Harbor pilot: precision is a prerequisite
By Jim Flannery / Senior Writer
Andy Edelstein makes his living guiding some of the world’s largest ships into and out of Port Everglades in the heart of Florida pleasure boat country. Port pilots have brought the 1,132-foot Queen Mary II and the 1,092-foot aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan down the 2-mile, 400-foot-wide channel from the sea buoy into Fort Lauderdale’s commercial port.
|Salary range: $150,000 to $400,000|
Future employment prospects: about 1,200 jobs, 100 openings a year
Training and education: maritime college, ocean master’s license for some jobs, river pilot experience for others
For information: individual pilot associations, such as Port Everglades Pilot Association, Port Everglades, Fla. Phone: (954) 522-4491. www.pepilots.com
Guiding a ship into port starts at the Pilot House on the 15th Street canal, where Edelstein boards a 41-foot pilot boat. The boat ferries him two miles past the sea buoy, where he rendezvous with the ship and joins in a dangerous dance with the 70,000-ton behemoth. As the ship turns its lee side to the pilot boat, the crew drops a Jacob’s ladder over the side, and the pilot boat sidles up to the ship. Meanwhile, Edelstein waits for a moment when boat and ship hang suspended together on a wave so he can grab the ladder and climb up the ship’s side.
Night or day, in rough conditions or calm — Edelstein has climbed the rope ladder in 14-foot seas — every piloting job starts or ends with this absurdly dangerous choreography of climbing up the ship or down to the pilot boat. “It’s part of the job,” says Edelstein, but only one part.
Edelstein, 50, considers his harbor pilot’s job the pinnacle of a 28-year seagoing career. A 1980 graduate of the State University of New York Maritime College, he spent 15 years in the Merchant Marine, working his way up to captain of a 950-foot Panamax tanker that hauled oil from Alaska to mainland U.S. ports. “In my seagoing career, I’ve been all over the world,” he says.
A licensed state pilot since 1995, Edelstein says piloting ships into port brings into play his years of training and experience. He doesn’t take the ship’s wheel, nor does he assume its command, but he knows every inch of the channel and how to maneuver within it, so he cons the ship. He directs the helmsman.
“There’s a lot of stress,” Edelstein says. “Our pencils have no erasers. You can’t do it again if you screw up. It’s pretty exacting work.”
The Reagan’s flight deck is 252 feet wide, the channel 400 feet wide. That doesn’t leave a lot of room on either side, and when there’s a steady stream of traffic it can be tense if small craft don’t keep to the edge of the channel.
Edelstein works two weeks on, two weeks off, 52 weeks a year, Christmas and other holidays included. “Commerce never stops,” he says. When he’s “on,” he is on 24-hour call with as little as an hour’s notice, so he has to stay close to home, keep well-rested and abstain from even a single cocktail. Nine of 18 pilots are always on call for an average 35 ship movements a day, nearly 13,000 a year. It’s a demanding schedule, but Edelstein, who is married and has two children, says it is preferable to spending three months at a time at sea.
State commissions license harbor pilots as jobs open, based on qualifications and scoring on a competitive examination. Edelstein spent three years studying for it. Once hired, pilots are trained through a rigorous apprenticeship and become members of a port-specific association that operates as a private business.