Anyone living in a port city like Charleston is likely familiar with the sight of colossal ships navigating their way through the harbor. As Charleston is the eighth largest container port in the country, shipping is big business here in the Lowcountry — in fact, it generates 250,000 jobs and $45 billion in economic activity. Having fished the harbor all my life, I know from personal experience how mesmerizing it is to see these gigantic
ships up close, often with dolphins surfing the wave created by the bow. Seeing a ship as large as the Empire State Building cruise past at a distance of only 75 yards is a sight to behold. But, however mesmerizing these ships are, they do not navigate themselves into the port. Guiding these ships safely through the shifting sands and shallow banks of the harbor, regardless of weather, requires someone with finely-honed skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of the harbor. It takes a Charleston Harbor Pilot.
Pilotage is one of the world’s oldest maritime professions, dating back to the earliest days of commercial shipping. For Charleston and its own shipping history, it dates back to the 1700s. During this time, pilots were self-employed and competed with one another to guide sailing vessels into the harbor. Prior to 1890, local experts known as “bar pilots” would race out to the sandbar, straining to be the first to reach an incoming ship, thus winning the right to climb aboard and guide her to port. In 1890, the original Charleston Branch Pilot Association was formed after the early pilots decided to band together and work in association with each other. Although the Pilot Association was (and is) privately owned, with time the group fell under state regulation, which eliminated competition and placed an emphasis on increased safety and licensing requirements.
Today, the need for pilots is as great as ever — the ships have grown exponentially, but the arriving ship captains are as unfamiliar as before, with no knowledge of how to navigate our complex harbor and waterways. Add in strong winds, thunderstorms, fog and language differences and piloting a ship can make for a very exciting day.
According to South Carolina State law, Harbor Pilots are required to be aboard inbound ships with more than eight feet of draft rated over 100 tons. Once radioed by an incoming ship, usually while the vessel is about 15 miles off shore, the pilots travel out to the ships, climb aboard and provide navigation directions to the crew. The same process is followed when a ship at berth is ready to depart for the open sea.
Although safety is one of the guiding principles for these seamen, they also work a job fraught with danger. It is no easy task to step from the pilot boat onto a rope ladder to climb up onto the deck of the incoming vessel — especially given that both the ship and pilot boat are moving at about 10 knots while this is happening … often in rough and stormy seas.
The Charleston Association is one of 57 groups spread across 26 states and like most of these groups, they are open for business 24/7/365. The pilots and staff work rotating shifts, covering every minute of every day. Dispatchers assist the process by monitoring local weather conditions, tides, air drafts at the bridges and traffic within the harbor.
Becoming a harbor pilot is hard work and requires a serious commitment and love of the sea, as the Charleston Branch offers employment to only 20 pilots at a time and each pilot must complete a three-year apprenticeship to attain the rank of Full Branch Pilot. Apprentices must complete around 1,600 supervised trips and show they have the ability to think on their feet and react quickly to ever-changing conditions. While it is a demanding job, Captain Crayton Walters states, “I’m up all night, during all kinds of conditions and I still love it.”
Pilots currently direct vessels to five State Port Authority Terminals, seven private cargo terminals, two shipyards, two federal government facilities and three marinas — adding up to around 4,700 trips per year, delivering 2.8 million standard 40-foot containers every year. Their workload is due to increase, as the port’s biggest ongoing project is the new container terminal on the former Charleston Navy Base named the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal, which is expected to be operational by mid 2020. This new terminal is being constructed to offer better service to the new breed of “mega ships” appearing in East Coast ports. (When you see a “mega ship” in the harbor, you’ll know it — they are so massive it appears to be an optical illusion).
With dredging underway to deepen the channel depth to 52 feet and the entrance channel to 54 feet, Charleston will be the deepest harbor on the East Coast. This will insure that Charleston will remain one of the most important and active shipping ports on the East Coast and in the United States. With these changes and additional infrastructure in place, Charleston’s role as a shipping destination will remain and the role of the Charleston Harbor Pilots will continue to be one of service to the state and its economic engine.
Next time you see a ship in the harbor, glance up at the bridge — you won’t see the pilot, but he’s aboard and steering the ship.