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Storm Season - 50-Knot gusts

50-knot gusts test marine pilot crew’s mettle

The morning of Oct. 29 wasn’t a typical day on the job for Capt. John Lasnier. West-southwest winds gusting to at least 50 knots buffeted Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, blowing roofs off waterfront condominiums and ripping yachts from their moorings.

Read the other stories in this package: Storm Season Storm Season - Jet Stream

At about 5:30 a.m. Lasnier, 49, a pilot with the Northeast Marine Pilots Association, boarded the 640-foot oil tanker Ance, docked at the Exxon/Mobile storage facility in East Providence, R.I. The Marshall Islands-flagged ship had steamed across the Atlantic, discharged its cargo, and now was bound for New York. It was Lasnier’s responsibility to guide her out of the bay and into Rhode Island Sound.

“I’d say the wind was gusting more like 60, 65 knots, but I wasn’t worried. I had a plan,” explains Lasnier, a marine pilot for more than two decades who makes his home in North Falmouth, Mass. “The wind was blowing right on the ship’s beam. To get it off the dock I told the captain to put in as much ballast as possible, and I called to make sure I had two good tugs, too, just in case.”

Although the captain remains responsible for the safety of the ship and crew, the pilot’s job is to safely maneuver the ship in and out of port.

It took Lasnier more than two hours to guide Ance through the shipping channel and out of the bay. “I discussed the weather and the scenario with the captain,” he says. “We had to take precautions and make adjustments. Because of the strong winds we had to have that ship at its sea speed [about 14 knots] to get her out of the harbor.”

As Lasnier eased the Ance past Newport, he could see the 46-foot pilot boat being tossed around in the seas. “It was eye-opening when we got toward the mouth of the bay,” Lasnier recalls. “Being on board a large vessel like Ance, you can’t always feel it when the seas are rough. Seas were rolling in 12 to 15 feet. The pilot boat had to maneuver behind the ship because it was getting pounded in the waves.”

In order to return to shore, Lasnier would have to descend a rope ladder (known as a Jacob’s ladder) hung over Ance’s lee side to the pilot boat. Even on a pleasant day, transiting the ladder can be tricky. Under these conditions, slipping off the ladder could be fatal.

“It sure was nasty,” recalls Ken Pratt of Portsmouth, R.I., the pilot boat operator that morning. “It takes a lot of skill trying to maintain a safe distance from the ship, in as calm of water as possible, so the pilot can make it down safely. The pilot boats are designed specifically to take a beating, and in those conditions you do. Somebody can get hurt. It’s days like that that make me reconsider my line of work.”

Flagged trade vessels transiting U.S. coastal waters are required by law to carry marine pilots. Foreign-flagged vessels are required to carry state pilots with licenses issued by the states in whose waters the vessel is transiting. U.S.-flagged trade vessels, depending on their cargo, can carry either a federally licensed or state marine pilot.

“It’s a long haul to becoming a state marine pilot for the Northeast Pilots Association,” says association executive director Paul Costabile. The association is based in Newport and serves the coastal waters of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and Long Island Sound between Connecticut and New York ( ).

To become a state marine pilot, candidates must have a Coast Guard unlimited master’s license and experience as a captain of ocean-going vessels, Costabile says. They must then obtain a federal marine pilot’s license — for the waters covered by the association to which they are applying — by riding 12 round trips on ships sailing through those areas and by passing the federal pilot’s exam which is administered by the Coast Guard.

“The tests amount to drawing the charts from memory, including all the navigation aids and their characteristics,” says Costabile. “There are also questions about local tides and currents and navigation.”

After obtaining a federal license applicants can apply for a probationary state pilot’s license and work hands-on alongside professional pilots on board small vessels, as well as in classrooms on computer-simulated assignments. They then will have to complete another round of rigorous tests, Costabile says, before finally obtaining a state marine pilot’s license. They continue to work with senior-level pilots and are tested by their association as they become more knowledgeable and work on larger vessels.

“It took less time for my father to become a doctor than it did for me to become a state marine pilot,” says Capt. Howard McVay, president of the Northeast Pilots Association and a marine pilot for nearly 30 years. “This is a dangerous job, and pilots have to be some of the most highly trained mariners in the world. As of October there were 1,044 state marine pilots in the country, and about 30 or 40 more with only federal licenses. Worldwide, 11 marine pilots were killed on the job [in 2006]. In the U.S., there were three, and they all died while getting on and off the vessels. By far, that is the most dangerous part of the job.”

“Climbing down the side of a ship in the dark at 3 a.m. in bad winter weather, you’re thinking to yourself, What the hell am I doing?” says Lasnier. “For all of the technological advances we’ve seen in our boats and in navigation systems, pilots are still climbing up and down rope ladders. We can wear inflatable vests with EPIRBs, and some pilots wear helmets, but there’s really nothing stopping us from slipping and falling.”

Another danger is getting crushed between the pilot boat and the commercial vessel. “If the seas are heavy, a pilot could be coming down that ladder, the pilot boat can surge upward so that the pilot is actually below the deck of the pilot boat,” explains Peter Dunning, 52, who is from Newport and has been a pilot boat operator for more than 30 years. “If an operator doesn’t have control, the ship could collide with the pilot boat, crushing the pilot.”

If seas are rough and the pilot boat cannot be pulled close enough for a safe transfer, the pilot and/or pilot boat operator can decide to postpone the job. “A pilot is in communication with the pilot boat operator over walkie-talkie,” Lasnier says. “In the winter, the weather can really complicate getting pilots on and off the vessels. The seas get rough, and pilot ladders freeze. If the conditions are too severe we’ll call it off and wait for the weather to subside.”

Although the weather on the morning of Oct. 29 obviously was far from ideal, pilot boat operator Pratt was able to transfer Lasnier safely from the Ance to the pilot boat. “There was a little motion alongside the ship, near the ladder, but John was able to time it right and step safely on board,” he says. “You match the swell with the ship’s motion and hope for the best.”

As “commonplace” as this may be for pilots, Lasnier says, they cannot be complacent in any part of the job. “It’s rewarding when you get on a ship, bring it in and dock it,” he says. “You look back and say, I did that. That in mind, you’re only as good as your last job. This is a stressful job, no doubt.”