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The harbor pilot’s dance is a choreography of precision

The launch Vedette is bouncing across the water at 17 knots, en route to the container ship LOA, when the driver advises the pilot, who is soon to guide the 878-foot freighter out of Baltimore harbor: “Gusts this afternoon of 40 knots, Cap.”

This is the view from the bridge of the container ship M.S.C. Marianna as she approaches the Seagirt Marine Terminal. You can just make out the bow over the Conex boxes stacked on deck.

The pilot, Capt. John Traut, acknowledges this with a nod and adds, “It’s dropped out a lot,” for which they are both grateful.

A few moments later the launch gently nudges the ship, and the pilot scrambles up the rattling gangway to be greeted by an AB (able seaman) in orange coveralls on the main deck. Identification confirmed, the young sailor guides Traut to the elevator and sends him up to the bridge with the third mate, who rubs his tired eyes and shakes hands. It has been less than 12 hours since the ship docked at No. 1 berth, Seagirt Terminal, and the post-Panamax cranes are just finishing cargo movements.

On the bridge, a panoramic view of Baltimore harbor in a red sunset appears through the oversize windows. As you look forward, the bow is barely visible for the hundreds of boxes stacked on deck for a tenth of a mile. “This isn’t bad,” the pilot says. “They’re only four-high now — you should see it when they’re seven-high.”

Speaking on his portable radio, Traut greets the approaching tugs Kaleen McAllister and Donal McAllister, identifiable by their red, white and black-striped stacks. “Gentlemen, good evening. John, if you could get a line up on the shoulder, and Byshie, there should be some happy crewmembers heading your way to take your line on the quarter.”

Out on the starboard bridge wing, the Slovene first mate and captain introduce themselves in accented but clear English, and Traut explains his undocking game plan, beginning with the letting go of lines. “We’ll have them start with the stern and bow lines, then get the spring lines,” he says, spotting the line handlers 10 stories below on the dock.

This done, Traut and the ship’s officers return inside, and the pilot examines the pilot card, which gives him the ship’s dimensions, draft fore and aft, deadweight and displacement, engine speeds — “dead slow is important; this ship’s is 7.6 knots, pretty fast” — the available horsepower of the bow thruster and other information to calculate the bollard pull the tugs will have to produce to control the ship.

“The wind is our mortal enemy here in Baltimore,” Traut says. “It funnels, just funnels down the Ferry Bar Channel. The most accurate and up-to-date information on tides and currents comes from NOAA’s PORTS [Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System] stations, which for us are located on the northeast tower and northwest caisson of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

Traut points southward to the Key Bridge, 2.6 nautical miles distant. “I also have to take into account the [ship ’s] moulded depth to figure the sail area when I plan our movements. In docking pilot world, you’ve got to choreograph a lot of parts. Communication is vital to a successful operation, so I’ve told everyone what my plan is.”

On the starboard bridge wing, the ship is edging away from the dock and slightly aft as Traut speaks into the portable’s microphone. “Both boats stop; both boats get the slack out of your lines.” A few moments later, he adds: “Byshie, when you get strain in your line, away full.”

He also passes instructions to the ship’s captain, who repeats them to the first mate, who in turn relays them to the AB quartermaster in the pilothouse.

As the bow angles out between the buoys, Traut says, “We’re heading out the Elevator Channel.” He notices some confusion about the terminology. “It’s now known as the Seagirt West Channel, of course, but years ago it was called the Elevator Channel, when the grain elevator was operational,” he says, indicating a blackened masonry structure that was last used for the filming of the 2004 John Travolta/Joaquin Phoenix movie Ladder 49.

“One of the advantages here in Baltimore,” Traut says, “is the personal working relationship between the pilots and the tugboat crews. We’ve known each other for years and communicate very well. If there is a flaw with my ‘flawless’ plan, the tug masters who see what I can’t tell me, so problems can be resolved far ahead of a critical moment.”

With a combination of ship’s engines, a 2,700-hp bow thruster and tugboat muscle, the ship maneuvers into Fort McHenry Channel following the pilot’s commands, each repeated and carried out by the Filipino helmsman.

“Port 20,” says Traut.

“Coming to port 20, port 20,” says the helmsman.

“Hard port.”

“Coming hard port, captain … hard port.”

“Bow thruster full to port.”

“Bow thruster full to port.”

“Bow thruster stop.”

“Bow thruster stopped.”

“Ease to 10.”

“Ease to 10.”

“Very well.”

Once the ship is headed south for the Key Bridge and its next stop of Charleston, South Carolina, Traut turns the pilotage over to Capt. Eric Pickett, the Bay pilot who will guide the ship from Baltimore to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay at Cape Henry, 150 miles away.

“Very well, Byshie, John. We’re all done, and thank you for another fine job,” says Traut. “See you on the next job, which I believe is sailing that car ship out of Fairfield at this point.”

Traut shakes hands and compliments the crew’s officers on their performance, rides the elevator down to the main deck and swings down the Jacob’s ladder to the launch that will take him to the next job.

Asked about advice for boaters who share the water with ships, Traut is succinct. “It’s all about situational awareness,” he says. “Be aware of where the channels are, what the winds and the traffic are. Communicate with the vessels that are around you, and above all, maintain control of your vessel.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.