The 601-foot tanker West Virginia is docked at the Marathon Petroleum Corp. oil terminal in Port Tampa Bay, Florida. She has unloaded her cargo and is about to set sail for a refinery in Louisiana.

Capt. Carolyn Kurtz is on the starboard bridge wing with the vessel’s master, Capt. James Cunningham. It’s Cunningham’s ship, but it will be Kurtz, a Tampa Bay pilot, who will take the Crowley Maritime tanker off the dock this morning and to the Gulf of Mexico.

West Virginia is facing up the dead-end Ybor Channel and needs to be turned around. Royal Caribbean’s 958-foot cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas is docked across the channel with a tug and fuel barge, which is only 150 feet away. Once Kurtz moves the tanker’s 106-foot-wide hull into the ship channel, she’ll have only 20 feet of clearance to reverse past two floating drydocks 60 feet to starboard, back into the Ybor Turning Basin, and get back into the channel.

 The tanker backs out of the Ybor Channel.

 The tanker backs out of the Ybor Channel.

“It’s a little tight today,” she says with a wry smile.

This is not Kurtz’s first rodeo. She’s been piloting for 25 years, and this will be her 3,763rd ship move. She chats amicably with the captain and crew while surveying the situation. “You have to have a plan,” she says about piloting.

Kurtz has loved ships and shipping since she was little. Her father was a vice president for Overseas Shipholding Group in New York City, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she’d join her mother and sister every summer as a cargo-ship passenger bound for Spain, Panama, Scotland, Belgium or Israel.

At age 5, she told her mother she was going to be a ship’s captain. At 16, she told her father she wanted to work on a cargo ship for the summer. He told her it was no place for a teenage girl.

“I applied to maritime school, got in, and that was that,” Kurtz says. “He was excited when I got in.”

After graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, in 1986, Kurtz spent almost nine years at sea. Starting as a third mate, she sailed crude oil tankers and bulk carriers to Alaska, Hawaii, Panama, Egypt, Peru and Sri Lanka—and rapidly rose to chief mate. She wanted to keep working on ships, but also start a family. “Piloting is kind of a perfect job for a parent,” she says. “You’re not gone six months of the year.”

In 1995, she became Florida’s first female harbor pilot and one of the first female pilots in the country by scoring highest on a competitive state exam. One requirement was to fill in a blank chart of Tampa Bay from memory, including all the navigable channels, hazards, docks, anchorages, shoals, turning basins, horizontal and vertical structure clearances, depths of concern (including the year they were charted) and aids to navigation with their name, type, color, shape, number, light and sound characteristics.

After winning the job, she spent 30 months as a deputy pilot, training with the Tampa Bay Pilots Association.

“I remember she had natural ability,” says Jorge Viso, president of the American Pilots’ Association who helped train Kurtz. “She had the instinctual feel for what the ship was doing. A woman pilot was still a rarity in 1995. There was hesitancy from some of the older pilots when she came on board, but she quietly allayed those fears.”

Kurtz has moved everything from 1,000-foot container ships and 90,000-ton cruise ships to smaller vessels, like articulated tugs and barges (ATBs). “The cruise ships with their azipods are faster and more maneuverable,” she says, “but they also have more than 100,000 square feet of sail area, which can make them a challenge when the wind kicks up.”

Pilot Carolyn Kurtz and Capt. James Cunningham scan the waters from the bridge.

Pilot Carolyn Kurtz and Capt. James Cunningham scan the waters from the bridge.

Kurtz likes driving tankers. Forty percent of Florida’s refined petroleum products come through Port Tampa Bay. “You give me two loaded tankers a day, and I won’t complain,” she says.

To get West Virginia off the dock and turned around, two tractor tugs are tied off to the port side. Each has twin 2,500-hp engines and 70 tons of bollard pull. Patriot is secured to the stern and Independent to the bow.

Kurtz has plugged a GPS, AIS and gyro into a panel forward on the bridge that taps into the ship’s navigational systems. Using an iPad, she then has a bird’s-eye view of the space around West Virginia, and a greater degree of accuracy than the ship’s gear. The system also gives her mobility and a battery-operated backup in case the tanker has a power failure.

She and Cunningham have worked together previously and developed a level of trust, but some captains fear turning over their vessel to a pilot they don’t know. And when the pilot is a woman, things sometimes get weird. Kurtz says captains have tried to kiss her instead of shaking hands or said inappropriate or offensive things. One captain covertly engaged a bow thruster while she was docking a ship. She roundly told him to lay off the bow thruster or dock it without her.

“We have ships from all over the world,” she says. “I was 31 when I started. I would get on a ship and they would say, ‘Why are you doing this? You should be at home raising a family,’ and then at the end they’d say, ‘You did a nice job. Will you be our pilot next time?’”

“It’s not the friendliest environment for women,” Kurtz says, “but it’s really improving. When I started, the oil companies hired a lot of women, and I now see more women on ships.”

Cunningham seems to have no issues with a woman pilot as he prepares to relinquish control. With the ship still tied to the dock, he steps to the bridge to test the engine, then rejoins Kurtz on the bridge wing. Both captains carry portable radios to communicate with the tug captains, West Virginia’s bridge and the watchmen posted around the ship. Kurtz has already made a port security call, reporting West Virginia’s location and intentions.

While the tugs hold the vessel against the dock, Cunningham orders the ship’s crew to take in the lines. At 0815, as the last line is slipped, Kurtz takes the conn and orders the tugs to pull the ship off the dock.

Kurtz is at ease at the conn.

Kurtz is at ease at the conn.

As the tanker slowly slides sideways into the channel, she tells Independent to stop, and then orders West Virginia dead slow astern. As the tanker starts moving aft, the sideways momentum continues to carry her toward the cruise ship’s fuel barge. With 35 feet of clearance, just as it looks like the tanker’s aft progress will drag Independent’s stern into the fuel barge, Kurtz tells the tug to push a little and fold in if needed. Independent pushes, spins on her own axis and after both vessels clear the barge by about 25 feet, the tug rotates her stern out again.

As the tanker eases past the cruise ship, Kurtz uses Patriot to pull West Virginia’s stern away from the two drydocks 60 feet to starboard, clears the World War II ship American Victory positioned to port, and then executes the reverse turn into the basin. She uses Independent to push the bow to starboard and Patriot to pull the stern to port while keeping the tanker’s bow away from the two drydocks.

Twenty minutes into the maneuver, the ship is in the basin, perpendicular to the channel and facing the drydocks. As West Virginia’s bow continues to swing around and the ship is almost aiming down the channel, Kurtz calls for “hard right” from the helmsman. Then she orders “dead slow ahead” from the third mate at the engine control. As the ship creeps forward, Kurtz tells Patriot to “run along.” At a critical moment, when a noise on the bridge prevents the helmsman from hearing Kurtz order “right 10” and he doesn’t respond, she calmly repeats the order and gets a response.

At 0840, Kurtz has ensconced herself forward on the bridge as West Virginia heads for the Gulf at 3.2 knots. As the ship picks up speed, Kurtz tells Cunningham he can, “when it’s safe, let go the forward tug, but hang onto the aft tug.” Kurtz no longer needs Independent but wants Patriot to stick around. The tanker’s diesel engine is fuel efficient, but its lowest operating speed propels the ship faster than the channel’s unofficial 4-knot speed limit. Patriot may have to be used as a brake.

The trickiest and most labor-intensive part of Kurtz’s job is now done, but the most dangerous part will come at the end.

At 0902, as the ship enters Hillsborough Bay, Kurtz orders “let go of the after tug.” West Virginia is now on her own. For the next three hours, Kurtz will order speed and course corrections while keeping an eye out for trouble. On a straightaway in the channel with nothing but water in sight, Kurtz steps away from the center window to get a cup of coffee.

By 0927, West Virginia is doing almost 12 knots. Kurtz calls out course corrections while making small talk. The sun is shining, there’s little wind and virtually no waves, and the visibility is excellent. “Look at this day,” Kurtz says. But soon, she spots a potential problem on the AIS.

Jacob A, a commercial fishing vessel, has earned a bad reputation among Tampa Bay pilots for loitering in the channel, behaving unpredictably and failing to communicate. Recently, it turned without warning and crossed in front of a ship at close range.

Over the VHF radio, she talks to the pilot who got crossed by the fishing vessel the week before. He is on a 677-foot ATB called the Tina Pyne and they discuss Jacob A’s boorish behavior.

Kurtz continues to monitor Jacob A on AIS and as the fishing vessel comes into view, makes multiple attempts to raise her on the VHF radio. All Kurtz gets is crickets. As the 86-footer chugs along in the channel, all eyes on West Virginia’s bridge are on Jacob A, until she passes to port without incident.

In the Gulf, the Tampa Bay pilot boat Manatee pulls alongside to get Kurtz off the ship.

In the Gulf, the Tampa Bay pilot boat Manatee pulls alongside to get Kurtz off the ship.

Soon, another commercial fishing boat comes into view. It’s approaching a turn, and Kurtz wants to know its intentions. The first three VHF radio calls are met with silence. On the fourth, Kurtz asks for a switch to channel 13. The fifth call also goes unheeded. On the sixth, Kurtz asks how the fishing vessel would like to meet. There is unintelligible garble, but then a voice says, ‘port to port.’ Slowly, the fishing vessel’s bow moves to starboard, cuts the corner and leaves the channel to Kurtz.

Tampa Bay’s Shipping Channel is 39 feet deep and 500 feet wide, but in a turn, West Virginia can consume a good chunk of that, and if a large ship is inbound, things can get tight.

At the next turn, Tina Pyne is dead ahead. The ATB is cranking and coming fast.

Because the flood tide can set West Virginia sideways, Kurtz compensates by starting her own turn early. The two Crowley vessels pass each other as two more commercial fishing boats appear. “What’s with all the boats today?” Kurtz says to no one in particular.

Fortunately, West Virginia is not loaded down and only drawing 28 feet. If Kurtz gets in a pinch with oncoming traffic, she could resort to riding the channel’s edges, where the limestone bottom is dredged at a 45-degree angle.

But there the dredging sometimes creates undercuts in the side of the channel. They attract fish and the recreational fishermen who want to catch them. From the bridge, 85 feet above the water and almost 500 feet back from the bow, 25-foot center consoles look like ants. Most of the fishermen hang just outside the channel, but Kurtz, Cunningham and the third mate regularly scan the water with binoculars. As West Virginia approaches the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Cunningham spots a fisherman drifting in the channel beyond the span.

Kurtz and Cunningham agree they need to blow the whistle. “This is going to scare all the people on the bridge,” she says, but she has no choice. The whistle wails and, seconds later, the fisherman starts reversing out of the channel. It spawns a conversation on the bridge about the things that give professional mariners conniptions. “Ah, Jet Skis,” Cunningham says. “Hate them.”

As the pilot station at Fort De Soto Park comes into view to starboard, another Crowley tanker, Garden State, enters the bay from the Gulf. Cunningham steps onto the port bridge wing and gives the other captain a wave.

The most dangerous part of a pilot’s job is using the pilot ladder to get on and off ships at sea.

The most dangerous part of a pilot’s job is using the pilot ladder to get on and off ships at sea.

Soon after, Egmont Key is passed to port and West Virginia enters the Gulf. One of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association’s three pilot boats, Manatee, appears to starboard and runs alongside as West Virginia’s crew prepares the gangway and pilot ladder for Kurtz’s disembarkation.

This is the most dangerous part of her job. Getting off the ship will require her to walk down the gangplank on the outside of the ship, transition to the rope pilot ladder, climb down and step onto the pilot boat.

At 1200, Cunningham takes the conn and slows West Virginia to 10 knots. Manatee looks like she’s glued to the tanker’s hull. The pilot boat driver has the port bow wedged against the hull while matching the ship’s speed.

“Disembarking gets stressful,” says Kurtz. “Most stressful is disembarking in rough weather, offshore, with a lot of wind and big seas. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little more cautious.”

She has reason to be concerned. Besides having a fear of heights, pilots have been killed climbing up and down the sides of ships, and multiple international regulations try to make the task safer. One newer rule stipulates that gangways must be used to reduce the length of the ladder to less than 30 feet. The longer the pilot ladder, the farther it can swing off the ship’s hull in a swell, and the harder it will slam into the hull when the ship rolls back the other way. Either scenario can send the pilot flying through the air. Just months earlier, a Sandy Hook pilot died of his injuries when he fell off a pilot ladder while boarding a container ship outside New York Harbor.

Kurtz, who is in her 50s, takes her time walking forward down the gangway. The ship’s crew has already lowered her bag to the pilot boat. She’s wearing gloves and an inflatable life jacket. When she gets to the ladder, she puts her right hand on the rope ladder while hanging on to the gangway’s railing with the other. Then she puts her right foot on the ladder. She is now 20 feet above the pilot boat.

In big seas, Kurtz has to time her transition from the ladder to the pilot boat. If she lowers herself too far down the ladder, the pilot boat could rise up and crush her.

Pilots and ships’ captains usually agree on ways to mitigate the risk. In heavier weather, good captains will slow down and turn the ship to put the pilot boat in its lee, but some captains are not so kind. Once it was too dangerous to disembark and Kurtz had to stay on the ship and sail to the next port.

Fortunately, on this day, the Gulf is as flat as a pancake and there is little or no wind. When Kurtz gets to the bottom of the pilot ladder, the pilot boat doesn’t rise or fall. She grabs the railing on the pilot boat’s bow platform and steps onto the boat like it’s a sidewalk.

Ten minutes later, Manatee’s driver drops her off at the dock at Fort De Soto Park, where she hops into her car.

“Today was a nice day,” Kurtz says, “Every day is an adventure.”

Kurtz returns to the condominium she shares with her husband, Dave, who is a harbor pilot in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her son Jack is away at college, so she will go to bed early, get up at 1 a.m., return to Fort De Soto Park and take the pilot boat to the sea buoy, where she will climb aboard an inbound vessel at 3 a.m. Once she finishes that ride, her two-week watch will end. That evening, her husband will fly in so they can enjoy their two weeks off together.

A lot of that time will be spent on the 12-year-old Legacy 32 they recently purchased. The boat is named On One, the phrase pilots frequently use to indicate passage to starboard. Her husband usually captains.

“I’ve never had a boat before,” she says somewhat sheepishly, “so I still find it a little intimidating.” 

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