Waging War Off the Port Bow!

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

If any of the happy passengers now boarding the cruise ship Island Adventure expect to be greeted at the gangway by a mellow incarnation of Gavin McLeod in captain's garb, they're in for a disappointment. At the moment, Captain Georgiy Zolotarev has a frown on his face and a surliness in his demeanor. With furrowed brow he's busily scribbling numbers in a small pocket notebook, calculating the all-important passenger count for the past month.

Finally he gets to the bottom line, which must be good news, because suddenly he's filled with high Cossack spirits. Lifting an arm toward Hackett, who has has been quietly roaming the wheelhouse, checking the equipment, and greeting the bridge crew, Zolotarev raises his voice and offers a bellowing toast, "The kings! To the kings of the port!"

Hackett shakes his head and walks away with a sour look on his face. He likes Zolotarev and gets along well with him, but this isn't the sort of metaphor he wants to see in print.

For good reason. Last year, when the pilots applied to the state Pilotage Rate Review Board (PRRB) for a rate increase, the cruise and cargo industries saw the request as an opening to fight not only the request itself, but also to take the issue away from the board and get it before a judge.

A big part of the pilots' defense in this fight has been the contention that, as pilot Keith Hoye puts it, "Hey, we're running as lean an operation as we can."

You can see why images of royalty are not welcome. Still, rumors of pilot wealth are so pervasive that the subject often pops up in casual conversation. At the first mention of the pilots, Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industries Association, pipes right up with the question, "So tell me, how much do they make?"

Herhold is joking, but Patrick Donohugh isn't. Donohugh, the assistant chief pilot of the Los Angeles Port Pilots, says everybody has heard the rumor of the sweet deal in Port Everglades. "Aw, geez... it's terrible what they make over there." Donohugh, for one, is jealous. But even he doesn't know precisely how much they make.

The pilots have responded to attacks on their income in a couple ways. Jim Ryan, for example, has a simple answer to anyone who wants to know how much money he and his fellow pilots make: "It's none of your business."

Of course, because the pilots carry a state license, can affect public safety, and have their rates set by a state agency, Ryan's salary is public knowledge. But that doesn't mean they have to like it in the pilothouse. "I don't know anybody else who has to pull their pants down in public," says Hackett.

For the record, in 1996 the pilots pulled in an average of $330,000 apiece. Not counting such excellent benefits as a retirement plan that paid each retired pilot more than $140,000 that year. That's $25,000 more per year than Donohugh makes right now as a working Los Angeles pilot. No wonder the man's jealous.

Ryan doesn't think the money he makes should be a valid public concern. The pilots earn their money by charging ship owners a fixed rate per ship, and it is this -- the rate structure -- that the public should be concerned about.

The rate is set not by the pilots but by a state agency, the PRRB. The rates are based on a ship's draft (how deep the ship sits in the water when empty) and gross tonnage (an imprecise measurement of a ship's overall size). The rate schedule per ship for Port Everglades is the third-lowest of the 12 state-regulated ports in Florida.

The reason the pay is so good is that the Port Everglades channel is so short that a small number of pilots can handle a large number of ships. The average time aboard each ship is only about an hour and a half, which is the lowest average in the state.

Of course, along with the money comes enormous responsibilities and risks.
By Florida law a ship cannot come into port without a licensed pilot on board, and, with very few exceptions, this pilot must belong to the Port Everglades association. The only exceptions are ships that have licensed federal pilots on board, fly the U.S. flag, and are carrying what is known as "coastwise" trade, that is, cargo or passengers coming directly from another U.S. port.

As Shelton explains the law, "This means that we can't turn anyone away." As the port traffic has grown, it has increased the chances of an accident in the port. In 1987, the pilots conducted fewer than 5000 "handles," a term for any movement of a ship with a pilot on board. In 1997, they conducted 10,385 handles.

Much of this increase in trade has focused on small cargo ships that ply to and fro between Port Everglades and various Caribbean ports. Some of these ships may be less than ideal in terms of seaworthiness and seamanship. Deregulation of the maritime industry has meant fewer unionized crew members and officers aboard ships and thus a loss of professionalism and quality, according to the pilots.

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