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Outbound For Sea

A pilot's account of a rough day on the job.

by William Band

February 5, 2010 held a forecast for a Mid-Atlantic perfect storm that didn't disappoint. At the Port of Baltimore's Atlantic Terminal I boarded the M/V Hoegh Kyoto, which was headed outbound for sea. As a Bay pilot, it was my job to safely maneuver and navigate this ship 150 miles down the Bay. The Hoegh Kyoto is a car carrier ship 600 feet long and 106 feet wide. She has a 30-foot draft and can transport approximately 5,000 automobiles. These particular ships also have tremendous sail area. The Hoegh Kyoto is 100 feet high almost its entire length, which can be problematic at low speeds with the wind on the beam.

It was already snowing when we departed at 1600. The wind was blowing SE at 20 knots and the snow was increasing as predicted. About four hours into the transit down the Bay, the blizzard of 2010 arrived with a fury. Sixty-five miles south of Baltimore, the temperatures began rising above freezing and the driving snow turned into horizontal sheets of rain. 

At midnight we met one of Mediterranean Shipping Company's large container ships in the Rappahannock channel. She was 1,000 feet long, 141 feet wide and could carry more than 7,000 containers. Her pilot and I arranged to pass on one whistle, port to port. I could see the ship's navigation lights a quarter-mile away. The wind and current were on the port side of my ship, pushing us to the right. In order to remain in the channel I had to steer a course to the left of true. The result was the slightly uncomfortable feeling of steering directly at the oncoming behemoth. We passed each other 200 feet apart at a relative speed of 32 knots.

At 0150 we were approaching the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. We were eight miles distant from where Chesapeake Bay meets Atlantic Ocean and my job as pilot would be finished. There was a two knot current on the Hoegh Kyoto's nose and 60 knots of wind out of the NE.

Suddenly, I felt a difference in the vibration of the deck under my feet. The vibration is caused by the huge main engine down in the bowels of the ship. A quick glance at the engine's rpm confirmed that we were losing power. At almost the same time, the bridge telephone rang and the captain spoke to the engineers down below. "Mr. Pilot, we have a small problem," he said. "We can only go slow speed."

This "small problem" was an understatement. We had carried controllable speed over the bridge-tunnel, but the ship's speed was slowing dramatically. The wind was now on our port side blowing steadily at 60 knots, with peak gusts in the low 70s. The ship began to drift rapidly to the right, out of the channel. I had to bring the ship to a course 50 degrees to port, and still we were drifting to starboard. Our forward speed was a mere 6.5 knots. Unfortunately, anchoring a car carrier in these conditions was not an option, as they are notorious for dragging anchor in high winds. Now east of the bridge-tunnel, our ship was also beginning to feel the force of the Atlantic Ocean.

Four miles ahead of our ship was a deepwater channel that we would have to use, as there is a shoal area just to its north. In nor'easters, big seas break over the shoal and roll into the deep-water channel making control of a ship difficult. I like to carry some speed through the channel in conditions like this and 6.5 knots wasn't going to do the trick.

I firmly explained to the captain that we needed at least 10 knots of speed for the next 40 minutes, and requested that he explain the situation to the engineers below. A quick conversation ensued between captain and engineer. We got the extra speed.

For a period of time, I had been aware that my pilot boat was working its way out to retrieve me. The pilot boat Patapsco is 56 feet long, and in the competent hands of her crew, made for heavy weather. In calm conditions she can do 26 knots, but not tonight. It was far too rough. As the Patapsco approached she all but disappeared between the wave heights.

After exiting the deep-water channel, I turned the ship to the south putting wind and sea on the port side, creating a lee on the starboard side where the pilot ladder was rigged and hanging. The Patapsco's operator called me on the VHF and said that he thought he could get me off in the ship's current configuration. The Hoegh Kyoto was rolling heavily and, because of the wind and current, moving sideways. By heading south, we were aimed directly at the beach at Cape Henry, just two miles away. Being so close to the beach is common for pilots, but is not always a comfortable situation for departing ship masters.

Once the Hoegh Kyoto's captain and I were satisfied with the environment and the traffic situation, the watch officer and I moved with alacrity to the pilot ladder decks below. We were met at the top of the ladder by several crewmen whose job it was to assist in my transition to the pilot boat. Farewells and good wishes were exchanged, and I stepped to the ladder.

"Pilot on the ladder," the mate informed the bridge.

Getting on and off a ship is an exercise that requires focus and timing. Indeed, it is unquestionably the most dangerous part of a pilot's job. In 2007, four American pilots were killed making the transition. A fall in tonight's conditions would end in almost certain death. The ship rolls and the pilot launch moves in its own erratic way. I moved down and stopped several feet above the deck of the pilot boat. I hung from the ladder and got a sense of the timing . . . after making a quick step, I was aboard the Patapsco. Because of the Hoegh Kyoto's sideways movement, we were glued to its side. However, the pilot boat operator's skill and two 600 horsepower engines took us neatly away.

The three of us, boat operator, deck hand and I headed back to the pilot station with huge following seas obliterating our view of the horizon as we dipped between each wave. It was a little scary. And thrilling. The crazy thing is that none of us would rather be anywhere else.

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