Harbor Pilots First to Account for Failed Navigation

Harbor pilots are responsible for getting freighters and tankers safely into and out of the nation's major ports. The pilots must commit buoys and landmarks to memory, and study tides and currents. But when something goes wrong the harbor pilot is the first person investigators question.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When an Asian freighter hit a bridge and dumped oil into San Francisco Bay, it focused new attention on the nation's harbor pilots. Whenever a big ship heads in or out of a major port, these highly skilled experts come on board and give the captain guidance. If something goes wrong, the harbor pilot often gets the blame.

This morning, NPR's John McChesney shows us what it takes for the pilots to keep a big ship on course.

JOHN McCHESNEY: On the broad Sacramento River, our pilot boat pulls alongside the Moonstar, a Turkish freighter headed out to anchor in the San Francisco Bay. We have to climb a rope ladder up the vertical side of the huge vessel as it continues on course. It's hard enough to do this on flat water, and impossible to imagine in 20-foot seas, but the pilots do it all the time outside the Golden Gate.

Up on the Moonstar's bridge, Eric Dobson(ph), the new pilot, gets a briefing.

Unidentified Man #1: Two-degree westerly air...

Mr. ERIC DOBSON (Harbor Pilot): Okay.

Unidentified Man #1: That's pretty - that was constant throughout the transit.

Mr. DOBSON: Very well.

Unidentified Man #1: The crew speaks fluent English.

McCHESNEY: The pilots here are grateful when the crew speaks fluent English. They often don't.

Captain ED MELVIN (Harbor Pilot): There are many ways to get around it. It's difficult, but you do everything from speak broken English to sometimes even drawings.

McCHESNEY: Captain Ed Melvin, 56, has been a bar pilot for 20 years. He's supervising Dobson, who's an apprentice. With close-cropped white hair and a ruddy face, Captain Melvin is every bit the old salt.

He knows that a ship involved in a recent oil spill had a Chinese crew who may have had difficulty communicating with one of his fellow pilots. He watches as Dobson calls out steering directions to the Turkish helmsman who echoes his commands.

Mr. DOBSON: Port 10.

Unidentified Man #2: Port 10, Port 10.

Mr. DOBSON: Thank you. Port 20.

Unidentified Man #2: Port 20.

McCHESNEY: Currents in the bay can run as high as six knots. That's nearly half the speed of this ship. There was a strong current running at the time of the oil spill collision.

Today on the Moonstar, apprentice Dobson makes early corrections as Captain Melvin watches.

Capt. MELVIN: So he's going to leave the current quite a bit to give himself drift room sideways in the channel.

McCHESNEY: The 60 San Francisco pilots have to commit all buoys and landmarks to memory, and they study tides and currents for each of the nearly 10,000 runs they make each year.

The Moonstar is a hundred feet wide, nearly two football fields long, and it's still only half the size of the ship involved in that accident. She doesn't turn on a dime or stop when you hit the breaks. We're now heading toward a narrow railroad bridge.

Listen while Dobson commands the helmsman, even as he's talking with the drawbridge crew.

Mr. DOBSON: (Unintelligible) railroad bridge, 38 tango.

Unidentified Man #3: Yes, I got you in visual.

Mr. DOBSON: 410.

Unidentified Man #3: As soon as this freight train clears the bridge I will be raising it and I should be calling you in about - oh, in three or four minutes.

Mr. DOBSON: Excellent, thank you.

McCHESNEY: Just as we slip under the bridge, Dobson is staring at another problem. A tugboat, the Altair(ph), pushing a huge barge is cutting across our bow. Dobson against directs the helm while talking in the radio.

Mr. DOBSON: Midship.

Unidentified Man #4: Midship.

Mr. DOBSON: Starboard 10.

Unidentified Man #4: Starboard, 10.

Mr. DOBSON: Tug out there, 38 tango

Unidentified Man #5: Got a 38 tango (unintelligible) you just want to maintain your course, I'll take your stern.

Mr. DOBSON: Okay, I can't maintain it for long, but I'll see you starboard. As soon as you can spin that thing around, I would appreciate it.

McCHESNEY: When the tug and the barge slipped past our stern, there's a palpable sense of relief. As we swing out into the San Francisco Bay, dark descends. Dobson and Melvin peer into the two radar screens filled with glowing, green shapes.

Capt. MELVIN: Each one of these blobs mean something to us, and we're familiar with them.

McCHESNEY: But they don't always encounter familiar electronic equipment. Standardization common to aircraft doesn't exist on ships. The pilot of the ship that hit the bridge says the radar wasn't functioning properly and that electronic charts used unfamiliar symbology; and Captain Melvin says that accident has cast a shadow over all the pilots.

Capt. MELVIN: We're all stunned, yeah. It's tough to have to listen to some of the things that are being said when everyone is - their performance is being reduced to not knowing what they're doing.

McCHESNEY: As we approached the Bay bridge where the accident happened, we're quickly enveloped in fog; then, just as suddenly, we break out, the bridge clearly visible ahead, and we slip under.

An uneventful passage.

Capt. MELVIN: As they all should be.

Mr. DOBSON: Stop engine.

Unidentified Man #6: Stop engine.

Capt. MELVIN: And hard to port now.

McCHESNEY: The Moonstar crew drops anchor and the pilot's job is done for today.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

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