Saltwater cowboys

Year-round, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority (APA) provides the services of marine pilots, whose job is to guide ships in and out of Halifax Harbour, the busiest district in the Atlantic.

They combine expert ship-handling skills and a deep knowledge of local waterways. Hundreds of vessels coming and going in Halifax arrive safely and efficiently at their berth under the guidance of a marine pilot. Halifax is a key link in the supply chain for import and export of cargo from more than 150 countries around the world. The Port of Halifax expects to handle some 1,500 vessels in 2015, making harbour pilots an essential piece of our economic well being.

While technology has changed, the size of the vessels, and their cargo has changed, the need for harbour pilots to ensure the safety of the harbour has not. It’s all about “getting the shipping industry moving in and out of Halifax as safely and efficiently as possible,” says Sean Griffith, chief operating officer with APA. “Pilots have a huge impact on the economy of the area. They’re the grease in the wheel.”

Photo: Submitted

Photo: Submitted

The basic requirement for becoming a Marine Pilot begins with obtaining rank of Master Mariner, which takes years of sea time and months of classes. Certification for Master Mariner is the professional qualification required for someone to serve as the person in charge or person in command of a commercial vessel. The current Government of Canada list contains over 90 such professional certificates, courses and equivalencies.

Many mariners at the Master level are gobbled up by the oil and gas industry, lured by the big salaries on the rigs. Griffith says money isn’t the draw for marine pilots. “[It’s the] pride of knowing they put a ship alongside in a safe and efficient manner,” he explains. “People look up to a pilot in the marine industry. It’s the pinnacle of a marine career.”

Marine Pilot certification takes up to 2.5 years of training in handling various types and sizes of ships. Anything over 5,000 gross tonnage (an international standard) needs a marine pilot to guide it into port. Pilot boats operate with a three-man team to transfer a pilot onto a ship: the launch master who pulls the pilot boat alongside a moving vessel, a marine deckhand who judges the timing of the jump to the rope ladder on the ship and the pilot who leaps onto the ladder, scaling the side of a moving ship to make his way to the bridge and guide the vessel.

Marine deckhand Chris Naugle greets me as I step aboard the Chebucto Pilot, on our way out to Chebucto Head to rendezvous with a tanker. Naugle has salt water in his blood. His father, recently retired, was a Coast Guard officer for 39 years. “I started commercial fishing right out of high school at 17 years old, tried a couple of trips on container ships to Cuba, then more commercial fishing,” Naugle says. “Where pilot boats are small vessels, they (APA) want guys who’ve served on small boats.” He won a competition for full-time deckhand job at 23 years old, the youngest of the eight contenders.

Marine Pilot James Parsons has had 25 years at sea, starting in tankers, and moved onto “ro-ro” container ships, roll-on roll-off capability. Now he doesn’t have to be away from his family for weeks at a time in commercial shipping. He works two weeks on, two weeks off, going home to sleep at the end of the day.

A 30-year veteran on tug boats, Launch Master Captain Ian Wallace sits comfortably in the captain’s chair with his eye on computerized charts, electronics, radar, and the high-tech dashboard. In all kinds of weather Wallace pins the pilot boat alongside a ship where the ladder is. He watches the marked channels, cardinal buoys and moves toward the boarding position out at Chebucto Head.

“I like to get the pilot to the boarding zone five to 10 minutes before the ship arrives in position so the ship doesn’t get too far into the harbour,” he says. “With a big ship, it can take up to five to 10 minutes for the pilot to get up to the bridge. And that time it can be quite critical if the ship gets too far in, or if it breaks down.”

Naugle helps me with my life jacket and safety line. My heart pounds as we make our way to the bow. The immensity of the vessel we are sidling up beside makes me feel very vulnerable. Climbing onto the rope ladder is one of the more dangerous parts of a pilot’s job.

Wallace matches the speed of the pilot boat with that of the ship. With the ship rolling in the swell, he steadies the boat up against the hull. Naugle watches and says “Now!” Parsons leaps and begins his climb some 15 metres up to the doorway where a deckhand is waiting. He disappears into the ship to begin his day’s work.

“You have to be on your game all the time,” Griffith says. “There’s no space or time to have a second thought. Situational awareness: having all your senses in play on high alert.”

With one eye on Parson’s tanker steaming slowly around Georges Island, we head back into the main traffic channel. I watch for buoys as we pass each one and learn how to read the electronic charts. My heart is back to normal now. It was one day of stress and excitement for me, but just another day for the harbour pilots.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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