at midnight in a winter storm, having to leap from tossing decks onto an ice-covered ladder dropped from the ship's deck, then climb the ship's cliff-like steel hull, while the wind howls, and thirty foot waves break all about. Even with such dedicated efforts, the unforeseen will happen. The Sea, with all its awesome power, remains the Sea. Disaster will strike. At least, though--how much less often, with men and women of this mettle quietly plying their craft.

. . Tony Junker is author of Tunnell's Boys, a recently published novel about deepwater pilots in the closing days of sail.

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By: Tony Junker

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