Ships And Ladders

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A pilot prepares to board a ship at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. 

A pilot prepares to board a ship at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. 

It’s a stormy morning near the Virginia Capes as the pilot boat Patapsco maneuvers alongside a bulk carrier. With waves crashing over the bow, the captain of the small pilot vessel must skillfully position Patapsco within feet of the moving ship to allow a pilot to board.

The pilot’s job is to safely guide the slow and cumbersome ship out of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic Ocean. But first he must hop off the pilot boat and scramble up the side of the moving ship using a Jacob’s Ladder. Watch as a crewmember offloads a gear bag before the pilot scales the ship’s formidable topsides.

Becoming a pilot takes many years of specialized schooling, an intense apprenticeship period and then an official licensing test. The test Maryland pilots take includes a section where they must draw, by hand, all of the major Chesapeake charts, including depths, navigation markers, landmarks, bridge heights and other pertinent information, all from memory.