The Life of a Marine Pilot

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By Allen Cox

A thick blanket of November fog was settling on Puget Sound when Capt. Michael Anthony poured his morning coffee and checked weather report. Later that day conditions didn’t worsen, he be climbing the pilot ladder to board a Korean vessel slowly heading for the Port of Tacoma. He knew waters well, but aiming the bow of a giant cargo vessel that is 1,200-feet long and 160-feet wide into Tacoma’s Blair Waterway—2.5 miles long and only 700-feet wide—was a challenge even on a clear day. Once onboard, if he could see beyond the bow from the bridge, he would be good to go.

Anthony was primed for the task; he had piloted hundreds of foreign ships safely into ports for 18 years, and had learned to take nothing for granted. No two piloting jobs are alike.

Marine pilots make up an elite cadre of only about 1,100 individuals in the U.S., including 53 in Puget Sound. Anthony is a certified member of Puget Sound Pilots—one of several marine pilot associations in the country, and one the largest due to the volume and frequency of commerce in Puget Sound’s concentration of ports. Before working the waters of Puget Sound, Anthony perfected his expertise piloting vessels for 13 years on the unforgiving seas of Western Alaska, including Dutch Harbor.

“We are the local experts,” Anthony says, referring to the importance of someone familiar with local waters and the port to safely pilot foreign vessels to the dock. According to regulations, all foreign ships larger than 200 feet must be guided into and out of port by a marine pilot. Most vessels entering Puget Sound are between 60 and 1,200 feet. When one considers that many of the ship captains are unfamiliar with the local waters and regulations and may not speak English, the role of the marine pilot is even more crucial.

Marine pilots are independent, certified professionals. Anthony is quick to point out that his top priority as a marine pilot is safety. This includes the safety of people and the protection of the environment, infrastructure and marine traffic, including local ferries and pleasure craft. His next priority is commerce or the cargo. Puget Sound is among the busiest and largest port regions in the U.S., and safe passage for ships is a major force in the region’s economy.

“We’ve been around as long as pirates,” says Anthony.

“Once on board, I act as an advisor to the ship captain,” Anthony says. “I give the captain an overview of the intended route and vessel particulars, and I complete the necessary paperwork. Then, I take over the navigation and helm controls. Often, the captain retreats to his quarters while I am piloting the ship.”

Marine pilots also work with tug boats as key players in getting ships safely through a waterway to port. Before becoming a marine pilot, Anthony was a tug boat captain for 15 years. This insider’s knowledge gives him an edge in working with tug captains and crew to get the job done. During a piloting job, “I am the eyes and voice of the tug,” says Anthony.

Working on the seas for so many years has made piloting ships part of Anthony’s DNA. But, it’s not a profession one is born to. Pilots are skilled, experienced marine captains. Testing and certification is difficult and rigorous. State regulations and marine pilot associations certify only a fraction of those who test, and testing typically occurs every four to six years in Washington state. According to Anthony, a recent testing round included 43 applicants, each a seasoned ship captain; only 13 passed.

Testing involves a state exam; candidates who pass that go on to an exam with a simulator (a room designed to resemble a ship’s bridge with all the bells and whistles). If they pass that, three years of training begins, which includes more than 300 ship maneuvers. Each pilot must hold an unrestricted federal pilotage endorsement, which certifies familiarity with local waters.

To be licensed, Anthony and his fellow pilots not only must pass the written and simulator exams, but must also demonstrate that they can draw navigational charts of local waterways from memory, and they must write accurate descriptions of land masses and local waterway hazards. Periodic continuation training ensures that Anthony and his fellow pilots are equipped to handle the latest technology as well as the latest and largest ships. New pilots must complete upgrade trips each year for five years, piloting larger and larger vessels in the same waters before moving on to pilot the largest tankers, container vessels and cruise ships in Puget Sound.

Because each piloting job is different—due to the ship, the crew, the weather and the port—Anthony’s work is never dull, and he can never afford to become lax on a job. With a 1,200-foot ship in his care, not to mention the crew, the dock and the cargo, he performs every job at the top of his game. When asked what he loves about being a marine pilot, his answer is simply “the variety of work,” which speaks volumes about the complexity of his daily routine.

Anthony also enjoys meeting and chatting with the foreign crews aboard a vessel. He estimates 50 to 60 percent of the crew members aboard ships coming into Puget Sound are from the Philippines. “They always seem interested in talking about sports and politics,” Anthony says.

The profession of marine pilot has been around in one form or another for as long as there has been commerce on the high seas. “We’ve been around as long as pirates,” says Anthony.

Did you know?

  • Marine pilots are the first American presence onboard foreign vessels entering Puget Sound.
  • More than 7,700 times a year, marine pilots board vessels entering or leaving Puget Sound.
  • Sixty-five percent of piloting jobs are performed at night.
  • Puget Sound pilots must navigate waters with 1.4 million recreational boaters.
  • Puget Sound pilots have completed more than 250,000 piloting jobs over the last 25 years with no major incidents.
  • The Puget Sound region transported more than 3.6 million containers in 2016.
  • The USCG just ranked Puget Sound as the safest port in the USA.