A Harbor pilot’s view of Boston

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Gregg Farmer of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association climbed the rope ladder up the side of the ship waiting in the outer channel of Boston harbor as a matter of practice. He was met on the deck by the ship’s second mate and led through a maze of companionways and staircases to the bridge four deck levels up.

As he exchanged greetings with the ship’s captain on the bridge, he visually familiarized himself with the operating systems and scrutinized the banks of gauges mounted high and visible on the forward bulkhead.

The control of the ship was verbally passed to him. He peered out through the bridge windows into the dying light of evening to the inbound channel against the skyline of the city of Boston and noticed the outline of a small sailboat in the channel ahead crossing the ship’s immediate course with no apparent regard to the immanent danger of the huge ship bearing down constricted by draft and maneuverability in the relatively narrow channel.

The warning signal of five short blasts was blown from the great horns, but at this point, unbeknownst to the hapless sailor, there was nothing to do but see how it unfolded.

Momentum carried by a ship of 75,000 gross tons traveling at 6 knots would not be slowed by a full astern order in time for any change of outcome, I was later told. Nor would an alteration of course — steerageway was a function of the rudder moving through the water and at this speed, the effect was minimal. A change of course would only be accomplished with a change of rudder angle and a thrust of water from the huge propeller. None of this was going to change the immediate situation.

Farmer had been here before — too many times, he said. There was a collective holding of breath on the bridge while the little sailboat slid out of the path of the incoming ship and Farmer was able to look over the side to witness the little boat pinwheeling down the length of the ship — never touching, but spinning on the eddy line created by the water being dragged by the ship and the standing water of the channel.

Fortunately, the boat passed aft with no damage except perhaps a shaking hand on the tiller.

This story was one of many of tenuous consequence related to me during a recent interview with Farmer, who gives his solution to these situations without hesitation: “Education.”

A noble profession

Pilots have been a practical part of shipping since the first ships started exploring the world. Amerigo Vespucci was appointed Chief Pilot of Spain in 1509. It was he who made it the responsibility of any wayfaring captain to document and report any discovery of new lands or islands with characteristics that could be of benefit to the general charts of the day. Sebastian Cabot, Spanish explorer, reported dutifully and in 1549 was appointed Grand Pilot of England.

By the time sailors were coming to the North American continent, pilotage was a common practice in all the major ports of Europe. In 1783 a law was passed authorizing the Governor of Massachusetts to appoint suitable candidates to serve as pilots for the harbors of Boston, Salem, Marblehead, Gloucester, Newburyport, Plymouth, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard “and other places as may become necessary.”

Soon pilots could be found in all the major shipping ports of the North American coastline. Since its inception, pilotage has been an integral part of the global shipping and navigating network.

While great captains could run ships between two points anywhere on the planet, the need for local knowledge in the channels of destination ports could be found in the pilots, who became invaluable tools in helping vessels arrive with a cargo’s value intact. Smart captains have used this service to ensure safe arrival of ship and cargo for centuries.

While there is a certain amount of mystique surrounding this honorable profession, there is no doubt that this is the calling of only the most serious and highly trained individuals. Pilots need to have a command of the currents, tides, obstacles, reefs, aids to navigation, and potential hazards of their area of operation with no room for uncertainty.

These tools must be able to be applied in the worst of situations. Pilots are called upon to mount a ladder from the deck of a pitching launch, and scramble up the side of a ship and be able to deal with whatever environmental situation is at hand. Sometimes they are called upon to perform in the most extreme inclement weather. Pilots have been lost in the pursuit of their calling.

Pilot at the helm

Farmer graduated MassachusettsMaritimeAcademy in 1985 with a Third Mate Steam and Motor Unlimited license, and went to sea. Over the course of 13 years he upgraded licenses to 2nd mate, Chief Officer, and finally held a Masters Unlimited license, the highest license issued by the Coast Guard.

As captain of an oil tanker of American registry, he traveled the world six months a year. In his off time, he started a family.

As time passed, Farmer found himself facing the challenges of raising a family while spending so much time at sea. The long lapses in participating in his children’s lives began to outweigh the benefits of a life at sea and he began reassessing his options.

When he was offered the opportunity to train as a Boston Pilot he saw a natural solution. He could have a home life, and still work the ships and be on the sea. In 1998 Farmer joined the Boston Pilots and is now president of the association.

On a recent trip into the outer Boston Harbor Gregg Farmer piloted a scrap metal ship into the inner channel of the MysticRiver. He rode out to the ship anchored in the lee of DeerIsland aboard the pilot boat, and climbed the ladder onto the deck 20 feet above the water. We were guided by a deckhand up four flights of stairs and into the pilothouse overlooking the entire length of deck to the bow.

After introductions and passing of pertinent information, Farmer hooked his portable computer into the ship’s system. This way he was able to track the ship and the tugs that were en route to rendezvous with him in the inner channel to guide the ship to the steel recycling plant in Chelsea on the chart plotter.

As pilot, it was his responsibility to maneuver the ship safely within the confines of the channels to the final destination in the MysticRiver. The ship was already loaded with a partial cargo of scrap iron headed to Turkey. Here it would take on the 500-ton balance of cargo to make for full holds for the trip across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean Sea.

After 30 minutes Farmer gave the order to weigh anchor and instructed the helmsman in course and speed to enter the outer channel. He’d waited for the incoming tide to give another foot of depth in the channel so there would be 3 feet of water between the keel and the bottom.

With the current ballast the ship had a 37-foot draft. He also shared that there was little room for maneuvering as the optimum depth was to the left side of the channel.

The M/V Stove Trader was registered in Oslo and had a length of 610 feet and 102-foot beam. The view through the pilothouse windows showed little visible of the channel ahead. There were four huge crane towers amidships blocking the view and the high bow 450 feet ahead made for a 300-foot blind spot in the channel. Even from this high vantage point, a small boat in the channel would not be seen.

“The worst part is that a sailboat in the channel sailing across our bow thinks he has the right of way, and we can’t even see him,” Farmer said. “There is no understanding of the larger vessel being restricted in its ability to maneuver. They certainly don’t have any idea how constrained we are by our draft. We can’t even go to the other side of the channel right here. There just isn’t enough water. This is something we deal with all the time.”

As we entered the inner harbor, I went out onto the wings of the bridge and was amazed watching how close the small boats would come to the ship as it moved up the channel. Then one of the tugs from Constellation Towing slid alongside to deposit a crewman onto the ladder.

Minutes later I was introduced to Chris Deeley, the Docking Master from Constellation Towing who would work in concert with Farmer to direct the tugs in positioning the ship against the quay at the steel recycling plant.

The familiarity and respect between the two men was apparent and when Chris heard I was reporting on issues concerning small boats, he smiled.

“I got one for you,” he said.

He related a story of when he was captaining a tug towing a barge out of Boston on a clear beautiful afternoon, a 30-foot sailboat tacked over across the stern of the tug to cross ahead of the barge 200 feet astern.

The boat hung up on the tow cable and was immediately run over by the barge before anything could be done to stop it.

He shook his head. “Those two guys were really lucky. They swam out of it and only lost the boat,” he said. “In this business, you hear stories like this every year, usually with a much worse ending.”

Be alert, be safe

The passage into the MysticRiver and the docking against the steel recycling plant went without incident. Boston sees between 1,000 and 1,200 commercial ships annually at all hours, in all conditions.

In the summer months there are cruise ships and tall ships and private megayachts that come to enjoy the historic old harbor. Thousands of private boats are kept in the marinas and on moorings that have been here since the first settlers came in 1630.

The maritime heritage of this former colony is indisputable and the traffic it bears on any given day of the year is testament to that fact. And to those who access the harbor by boat, it is still the only way to see Boston.

What is needed is an educated understanding that the channels of Boston see this kind of traffic every day. To share the harbor with all of those who would go down to the water and go out in boats is also to understand that it is also one of the busiest commercial channels on the East Coast, and that the commercial channel that a 37-foot-draft ship can use is in places 200 yards wide.

There is no room for maneuvering and the right ofway goes to the ship restricted by draft and maneuverability. The onus to avoid incident between any large ship in a channel and a small sailboat, motorboat, or rowboat lies by necessity with the operators of those small boats.

This is true in any major waterway in the world because the nature of the vessels don’t change. The prudent mariner will give a wide berth to a commercial ship in any harbor anywhere.

Prudent mariners visiting Boston, or anywhere there is commercial traffic, should keep these lessons in mind.

Boating is a recreation that has been enjoyed since the first tree was hollowed. Even then the boaters who knew how to keep a weather eye and avoid unnecessary dangers were the ones who came back to port. Have a safe trip.