DAVID G. SELLARS ON THE WATERFRONT: Puget Sound Pilots steer big ships with a lot of bravery
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The Puget Sound Pilots boats Juan de Fuca, left, and Puget Sound sit at the pilot station in Port Angeles on Saturday. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By David G. Sellars
PDN Maritime Columnist

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THANKS AND A tip of the bosun's cap to Glenn A. Harper of Port Angeles, a Navy veteran of the Korean War, whose curiosity about some of the inner workings of the Puget Sound Pilots prompted him to pose a few questions.

Andy Coe, Puget Sound Pilots president, kindly took the time to respond with informative answers.

More than 8,000 times a year, Puget Sound Pilots board all oil tankers, cargo vessels and cruise ships that transit the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound and guide them safely through difficult passages, tricky currents and congested shipping lanes.

The Pilots dock these vessels in Puget Sound ports and return them to the open sea.

Although scheduling may seem to be a challenge, the Pilots typically receive specifics of a vessel's requirements, whether inbound or outbound, in plenty of time to accommodate their needs.

All inbound and outbound vessels are required to have an English speaker on the bridge.

Occasionally language difficulties are encountered, but all conversations are constantly monitored.

Pilots are recruited from the masters ranks of the Merchant Marine.

Fledgling pilots also come from the ranks of captains who have served aboard government ships, oceangoing vessels, tugs and ferries as well as pilots from other U.S. vessels.

Those wishing to become a pilot must have served as the captain of a ship, tug or ferry for at least two years of sea time, which typically equates to four calendar years.

Prospective candidates must take an exam administered by the state Board of Pilotage Commissioners and are then evaluated on a marine simulator.

When a novice pilot passes this initial phase, he or she enters a training program that can last for up to three years.

During this time, the novice maneuvers ships in and out of the various ports of Puget Sound under the supervision of a licensed pilot.

Not all who enter the training program prevail.

Those who are successful receive a limited license, and for the first five years of their service, each is restricted by the types of vessels they can handle.

After a five full years of piloting, the license becomes unlimited and the pilot is then qualified to handle any container ship, oil tanker or cruise ship that transits Puget Sound.

Becoming a pilot can be the pinnacle of many a merchant mariner's career, but the job attracts only a limited number of mariners.

The occupation involves a high level of risk and responsibility, and it is not suitable to many mariners.

Consequently, the earnings of pilots are relatively high.

Puget Sound Pilots earn about $319,000 per year, which is below the national average of about $400,000.

Pilot earnings are indirectly controlled by the state Board of Pilotage Commissioners through a tariff-setting process. The goal of the commission is to have pilot earnings competitive with those of other ports to attract the best pilot candidates to this area.

The transfer of the pilot on and off the ship to and from the pilot boat presents the greatest physical risks to the pilot.

Despite the inherent risk involved, there has not been a fatality in Port Angeles since the 1960s.

Worldwide, pilots die each year ascending and descending a rope ladder that hangs over the ship's side while transferring to and from a pilot boat.

The Puget Sound Pilots best protection is having the proper equipment and a well-trained crew involved in the boarding process.

The current pilot boats were custom-made and designed to provide a stable platform when traveling alongside a ship at 10 knots.

Each boat -- Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound -- is staffed by two crew members at all times.

During a pilot transfer, the boat operator is positioned outside on the flying bridge, which affords him an unobstructed view of the boarding deck.

There is also a deckhand next to the pilot in the boarding area to offer an extra pair of eyes and any physical assistance that the pilot might need.

This can be anything from a gentle hand on the elbow letting the pilot know that the crew member is there, to a full body tackle to keep the pilot from going overboard.

When a pilot is on the boarding ladder, the pilot boat pulls off the ship so that if the ladder fails, the pilot falls into the water and not onto the boat.

In most cases involving a pilot fatality, the pilot has hit the boat during the fall and is partially or fully incapacitated after falling into the water.

Pilots wear flotation devices with reflective tape and a water-activated strobe light during the transfer process as well as a device that emits a radio signal when it becomes wet.

The boat is equipped with a radio directional finder that is tuned to the same frequency which aids in locating a fallen pilot -- especially valuable at night when the pilot is not visible to the naked eye.

The pilot boat is also equipped with ultraviolet lights and special cameras that would illuminate a pilot who has fallen into the water.

Additionally, the pilot boats have a special human retrieval system on the stern -- a net attached to two arms. It is designed to be submerged, slipped under the waterlogged pilot and then raised up to bring the person on deck.

This system is designed to work whether the pilot is conscious or unconscious.

When a pilot comes off an outbound ship, he will stay at the pilot station on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles to await an inbound vessel.

The station has dormitory-style sleeping quarters, a small living space and a kitchen where pilots can get some down time while awaiting their next ship rendezvous.

The pilot station also has research material and electronic gear that pilots use to familiarize themselves with the many and varied vessels they will assist into Puget Sound.

Pilots often need to reposition from Port Angles to Seattle to meet the traffic demand instead of waiting for an inbound ship.

On these occasions, they are given three hours of travel time to fly, drive or taxi to the Seattle side of the operation.

They also reposition to Port Angeles if they are needed for inbound ships.

The Puget Sound Pilots were created in 1935 when Washington state required compulsory pilotage services for all foreign vessels traveling in Puget Sound and adjacent waterways.

The earliest record of pilot services in Puget Sound dates back to 1840.

In January 1868, Washington Territory passed its first law regulating pilotage in Puget Sound -- 21 years before Washington became a state.

Again, thanks to Glenn to ask a question that brought back a wealth of interesting information from Andy.

Prototype cutter

Today at Westport Shipyard's slip in the Port Angeles Boat Haven, you will be able to see the prototype composite military cutter that Westport has spent the past 2 years developing.

According to Philip Purcell, a company vice president, the shipyard's yacht sales have been declining -- little surprise given the recession.

"But we tried to be proactive to offset any decline in manufacturing," Philip said. "This is a good parallel venture to our existing work."

The boat, which Westport hopes to market to the Coast Guard and Navy, is built off its existing 40-meter (131.2-foot) platform and is known as the 43 Global Response Cutter.

She is 141 feet long, a speed of 30-plus knots and accommodations for up to 24 personnel.

Check her out.


David G. Sellars is a Port Angeles resident and former Navy boatswain's mate who enjoys boats and strolling the waterfront.

Items involving boating, port activities and the North Olympic Peninsula waterfronts are always welcome. E-mail dgsellars@hotmail.com or phone him at 360-417-3736.

His column, On the Waterfront, appears every Sunday.

Last modified: July 11. 2010 1:27AM
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