Chiles T. A. Larson
Taz Fitzgerald was waiting for me at a large container pier on the western side of the Elizabeth River, in Portsmouth. Fitzgerald, who is 45 years old, greets me with, “Are you ready to set sail?” He seems unruffled by the challenge that awaits—guiding the 349-foot SS Godafoss, a small container ship, through the narrow Norfolk Channel, out into Hampton Roads and the open sea—the potentially treacherous first part of a trip to her homeport in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Perhaps that’s because Fitzgerald is a veteran harbor pilot—one of 41 members of the Virginia Pilot Association (VPA) whose job is to keep commercial ships away from trouble as they enter and leave Hampton Roads.
Every ship entering and leaving the Port of Hampton Roads, whether destined for a dock in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News or elsewhere, must have a harbor pilot on board who effectively functions as the captain until the ship is either safely docked or safely out into open sea—a trip that can take a few hours, whether coming into the port or leaving. “There is great risk involved with moving large vessels filled with millions of dollars worth of cargo,” Joseph Keefe, who produces an online newsletter for the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based The Maritime Executive magazine, wrote recently. That is why harbor pilots are thoroughly trained—and very well paid. Almost all make six-figure salaries that can go up to a half-million dollars a year at the busiest ports, depending on the number of trips a pilot makes annually, the size of the vessels and the length of the channels he and his colleagues must negotiate every day. Fully licensed since 1998, Fitzgerald might board a couple hundred ships every year.
Conning large ships in and out of Virginia waters may appear routine, especially when the seas are calm and the sky is blue, but of course that isn’t always the case. This is a job that can require a pilot to grab hold to, and then climb, a 50-foot-long chain or rope-strung Jacob’s Ladder in the dead of night, in all kinds of weather—and that’s just to get on board the ship. Then comes the hard part of getting the ship safely in or out of a harbor—sometimes in heavy winds and choppy seas, sometimes in thick, shrouding fog with visibility limited to a few feet or during a howling winter nor’easter. And, of course, every ship is different. Standing on the bridge of Godafoss prior to his giving the order to release all lines, Fitzgerald notes that the ship is relatively small—“about a third the size of a new class of container ships we are working with today. Many have an overall length of 1,100 feet, with a beam of 130 to 140 feet and might draw some 47 to 48 feet. This makes the movement along a 50-foot channel more and more challenging, particularly if the ship rolls a degree or two.”
Slowly, the Godafoss eases away from the pier. We follow the channel past Norfolk Naval Station, then out into Hampton Roads, passing several ships coming into port. Fitzgerald and the captain exchange a few comments, and on several occasions Fitzgerald gives the order to adjust the ship’s speed. He does not steer the ship—that is handled by the Quartermaster while the Mate controls the throttle. Our roughly 23-mile journey out past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to the Virginia Capes goes without incident. Just before reaching the Atlantic, a high-speed launch approaches the ship. It is our taxi, operated by the 150-year-old VPA, for the trip back to shore. Also drawing near out of the northeast is a cluster of grey-black clouds scudding low on the horizon, accompanied by an increasingly strong breeze. Several crewmembers secure a Jacob’s Ladder over the starboard side of the ship, and Fitzgerald and I climb down it and hop aboard the launch—timing our drops with the pitch and roll of the deck. Not long after, we are back at VPA headquarters, just inside the Lynnhaven River Bridge near Cape Henry.
Harbor pilots first started working in Hampton Roads early in the 18th century. At that time, the job was highly competitive—whoever got to a vessel first got the wheel. (That kind of competition stopped with the establishment of the VPA.) Over the long span of piloting history, interspersed among a few tall tales, there have been collisions, sinkings and drownings. Occasionally, pilots unable to leave ships during violent weather have become unwilling passengers and were carried away to sea. Virginia pilots helped to bring down the curtain on the American Revolution in 1781 by guiding the French fleet to the Virginia Capes in time to defeat the British. However, pilots paid a heavy price for their war service; according to a reference in Alan B. Flanders’ book Guardian of the Capes: A History of Pilots and Piloting in Virginia Waters from 1611 to the Present, approximately one-third were killed, wounded or imprisoned.
During the Civil War, when the former U.S. frigate Merrimack—rechristened the ironclad CSS Virginia—steamed out to raise havoc with the federal fleet in Hampton Roads before her inconclusive encounter with the USS Monitor, she was escorted by four armed smaller vessels, all piloted by local men. Both World War I and World War II, with their huge convoys of men and material, tested the Virginia pilots to their limits. Not only was the job long and strenuous, it was also extremely dangerous: Just prior to America’s entry into World War II, extensive minefields were laid to thwart German U-boats. As Capt. A. C. Johnson Sr. recalls in Guardian of the Capes, “On one occasion five ships hit mines within hailing distance of the pilot boat Virginia.” One night he also witnessed an oil tanker being torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine less than a half-mile from the pilot boat.
After the Civil War, Virginia’s pilots realized the merits of banding together into a single professional association. This move was supported by the Virginia General Assembly in 1866, and was followed by the stationing of the William Starkey, a seventy-two foot wooden schooner, to serve as the pilot’s base station for maritime traffic off Cape Henry. Seven more station ships filled that role prior to 1983, when two high-speed, 51-foot launches based at the VPA’s new headquarters were placed in service to deliver pilots, replacing the steel steam cutter Virginia. At roughly the same time, a control tower was placed in operation behind the sand dunes close by the Cape Henry Lighthouse. It took over the radar and communications duties formerly conducted on board the pilot cutters from both Virginia and later, Maryland. The tower’s radar antenna is more than 100 feet above sea level and allows for conversations with inbound ships some 50 miles off shore.
Though heavily regulated by states, harbor pilot associations are independent and have a monopoly on ship traffic. The pilots are not state employees but rather independent contractors who charge expensive fees for their service—several thousand dollars per trip, typically. The Florida Alliance of Maritime Organizations, or FAMO has complained about the exclusive hold of that state’s pilot association on the shipping and cruise industries and what it believes are excessive piloting fees and pilot salaries. Two years ago FAMO President Michelle Paige said her group was interested in “modernizing” the system and “bringing in competition,” adding: “We’re not looking to do away with pilots.” The pilots argue that their fees and salaries are appropriate given their responsibilities and role in keeping ship traffic moving safely.
As one might expect, harbor pilots must train extensively. All prospective pilots complete an arduous six-year apprentice program before becoming fully licensed. The VPA accepts about two apprentices each year from an application pool of about 30, and typically the association will have eight apprentices on hand. Most prospective apprentices apply multiple times before being accepted. One out of four apprentices will not complete the program. In 2005, Jan Collins became the first female to earn a place in the apprentice program in the Virginia Pilot Association. According to a story about her on DailyPress.com, a Hampton Roads website, an apprentice pilot “must work seven days a week and board more than 2,000 ships. They are subject to dozens of exams, tests and demonstrations. Among their most daunting tasks: Each pilot must recreate [from memory] three mariner’s charts of Hampton Roads.” In short, an apprentice must demonstrate a complete knowledge of the water over which he or she will guide ships—its depths, its currents, the contours of the shorelines.
There are family dynasties, if you will, in the harbor pilot business. For many sons of pilots, the call can be as strong as the pull of a flood tide. According to Virginia Pilot Association records, in 1856 Joe W. Scott, 16, became an apprentice. More than 100 years later, on July 3, 1969, Robert W. “Bobby” Scott Jr., 17, Joe’s great-great-great-grandson, became an apprentice. During those 111 years, four more Scotts served as pilots. Capt. Robert W. Scott Jr. recently recalled his first night as an apprentice, when he says he was “overwhelmed with excitement.” He added: “I was ordered to ride with Capt. C. B. Guy on the ship Mormacisle out of Pier P in Norfolk at 9 p.m. As we arrived at Cape Henry to disembark, I leaned over and looked down from the wheelhouse and saw the Jacob’s Ladder below and all I could say was, Wow! Down the ship’s ladder I went, climbing to pilot launch No. 1, which carried us to the pilot cutter Virginia [where pilots were then stationed]. There I began my two years of standing watch, polishing brass, studying charts and riding ships six hours on and six hours off.” William Counselman, vice president of the VPA, is a second-generation pilot. His father, Richard Lee Counselman, served as president of the association from 1969 to 1989.
Accidents happen in this business, though you’d be hard pressed to get a pilot or association official to talk about them, and when they do, pilot associations can be liable. Wrote Keefe of The Maritime Executive recently: “Like it or not, increased liability and criminal penalties are coming for marine pilots—docking masters, too. If this reality creates a safer environment, then that’s a good thing. But, it is a double-edged sword. Shippers can now expect longer delays for their cargoes in questionable circumstances because these marine professionals will become increasingly reluctant to take a chance in the name of expediency.”
And ships just keep getting bigger, which further raises the stakes. It was recently reported that A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, the world’s largest container-shipping line, signed a $1.9 billion deal to buy from a South Korean company what would be the 10 largest ships ever built. The new vessels, to be delivered by 2014, will be 1,312 feet in length (that’s four football fields), 193.5 feet in width, and have an overall height of 239.5 feet. Although ships have become more complex and faster, and cargoes have changed with the times, Mother Nature and the mettle of the pilots remain unchanged. The former is capricious, as always, and the latter constant.