Waging War Off the Port Bow!

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

The Discovery Sun Partnership, a company that operates day cruises out of the port, then followed suit with its own proposal: a 50 percent slash in the rates charged by pilots in Port Everglades.

After conducting hearings, the PRRB announced on May 20, 1997, its provisional decision to grant the pilots' request for a full 12 percent rate increase.

What followed was a year of hearings, a flurry of legal briefs, and tactical positioning on both sides. Although the issue has yet to be totally resolved, overall the momentum has moved inexorably away from the pilots and to the side of the cruise lines and ship owners.

The man most responsible for that side's victories is a Jacksonville attorney named Bill Hyde. Hyde is by no means a specialist in maritime law. His specialty is administrative law and lobbying, and his goal in the case has been to wrest the rate-making power from the PRRB and toward state regulators in the Division of Administrative Services. So far he's been largely successful.

Hyde's most important victory was a July 1997 ruling by state administrative law judge Linda Rigot that overturned not only the PRRB's original decision to grant the rate increase but also the board's self-described status as the final arbiter of rate disputes. Rigot ruled the board was mistaken when it approved the pilots' request, and she ordered the board instead to approve the SFCCA's request for a rate decrease.

At a June 10, 1998, hearing in Fort Lauderdale, the board chose to read Rigot's opinion as an advisory. Instead of granting the pilots' request for a full 12 percent increase, the board pared it down to 4 percent. Hyde immediately filed a notice to appeal to the First District Court of Appeals in Miami, thus sending the issue to the federal courts.

As retired pilot Jim Hairston walked out of the June 10 hearing, he muttered, "We just got our butts kicked, that's all." His reasoning: Even if the courts uphold the PRRB in this instance, the precedent has been set that the PRRB is not its own master. Its decisions on rates can be overturned by administrative judges with no experience of the sea.

Later, sitting in the upstairs sanctum of the pilothouse smoking thin brown cigarillos with great relish, pilot Preston Shelton assesses the damage in more detail.

Hyde, Shelton says, "can win by losing. The original 12 percent increase would have gone into effect January 1, 1998. The initial hearing wasn't until December 1997. "You note that every day that has gone by since then, that rate has remained unchanged. You see, our adversaries weigh the cost of every action against the cost of every inaction. As always, the lawyers and consultants have remained very busy."

Whether or not the pilots actually do manage to fend off the challenge to their rates remains to be seen. The appeal has been filed and will probably be heard in December.

Jim Ryan, for one, thinks the point of the challenge was never to win in the first place, but only to draw blood. Pointing to an aerial photograph of the port hanging on the wall of the pilothouse office, the pilot says, "Look, I count one, two, three, four -- seven cruise ships tied up to the dock. This is not about money. This is about control of their ships. This is about them wanting the power to come and go as they please."

"It's very simple. The cruise lines want to force us to agree to let them use their own pilots, and we won't budge."

Michele Paige, president of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, denies that the issue of control is a concern to her association's members. She also says that the pilots' fees do not make up a large percentage of cruise-line expenses in general.

Hyde says flat-out that his clients aren't interested in establishing their own pilots. "That would be a big fight," he says. "It would surely involve getting the law changed, and that wouldn't be easy."

As for Hyde, he flatly denies that the desire for proprietary pilots has anything to do with his lawsuit. "The simple fact is, there simply is no justification for the rates charged by the Port Everglades pilots already, not to mention any increase."

The request filed by Discovery Sun, however, would seem to buttress Ryan's contention. At the time the pilots were requesting a rate increase, the cruise company filed an application requesting a 50 percent decrease. That was only after the company had earlier privately sought and failed to get the pilots to agree to exempt day-trip cruise ships from having to use association pilots.

But this is where Jackson draws the line. Except under certain rare conditions spelled out under federal law, there will be no outside pilots taking ships in and out of Port Everglades, he vows. "Sure we're looking after our own interests," acknowledges Jackson.

But the pilots also see themselves as a sort of first line of defense against pollution or catastrophe.

As the Mar Caribe, a massive behemoth of a cargo ship, makes its slow way north along the Intracoastal from its usual berth in the south section of the port, the ship threads a watery needle between a known haunt of manatees to the left and the lush greenery of the John Lloyd Nature Preserve on the right.

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