Waging War Off the Port Bow!

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

"I'm on ships where I'm trying to tell them they need a tugboat, and they don't know what the hell I'm saying," Hoye says. "So I've got a pencil and paper, and I'm drawing a picture of a tugboat, and I'm saying, 'Here... tug... call... radio.' I had one ship where I don't know what country the captain was from, but he was wearing a turban, and he asked me if I spoke Spanish. It turned out he couldn't talk to his own crew, and he wanted me to translate!"

At a mere 500 feet wide (a distance slightly more than half as long as the largest ships), the channel is particularly unforgiving of error. And errors do have consequences.

The oldest of records concerning the piloting profession -- the Roll of Oleron, published in the 12th Century A.D. by command of Richard I upon his return to Europe after warring in the Holy Land -- has a section solely devoted to the punishment due deceitful or incompetent pilots.

"If a Pilot undertakes the Conduct of a vessel... and fail of his Duty therein, So as the Vessel miscarry by reason of his Ignorance in what he undertook, and the Merchants Sustain Damage thereby, he shall be Obligated to make full Satisfaction for the same, if he hath wherewithal, and if not lose his Head," the Roll states.

The only substantial change since that law was in force is that pilots who screw up nowadays aren't killed for their transgressions.

"One incident, just one bad incident, and we could lose our jobs and our homes -- everything," says pilot Bob Jackson. The reason? As an association, the pilots carry no insurance.

"Who'd give it to us?" asks Hoye, whose red beard and temper to match make him the most piratic of the pilots in terms of appearance.

In fact the lack of insurance may serve to protect them in the event of a worst-case scenario, says Roger Vaughan, a Tampa attorney who represented plaintiffs in lawsuits involving a 1993 incident in which two barges loaded with jet fuel and oil and a phosphate-carrying ship collided in the Tampa Bay channel. While the shipping companies each got hit for millions of dollars in damages, Vaughan didn't even bother going after the pilots involved. In the aftermath of the incident, one of the pilots, Tommy Baggett, had his license revoked by the state Board of Pilot Commissioners and was fined $5000.

Twenty years as captain of the largest cargo ship in Port Everglades, the 900-foot Nedloyd Holland, have given Bob Groh an understanding of the issue from both the ship owner's and captain's points of view. He's dealt with pilots all over the world, and while there are some you can trust, there are also some you can't.

"You're watching all the time," he says. "If you get a sense of weakness, a sense of worry on their part, then you're more ready to do something about it."

That "something" might be as little as offering subtle advice or as much as taking over command of the ship (something he's done only in Third World ports that are notorious for poor pilotage). Groh has often worked with the pilots in Port Everglades, and he's never had a problem with any of them.

The pilots don't like to think of themselves as unduly defiant. In fact, when they were considering going before the PRRB to request a rate increase, Jackson made it a point to personally call the owners and representatives of the major cruise and shipping companies in the port. "I wanted to sound them out and ask whether any of them had any specific concerns," he says.

The conversations, which Jackson recorded in meticulous detail in a notebook, left him feeling good about his chances of getting the rate request approved without intense opposition, he says. "This doesn't give me heartburn," Michael Youngman of Hyde Shipping Corp. told Jackson, according to Jackson's notes. It was a typical response. "Not a real problem," said Lykes Thompson of Inchcape Shipping Services.

Arthur Scott of Sealand Service Inc. said that though he didn't think the amount of the increase was justified, he could accept it if the pilots agreed to hold off implementation until 1998. It was a condition Jackson was happy to accept and hold up as an example of his willingness to work with the shipping companies.

Not that Jackson didn't come across warning signs. For example, John Wasloski of Crowley American Transport, one of the biggest shippers in not only Port Everglades but the world, told Jackson his rates were already "way out of line." According to Wasloski, Crowley's port expenses were climbing across the board, and he couldn't see adding 12 percent to the $721,000 that Crowley annually spent on pilots. "You guys need to get in the real world," Wasloski closed.

Possibly the most prescient comment, however, came from John Gorman, of Florida Transportation Services, a Port Everglades stevedoring company. "This is just too big a bite," he warned Jackson. "Twelve percent just opens it up for questions."

And, in fact, in February of that year, after the South Florida Cargo Carriers Association (SFCCA) got wind of the pilots' rate-increase request, the association submitted its own rival request for a rate decrease of a full 15 percent.

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