Issue: November 2006
FEATURE DESTINATION: View from the Bridge

The ships’ pilots of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware serve as buffers between the commercial maritime traffic that feeds the region’s economy and the recreational boaters who simply enjoy the Bay.

by J. V. Reistrup

Looking down from nine stories up, down from the bridge of the 72-foot wide and 470-foot long cargo ship Nassauborg, the space marked by the buoys ahead of us in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal doesn't look much wider than a driveway. Recreational boating traffic is not particularly worrisome and surprisingly light right now, especially considering today is the infamously raucous annual Canal Day celebration in Chesapeake City, Md. Gliding by the anchorage basin, we see why: This year's flock of Canal Day boats has been herded into the basin by several patrol vessels from the U.S. Coast Guard and Maryland Department of Natural Resources, vigilant as so many border collies. A few kids venture down onto the stones that line the canal bank to protect it from erosion, and the Nassauborg sounds her horn because the ship's wake might climb up this riprap at them. "They just don't understand the danger of it," says Captain Randall W. "Randy" Bourgeois, the pilot whose job it is to navigate the ship through the Maryland end of the canal. Jesse Buckler, the apprentice pilot accompanying Bourgeois today, recalls another C&D passage when the ship he was aboard blew its horn to warn children off the riprap--only to get a call on the VHF radio: "Hey, Cap, blow the horn again! The kids love it."


The Nassauborg, shown here as she looks under way at sea, has her own cranes along the port side for loading and unloading her typical cargo of newsprint (stock company photo, Wagenborg Shipping B.B.).



The ship's master, Captain Bouwe van der Woulde, greets a visitor as senior pilot Randy Bourgeois takes the conn.



Pleasure boats overtake the Nassabourg


Buckler had to explain what the blast was for--ships transit the C&D at between six and eight knots, steadily pushing thousands of tons of water toward the riprap on either side. Fully loaded, the Nassauborg, although small enough to use the C&D shortcut rather than the longer route up the wider and deeper Bay, can carry close to 20,000 tons and draws more than 30 feet--tight, since the channel is just 35 feet deep. She's lighter and riding somewhat higher now, having dropped off part of her load of high-quality Finnish newsprint in Philadelphia, but nevertheless is steadily displacing a substantial chunk of water from the channel.

Bourgeois, Buckler and I had left the Baltimore headquarters of the Association of Maryland Pilots that morning after a Delaware River and Bay pilot phoned to say he had boarded the Nassauborg to guide it south from Philadelphia into the canal. Pilotage in U.S. waters is a state responsibility under a law passed in 1789 by the first Congress, and all vessels in international trade have to have a state-licensed pilot aboard while in each state's waters. Although in the past pilots licensed by the different states competed with each other, now they cooperate. The Delaware pilot's call gave us an estimated time of arrival, so the three of us climbed into one of the Maryland pilots' half-dozen vans for the ride to Chesapeake City.

The Delaware and Maryland pilot associations jointly maintain a transfer station there with sleeping accommodations, lounge, kitchen and an all-important telephone with which the canal dispatcher keeps pilots abreast of shipping traffic. The Virginia and Maryland pilot associations maintain a similar station at Cape Henry, Va., from which Virginia pilots guide ships into Hampton Roads and Maryland pilots take vessels up the Bay to Baltimore. We had time for a sandwich before we got a call from the canal dispatcher and went outside to the dock to board one of two pilot boats, featuring distinctive red hulls and white superstructures. Chris Lord, who maintains the transfer station, started up the Miss Kitty and brought us alongside the Nassauborg at about 1:30 in the afternoon.

The ship's crew lowered a rope ladder, which is how pilots transfer. We were faced with only a short climb of some ten or fifteen feet in calm water, and a Nassauborg crewman in red coveralls was there to offer a hand as we reached the opening in the rail. But the process of meeting up with a big ship in rough weather and clambering up the ladder can be scary, particularly off Cape Henry, where ships show up year round in all kinds of weather. "It's a controlled crash; that's really what it is," Bourgeois says. Pilots say getting on and off ships is the most dangerous part of their job.

Or at least challenging. One story has it that one pilot who'd reached the age where his hips were smaller than his waist paused to take a deep breath halfway up a 40-foot climb, and his pants fell down around his ankles so he could climb no farther. The crew had to lower a bosun's chair for him. As the story goes, that's why most pilots wear suspenders instead of belts now.

Bourgeois and Buckler aren't wearing suspenders, but they are wearing ties and jackets, as many pilots still do as a traditional sign of professionalism. The officers of the Nassauborg, by contrast, are wearing T-shirts and shorts as this hot and muggy day overpowers the desultory air conditioning, and the pilots soon doff their jackets.

Only senior pilots are allowed to take ships through the C&D Canal, so Bourgeois has the conn. The ship's master, Captain Bouwe van der Woude, stays on the bridge too, and one of the ship's licensed officers is at the wheel instead of an able seaman as would be the case in more open waters. On this Dutch-flag ship, the captain and three mates are Dutch while others in the 15-man crew are Tagalog-speaking Filipinos. Their common language is English.

Guidance by Bourgeois follows a protocol of shared, cooperative responsibility: Pilots direct navigation subject to the master's overall command of the vessel and ultimate responsibility for its safety. In practice, Bourgeois gives headings and the helmsman responds instantly. "Port ten [degrees]," says Bourgeois; "port ten," replies the helmsman. But when it comes time to change the ship's speed, Bourgeois couches the guidance more deferentially as a suggestion to the master, who then carries it out.

The Nassauborg slows as we pass Old Town Point, out of concern for the pleasure boats going back and forth or tied up along piers. Now, at the mouth of the canal, an able seaman takes the helm and the ship speeds up to 13 knots, close to its maximum. The shipping channel widens to 600 feet. Bourgeois turns the conn over to apprentice pilot Jesse Buckler.

Apprentice or not, Buckler is no novice. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., where he was salutatorian of the Class of 2002, he became a licensed officer aboard huge oil tankers operating up and down the West Coast. But he was born in Calvert County, Md., where his family has lived for six generations, and his father operated a pilot launch from the Solomons transfer station there, so he applied to become a Maryland pilot.

Besides the required maritime experience, candidates are given a tracing of the entire Bay--10 nautical charts' worth--and told to replicate its channels, buoys and depths. The markings must be accurate to within the width of a pencil eraser or your score is reduced, Buckler tells me. (This inspires a good-natured putdown from old salt Bourgeois, who graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy in 1969 and started piloting in 1970: "When I was doing it, it used to be a pencil point, not an eraser. That's how things change.")

If accepted as a pilot in training, an apprentice must serve under the supervision of a licensed pilot for two years. Nearing the end of his two years, Buckler already counts up hundreds of trips. After another three years as a junior pilot, who can conn smaller ships but still not in the C&D Canal, pilots in training can be promoted to senior pilot with no limitations.

Senior pilots work in rotation, taking ships as the badges bearing their names rise to the top of a ladder board in their office. Pilotage is mandatory for all ships in international trade, but the system doesn't discriminate among the ships. A pilot may draw a nice clean new ship like the Nassauborg, an older vessel from a Third World country where licensing and equipment standards are nowhere near as fussy, an unwieldy bulk ore carrier or tanker, or a containership with unbelievably bad sightlines blocking the view of the water for three miles ahead.

The pilots' associations function as partnerships. Like most of them, the Maryland association gets its revenues from fees set by the state for pilotage services, pays expenses out of them and divides what's left equally among the 65 senior pilots. The 40 retired pilots and four junior pilots get a reduced share of the pot. Expenses include a paid staff of an elected president and first vice president and about 50 employees--deckhands, van drivers, office dispatchers to keep track of arrivals and departures, and nine apprentice pilots. Although pilotage fees vary depending on factors including size of the vessel and difficulty of the job, the shares the senior pilots receive are equal. "Some guys get better jobs, worse jobs. Over the course of a career it evens out," says Bourgeois.

Buckler asks the master to slow again as we pass Tolchester Marina with its chute-like entry. "There's been some damage with huge waves going in there," Bourgeois explains. "If the ship's captain was doing it he'd have no idea; he'd just be busting through here."

The trip across the Bay is uneventful. That's the whole idea. "A state pilot is an insurance policy to the citizens of the state," says Bourgeois; pilots are there to ensure that safety overrides economics. Put another way, he says, the pilot's role is similar to that of air traffic controllers, who take charge when planes come into their airspace--except that the ship pilots go aboard. Pilots sometimes point out that there was no pilot aboard the Exxon Valdez when a drunken skipper put her on a reef and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound.

A couple of tug-and-tows pass in front of us, raising us on the VHF radio to advise where they are headed and in one case asking us to slow down, out of concern for our wake. The Nassauborg complies. "Thanks for the call," says Buckler.

Pilots like to talk to recreational boaters. According to pilots, when a boat gets within a mile and the pilot hasn't heard from it, they get pretty uncomfortable. Ships are required to maintain a listening watch on VHF channel 13 for ship-to-ship communications, as well as the international distress channel 16.

Besides the ship's navigation systems, pilots have their own laptops with wireless internet access and digital global postioning system, so they know exactly where other ships are.

A couple of personal watercraft buzz by within yards of the ship, without cause for concern. Buckler says the worst worry is sailboats when they lose the wind, forcing a ship to go around them. "On the other hand, powerboats are more adventurous," he adds. "They'll cut across your bow." An old saying among pilots is that if you want to live a long life, go in front of a horse and behind a ship. Anyway, the safest place for recreational boats is just outside the ship channel. "I can't think of anywhere on the Bay, if you're right outside the channel, there isn't at least 20 feet of water," says Buckler.

"Small-boat traffic is getting to be a bigger problem nowadays, particularly in rockfish season," Bourgeois says. "Sometimes on the open Bay you look on the radar and there's just targets everywhere." Piloting a ship up or down the Bay between Cape Henry and Baltimore takes an average of 11 hours, compared with four to five hours for the trip from Chesapeake City to Baltimore, and pilots can ask for relief at Solomons, Md., if they think fatigue will be a factor. Traffic increases fatigue. Passing Annapolis at the height of sailing season is what pilot George R. Miller Jr. describes as "white-knuckle time."

Wide as the channel often is, pilots prefer to keep to its center. Otherwise, the ship pushes water against the near bank, which pushes it back. So when meeting another ship, it's best to try to make your move as late as possible to minimize the effect of their wakes pushing them toward each other. "Ships get a little squirrelly" when depth is lacking, Bourgeois explains. "You need patience. There's a tendency to make your move too early. And if you get over too soon, you can get in trouble."

There is no need for that on our trip, as we meet no other ships on our approach to Baltimore Harbor. In fact, the average number of ships entering the Port of Baltimore is only slightly over a half-dozen a day. But thanks to the mystifying economics of international trade, in which ships keep getting bigger and crews keep getting smaller, these vessels pump billons of dollars into the state's economy each year--an estimated $2 billion in payroll, $1.5 billion in business revenue and $220 million in state and local taxes. Last year more than 32 million tons of foreign cargo with a value of more than $35 billion--a record--moved through the port.

The Nassauborg is passing alongside evidence of changing times. To starboard is Sparrows Point, where the Bethlehem Steel Corporation used to operate a steel plant and a shipyard and was at one point Maryland's largest employer with as many as 30,000 workers, according to Robert C. Keith's fascinating 2006 book, Baltimore Harbor: A Pictorial

History. Bethlehem has since gone bankrupt and the steelmaking facilities are now operated by a European conglomerate that employs some 2,500 workers there. Meanwhile, South Korea has become the big shipbuilding center. So Sparrows Point is nowhere near as active as it was, although there are schemes to put it to more intensive use, including a proposal to put a liquefied natural gas terminal there.

After we pass under the Francis Scott Key Bridge we see Curtis Bay on our port side. It's one sign of continuity: CSX Transportation still transfers coal and ore between ships and rail cars there--as its predecessor, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, started doing in the 19th century at another site in the city.

Across the Patapsco on our starboard side we see the 570-acre Dundalk Marine Terminal, one of the major achievements of the Maryland Port Authority (MPA), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The terminal is built on the former site of Baltimore's airport on fill dredged from the harbor. The MPA took it over from the city about a decade later and now it's a multipurpose facility, handling a range of cargo including forest products, containers, cars and trucks, and what's called roll on/roll off (Ro-Ro) equipment--big off-road vehicles that are driven on or off ships via ramps leading through gaping doors in the sterns or sides. Last May, more than 200 members of the International Longshoremen's Association took part in a two-day Ro-Ro Rodeo, showing off their handling of the tractors, backhoes, combines and other heavy equipment that come through the port. Partly because Baltimore is closest to Midwestern manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar, it is now the leading Ro-Ro port on the East Coast with nearly half the market.

Today a huge auto carrier lies alongside a berth at the Dundalk terminal. The auto importing trade has grown exponentially, too, since the first Volkswagen Beetles landed in 1963. That was at a pier in the Inner Harbor--which is now a magnet for millions of visitors each year--something that shipping advocates initially opposed. Now the cars go to the much larger Dundalk terminal.

Now we pass Seagirt Marine Terminal to starboard. Also developed by the MPA, it exclusively handles the box-like containers that can be transferred among ships, trucks and trains and typically carry manufactured goods including delicate electronic equipment.

At Seagirt, seven huge cranes loom on rails alongside the water, each boasting a crew of about 30 longshore workers and capable of lifting more than 50 tons at a time. Seagirt's cranes move an average of 35 containers per hour per ship and have moved as many as 47 per hour. Plans are to dredge the channel to 50 feet so Seagirt can handle the biggest of the ever-growing containerships.

Sitting next to the water is a self-propelled x-ray machine operated by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol that scans the containers as they arrive by sea, and lined up awaiting inspection at the terminal's gates are scores of trucks to haul the containers. If containers are unsealed, a longshoreman checks the interior; if they are sealed he or she checks the seal against computerized records. While ashore, the containers are moved around by big rubber-tired gantries that straddle them, or for the lighter loads, by forklift-like "toploaders."

Inland from Seagirt is an "intermodal transfer facility", where containers can be loaded onto trains. It's operated by CSXT, which years ago decided that if it couldn't fight the trucks it would join them. Today the facility is a model of its kind, which the railroad's executives show off to visitors to demonstrate how it should be done.

On the port side of our ship, across from the Dundalk and Seagirt terminals, is another sign of how the Port of Baltimore has transformed itself in the last half century. During World War II it was the site of what Keith's Baltimore Harbor calls the "miracle at Fairfield." Up to 47,000 Bethlehem Steel workers turned out more than 500 ships, including hundreds of Liberty and Victory ships to carry supplies to U.S. troops and allies, setting a world shipbuilding record. Now three different operators process and transfer cars at Fairfield Marine Terminal.

The port has many private terminals, often serving niche markets. Rukert Marine Terminals, owned and operated by the same family since 1921, handles a lot of bulk cargo on its 125 acres in the section of Baltimore known as Canton, from fertilizer and bulk metals to Chilean road salt. On a busy day in a bad winter, 600 trucks move through to pick up salt. The family jokes that its mottos are "Ice Is Nice" and "Think Snow."

George F. "Bud" Nixon Jr., grandson of founder W.G.N. "Cap" Rukert and chairman of the Private Sector Port Coalition, retired in 2002 as chairman of the company. He says port employees work 24/7 except for eight primary holidays sometimes confusing for foreign shippers. "It's tough. A ship comes, it works," he says, meaning it's loaded or unloaded right away. "The whole Port of Baltimore is a hardworking bunch," he adds. "What else has been around and so supportive for 300 years?"

As we near Locust Point, our final destination, the green range light at the tip of Fort McHenry appears to be directly below the red one behind it, meaning we're dead center in the channel. Pilot Bourgeois observes that, contrary to what you might think, it's easier to conn a ship from a bridge on the stern, as on the Nassauborg, than from a position high and forward on a 6,000-car carrier, because the pilot can see the rate of turn better from the stern.

Locust Point encapsulates much of the port's history: In 1706 colonial legislators designated the area known as Whetstone Point as the Port of Baltimore and a thriving trade in tobacco began; in 1814 the defenders of Fort McHenry at its tip warded off British attackers, who had pretty much had their way everywhere else, including burning Washington, D.C.; in 1827 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad started shipping coal. But Locust Point too is changing with the times; the Maryland Port Authority opened a terminal this year to cater to cruise ships.

As we swing into South Locust Point, Jesse Buckler hands over the conn to Captain van der Woude. The Nassauborg is relatively small and equipped with bow and stern thrusters, so no tugs are needed and either the pilot or ship's master could dock her.

Most ships coming to Baltimore are aided by tugboats, in which case they must have a docking master aboard to communicate with the tug skippers. The formerly separate Association of Maryland Docking Pilots has now merged with the Bay pilots' organization, and apprentice pilots like Jesse Buckler are being cross-trained. "It's a whole different skill set," Buckler observes.

Even without the conn, Buckler isn't idle. Docking is a lengthy and complicated process, and he is on the VHF serving as interlocutor between line handlers onshore and the ship's master, who then communicates in Dutch with his ship's officers.

It's dusk now, and threatening rain, as Bourgeois, Buckler and I make our way down the gangplank to the waiting van. In a later e-mail, Captain van der Woude says he had hoped to unload the next day, a Sunday, using the ship's own cranes to empty the holds. But the threat of bad weather was fulfilled, and the Nassauborg lost three days. Rain fell all day Sunday and there were no cargo operations at all because the paper had to be completely dry, on orders from the receivers of the cargo, van der Woude explains. The ship could discharge cargo only on half days until the following Wednesday, finally finishing the job Saturday--a week after arrival--instead of on Tuesday evening as planned.

"Only the crew is not complaining; they consider Baltimore as our second home port," says Captain van der Woude, whose next destination would be Canada, to pick up a load of paper destined for Turkey.

Shipping will continue through the winter, Bourgeois notes, although ice can pull the navigational buoys off station or make it more difficult to see them. Sometimes the ships will have to break through ice, but they won't stop. Winter storms will make it more difficult for the ships to swing around at Cape Henry and "make a lee," so the pilots can climb the ladders sheltered to some extent from the wind and weather. But they will, and the pilots will keep climbing onboard--suspenders and all.

WOMAN WITH A MISSION

The bustling and vital activity of the Port of Baltimore is "hidden in plain sight," grumbles Helen Delich Bentley, its diminutive doyenne. "There's practically nobody in the state of Maryland who knows anything about the port," she has complained. To correct that, she signed on to head the official Port of Baltimore Tricentennial Committee, funded by state and private donations. All year she has gone around praising the importance of maritime trade to anyone her public relations team can round up. And thanks to this new emphasis, "Marylanders are actually waking up to the fact that there's a port in Baltimore," Bentley says.

She's been preaching the same sermon for nearly 60 of the 300 years since the Maryland General Assembly designated an area off the tip of what is now Fort McHenry as the Port of Baltimore. Now in her 80s, the Nevada-born Bentley took a reporting job at the Baltimore Sun in 1945 because it made her the best offer. Soon she was the paper's maritime reporter. She was never a stand-on-the-sidelines kind of scribe, and that was fine with the newspaper. "The Sun paper gave me a free hand to write and do what I wanted. They were very good and they were very supportive," she says. "They let me travel everywhere to look at other ports."

Bentley is not shy in describing her role in keeping the port a going concern through changing times—including the demise of U.S. steelmakers and shipbuilders, the burgeoning of car imports and the invention of containerships. It's been a long struggle, given competition from other ports and the handicap of being a long voyage from the ocean.

Take, for example, container shipping. Fifty years ago, a North Carolina trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean came up with the idea of putting truck trailers aboard tanker ships, which he figured would be best for the purpose because they had flat decks. At the Sun, Bentley heard about his idea and called McLean. "Are you serious about this, hauling trailers on ships?" she recalls asking him. "Yes, little girl, I am." And it worked, with containers later replacing the trailers.

The big breakthrough for containerships came later, during the Vietnam war, Bentley recalls. The South Vietnamese ports couldn't handle all the U.S. war materiel. "We had 90 ships laid up there," she says. "It was pretty horrendous, and the troops were not getting what they needed." The newspaper sent her over to report on the situation. She knew the undersecretary of the Navy at the time, Robert H. B. Baldwin, and when he came over "we went up in a helicopter, and I said, 'Bob, the only way you're going to break this is containers.' And that's when we got containerships into Vietnam, and we broke the jam out there."

Or take Bentley's role in formation of a public port authority. Although railroads helped build the port, they later proved a roadblock to its development. Literally. By about 1948, "trucks were coming on the scene and the railroads controlled the piers, and the railroads would not build even any aprons for the trucks to back up," Bentley recalls. "And I started going after them [in the Sun]."Although the railroads finally did begin providing aprons and ramps for trucks, Bentley and others started to press for legislation in the Maryland General Assembly to establish a public port authority that would invest the resources they saw as needed. By this time Bentley had another medium besides the Sun, a Sunday afternoon television series called The Port that Built a City and State broadcast on WMAR-TV, and she made use of it. "I brought up some of the powers-that-be from Annapolis and had them on TV talking about the port, and that helped get it through in 1956," Bentley recalls. So this year marks another anniversary, the 50th of the Maryland Port Authority.

Bentley left the Sun in 1969 to accept President Richard M. Nixon's appointment as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, which, she is quick to point out, made her the fourth highest-ranking woman in the federal government. "I was still doing maritime, which I loved," she notes. She later served in Congress, where she kept working on behalf of the port. In recognition of her long crusade, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.--a political protege who succeeded her in Congress--has formally renamed this vast enterprise the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore.

--J.V.R.