Waging War Off the Port Bow!

Port Everglades pilots are fighting to retain power and a first-class wage

Hackett is now sending out a steady stream of orders to the tugs, which respond with short whistle blasts. Pushed by the ebb tide, the ship has entered the berthing slip a little too far from the pier for Hackett's comfort. So both tugs are now pushing with all their power against the ship to move it sideways into its slip.

The captain is standing nearby, but he can't hear what's going on between Hackett and the tugs. He turns to a visitor. "I'm a licensed pilot myself," he says. "I know how they work. My philosophy is to bring the pilot in and assimilate him onto my team." Hackett gives no sign that he has heard this theory but, for the rest of the trip, he doesn't directly address the captain again.

The docking over, the springlines are soon secured, and the ship is berthed. Hackett heads back to the two-story pilot headquarters located on the short stretch of canal between SE 15th and 16th streets, where he drapes his rail-thin form over a chair. Lounging back at 2 a.m., he idly checks a wall chart on which the scheduled ship movements over the next 36 hours are tracked in black Magic Marker.

There's nothing due in until 7:30 in the morning. Of course that could change; although incoming ships are supposed to radio the harbormaster with at least an hour's notice before approaching the port, they have been known to appear on the horizon shouting for a pilot. Hackett will hang around the pilothouse until morning just in case.

"Did you hear that bullshit?" Hackett asks, referring to the captain, not with any particular anger or bitterness in his voice, only a touch of droll amusement. Hackett knows he came out on top in that test of wills, and he knows he did it in front of an audience that was paying attention. The officers on the bridge -- officers who may one day command ships of their own -- clearly saw the challenge thrown down and turned aside.

But that doesn't mean that Hackett's not annoyed at having had to deal with such an annoyance in the first place. The Chevron Arizona is a regular visitor to Port Everglades, a ship that Hackett has piloted many times. This captain was new, a temporary fill-in. In questioning the pilot's competence, his behavior was not only uncalled-for, in Hackett's opinion, it was dangerous.

"[If] I listen to him and we get out of shape in the channel, now we're up to our necks in trouble and sucking wind. He thinks he's going to assimilate me onto his team, right. He just came in off the street, and now he's going to assimilate me onto his team." Hackett isn't done grumbling. He shakes his head, addressing the absent skipper one last time. "I don't work for you."

Sure it's a throwaway line, a five-word grumble uttered by a tired sailor at two in the morning after a difficult run. But if you're looking for a one-quote synopsis of the working philosophy of the feisty band of mariners who call themselves the Port Everglades Pilots' Association, this will bring you pretty close.

I don't work for you. In this phrase you'll find most of the qualities the pilots bring to their jobs such as protectiveness, determination, and independence, as well as bad qualities that others complain of, such as touchiness, defensiveness, and arrogance -- all wrapped neatly into a five-word sentence.

The "you" in this sentence is collective, but it's not all-inclusive. It refers to ship owners, cruise companies, captains, and shipping agents; it doesn't refer to the public at large. "You" in this case means all the entities and organizations that would seek to influence the way the pilots do their jobs. Of the things the Port Everglades pilots take pride in (a deservedly long list), what stands out is their willingness, nay, their eagerness, to thumb their noses at any commercial interest that might be tempted to put the company's profit before safety.

It is, in fact, the first and most important lesson for every new Port Everglades deputy pilot, says Bob Jackson, the senior pilot who trained them all: "They work here for three, four, five years before it finally gets in their mind where the priority lies -- before they finally realize that they're not an employee. That's the most difficult thing for a lot of them."

Difficult but necessary, according to experienced pilots like Hackett. "You go into their world, and you've got to assert yourself."

With that sort of attitude, the job of a pilot is inevitably going to involve conflict. But so far it's been a conflict played out on familiar territory -- the bridge of an oceangoing ship. But now the conflicts the pilots deal with have extended into a new and unfamiliar territory: courtrooms.

Over the past year, the pilots have found themselves ensnared in a legal tangle that's partly of their own making. The issue is not their competence. It's the amount of their pay. And ultimately it has to do with the same issue Hackett faced on the bridge of the Chevron Arizona: Just who exactly is in charge of the big ships when they're under steam in the channel? This is one fight that, so far at least, the pilots are losing.

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