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REPOST: Pier to pier: out with the port’s harbor pilots

Posted on Nov 10 2023

 REPOST for education:


It’s a sunny Thursday, and I’m a few miles out from the harbor at Westport, waiting for my turn to jump from the pilot boat to the pilot ladder draped down the side of the moving freighter and reflecting how my regular commute doesn’t generally involve leaping between moving vehicles before climbing up the clifflike sides of the underway vessel.

But for the harbor pilots of the Port of Grays Harbor, this is their regular commute. Moreover, this Thursday, with its calm seas and bright sunshine, is about as close as they get to an easy trip to work.

“As for the trickiest part, it’s when we have to hang off the side of a ship on a rope ladder, during a cold and windy night, with 13-foot seas,” said Capt. Ryan Leo, one of the port’s harbor pilots. “Trying to get onto the pilot boat in such conditions can be quite challenging. If it becomes too difficult, we consider the option of getting winched off by a helicopter, which brings a whole new set of considerations.”

But on this Thursday, there’s no helicopters and no worries. Getting on the ladder is about as difficult as stepping off the metro onto the station platform, before I start climbing up.

Aboard, it’s warm — maybe all that sun on the steel decks? — as one of the ship’s mates greets us as we come aboard. The trip out was carried out with little fanfare — boarding the pilot boat at Westport Marina, heading out to sea accompanied by a few squadrons of pelicans flying in formation with the pilot boat in its garish yellow livery all executed with the fanfare of getting a ride to work with a coworker.

It’s a first for me here in Westport, riding out past the jetty and its colonies of seabirds as we head toward the distant dot of the ship waiting for us to come aboard so the pilot, a federal requirement, can take the 190-meter-long — 623 feet — vessel in through the waterways of Grays Harbor.

“It’s a combination of local knowledge, ship handling ability and having a mariner’s eye,” Leo said. “That’s why we run the route hundreds of times in all different conditions in the training program.”

After the pilot swings around the stern of the SLNC Severn — Schuyler Line Navigation Company, flagged out of Annapolis, I notice with a pang of nostalgia for the East Coast — and comes up on the starboard side to put us aboard, we make our way up the side and are welcomed board. This day, it’s Leo, myself, and a trainee pilot from another port who’s doing a ridealong to gain more experience as he works toward qualifying in this vanishingly small professional field.

Climbing rapidly up the external ladderwells to the bridge, one-two-three-four, and I’m most grateful to have the opportunity to reflect on the warmth as I sweat through my shirt before we come to the cool and quiet of the bridge.

Leo and the captain go through their greetings, going over the paperwork and the ship’s condition and getting everything situated before we get moving, heading in toward the harbor’s mouth. The captain and bridge crew move to Leo’s orders as he calls out helm and engine orders, referring to his gear, precise maps of the hydrography.

The Severn has an ever-so-gentle roll that I’m sure I’d not notice after any time at sea, and the rumble of the engines deep in the hull varies as we throttle up and down; the shore grows more and more defined.

The captain and Leo talk about mutual acquaintances, ships’ officers and others, runs they’ve made, places like Greece, Diego Garcia, Ascension Island, some familiar, some less so. The world of sailing doesn’t sound like a socially huge one, listening to their conversation — a small community with a lot of crossover.

The shipping lane runs right up against the jetty near Westport, a surprise to me — I thought it’d be more centered, for whatever reason. We line up on the navigational range in Westport, Leo explains to me, two towering neon-orange markers which generate a precise approach for ships on their way in.

The bridge itself is quiet and clean— the Severn is only a few years old, I learn later. There’s a little kitchenette with a coffee pot and a fridge. I don’t recall the Navy having a coffee pot on the bridge on the assault carriers I sailed on, but I also hardly spent enough time on bridges to make a comprehensive study, Marines rarely having business up there.

There’s other touches of color: a football tucked behind a curtain, a pack of smokes, Marlboro golds, in what might be non-U.S. packaging, a hula dancer bobblehead on the window frame of the bridge before the helm. Leo and the trainee pilot both take coffee.

We’re clearing Ocean Shores and its vacation homes on our port, followed minutes later by Westport and its working harbor on our starboard. The mouth of the harbor which looks so broad from the shore is a lot smaller from the bridge wings of the Severn.

“My favorite part of the job in Grays Harbor is the waterway and ship handling. Maneuvering big ships in narrow channels always provides an exhilarating experience,” Leo said. “We have a unique pilotage for the Pacific Northwest, crossing a bar and guiding ships all the way to the dock, handling the dockings ourselves. The variety of shiphandling is something I enjoy.”

We ease past another bulk freighter laying at anchor off of Westport, sheltered from the sea, the Ocean Genova, starting to get deep into the harbor now, fishing vessels and other small boat traffic dropping off sharply now that we’re past Westport Marina.

The clanging of the bells of the buoys marking the channel heralds us as we move by, steering with stately grace. Leo’s commands inside the harbor are small, precise, changes of one or two degrees as we go down the channel, which can be as tight as 400 feet. The broad expanse of the water is deceptive, as trees beached on the shallow bottom, roots sticking out of the water as they lie on their sides, belie the appearance of safe depth.

Leo talks about the whales he’s spotted coming into the harbor, both gray whales and orcas, as recently as last month.

The crew, wearing matching blue jumpsuits, trot up and down the vessel, setting watches and preparing the ship to come alongside the pier or carrying out other unknowable nautical tasks. Both pilot and ridealong take another cup of coffee as we start to approach Hoquiam and Aberdeen and the tolerances grow tighter.

“Wind, visibility, and the type of ship all factor into the decision-making process of if we proceed and at what time,” Leo side. “We had a really nice day on our trip, it’s a whole other beast when the swell is savage at the bar or the wind is howling in the turning basin.”

The channel doesn’t look huge on paper to start with, but being aboard, it feels like we’re trying to make a quick right turn while we’re inside a kitchen cabinet. The ship rounds the turns as Leo passes commands, balancing the ship’s engine and rudder commands against the flow of the tides.

Leo talks with the trainee pilot as we’re doing this, explaining his actions as we come into the flow of the river, coming close now to the vast tidal flats of Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge near Bowerman. We’re starting to come into town now as they call the tugs out from Hoquiam to help shepherd the ship through the final portions.

“We’re always thinking a few ship lengths ahead of where we are. Running through contingency plans in your head — what do we do if the rudder doesn’t respond here? What’s the plan if we lose propulsion at the next turn?,” Leo said. “Sometimes we start a turn early to make sure we’re slowly fading in and the right direction just in case something goes wrong.”

The captain sounds the ship’s horn as the tugs approach, the deep bellow echoing over the marshes and reflecting off the hills north of town, a counterpoint to the plaintive cry of the seagulls dipping and playing in the vortices caused by the wind as the onshore breeze picks up.

The tugs are alongside now, one forward, the other drifting in behind the Severn’s stern and tucking in as we pass first the vast open areas near the shore that must have once held industry to port and then Rennie Island to starboard, easing up to and then past the grain silos as a Puget Sound and Pacific train slowly pulls out from the yards.

Leo takes the ship into the turning basin — an area about 900 feet across where the pilots, working in concert with the tugs, turn the ship completely around.

“For the maneuver we did that day we timed the tide so that we had a flood current by the time we got into the turn basin. We are always watching tide for one reason or another — we’re a tidal dependent port,” Leo said. “On a loaded outbound ship that was already turned we’d be timing the high tide to make sure had the under keel clearance (UKC) for the entirety of the transit.”

I can hear the woosh as the tugboat engines spin up, maybe arresting our progress. Managing the two tugboats as well as the vessel’s own propulsion and navigation is a mental balancing act, Leo said.

“Handling tugs while also giving helm and engine commands can indeed be challenging. Managing the helm, engine, bow thruster (if equipped), and two to three tugs simultaneously requires constant attention, especially in tight quarters like the turn basin or when maneuvering to the dock,” Leo said. “We undergo training to develop this skill, and it takes time to get accustomed to it.”

Commands are coming quick now, both to the Severn’s helmsman, relayed by the captain, and to the two tugs as they work in concert to bring the Severn around and get her pointed back out to sea.

“To keep everything balanced, we mentally divide the ship into segments — monitoring the stern’s position and direction, assessing if it aligns with our intentions, then doing the same for the bow while factoring in the overall motion of the ship as a whole,” Leo said. “When things don’t go as planned, we quickly evaluate variables — for example if the stern is not moving in the direction I want I’ll start asking what is the aft tug’s doing and check the rudder position. Sometimes, despite everything appearing to be in order, environmental factors like wind can still affect the ship’s response during maneuvers, making it even more challenging.”

A few minutes of terse commands and the nose is aimed back toward the Pacific, the wake foaming as the tugboats nudge and pull the ship into the pier. The Severn is tens of thousands of tons of vessel, and must be handled ever so carefully. For Leo, the relatively small port is a plus point — he knows everyone involved in the process of getting the ship pierside, allowing for quick, efficient teamwork.

“Being part of a small port fosters strong relationships among pilots, tug crews, pilot boat crews, stevedores, longshoremen, ships agents and port workers,” Leo said. “It’s a team effort to safely get these ships into the dock, loaded, and back to sea, and while the pilots play a significant role we are just a small part of a much larger team.”

The tugs ease the ship into the pier near the grain silos ever so delicately, one crewmember near the middle of the vessel calling off the distance to a visual reference point, a yellow crate on the pier —

“70 meters”

“45 meters”

“30 meters”

“2 meters”

— before the Severn kisses the bumpers, tugs keeping her in position, while sailors and longshoremen run the lines and get the ship moored up and secure to the pier as the afternoon shadows lengthen and the breeze off the ocean dips below a comfortable temperature.

From stepping aboard the pilot boat in Westport to disembarking from the Severn at the port in Aberdeen, it’s been about four and a half hours.

The port is expected to play an increasingly large economic role, with the number of vessels coming to the port expected to more than double during the next several years as the Port of Grays Harbor embarks on a massive expansion program for the waterfront area. Leo said he’s excited to be part of that.

“Being involved in the port’s expansion project is exciting,” Leo said. “I like knowing that the pilots are contributing to the Harbor’s economic growth and the community’s future.”