Waging War Off the Port Bow!

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

There hasn't been a serious oil spill in or near Port Everglades since the early '70s, when Bob Jackson was a new pilot. That spill happened when a barge carrying high-octane gasoline lost steerage in the channel and struck the hard coral on the side. In the aftermath of that spill, the vapors were so thick in the air that they burned out the engine of a Port Everglades tugboat on its way to render assistance. "If somebody had lit a cigarette in the wrong place, the whole port and a lot of the surrounding homes could have blown up," Jackson recalls. "They had to call us to come out and get them out of trouble."

Jackson makes a point of noting that the barge was using its own federally licensed pilot at the time -- the sort of pilot Shelton calls a "12-trip wonder," because 12 trips into a port is all the qualification that's required.

As soon as he steps aboard the supertanker Pacific Sapphire, Tom Hackett can sense that something about the ship is out of kilter. The first feeling of discord starts with the reception he receives as he climbs onto the main deck of the ship, which is tied up in Port Everglades and ten minutes from setting sail. The ship has just discharged its jet-fuel cargo and is heading to a Mexican port.

Usually there's someone keeping an eye on the gangway when a ship's about to set sail, especially since the ship's master was the one who requested the pilot in the first place.

Tonight there's no one. Although several crewmen watch, nobody approaches Hackett as he climbs over pipes and ducks under catwalks on his way aft to the ship's superstructure. After he's gone a hundred yards, a sweaty Korean crewman in a greasy orange jumpsuit finally expresses surprise at the sight of a clean white man in white pants, rose-tinted glasses, and a baseball cap sauntering along the deck without escort.

The crewman straightens, takes a hesitant step forward, and, in a heavily accented voice, asks, "Pie-yet?"

"Yes," Hackett answers.
The man gestures to an open hatchway, then returns to his work.
Hackett steps through the hatchway and begins the laborious climb up several flights of stairs to the bridge that looms over the waterline. Halfway up he passes an open hatchway through which a small group of men can be seen lounging in front of a TV. Nobody looks up, and he continues his climb.

Reaching the bridge he steps into the dark room and walks around. The room is deserted. So Hackett begins to poke around a little, shuffling from instrument to instrument, checking readings and punching switches to make sure everything's working the way it's supposed to.

"You've got to check out the small things," he says. "Otherwise you're going to give yourself a minor coronary."

Soon Capt. Lee Kwan arrives. Kwan, a small man with a scar twisting down across one cheek, has a disconcerting habit of chuffing air fiercely out of his nose in short, regularly timed bursts.

Later, standing on the port wing of the bridge deck, Hackett leans out over the welded metal railing and peers down into the night gloom. He's just given the order to power up the engines to dead slow-ahead, and he's trying to make out the propeller wash that should be evident in the black water below.

This is the engine test, and two tugs are pressing the ship against the dock as the engines power up, first with forward thrust, then with backward thrust.

Something isn't right, however. "Captain, is that engine indicator working?" he asks. Kwan doesn't respond verbally. Instead he emits a sound halfway between a yelp and a snort and bounds over to the indicator, a round dial that resembles a clock, hanging on the outside of the bridge. He bangs on it with his fist. The needle lurches, tilts to the right, and settles on the the correct setting: Dead slow-astern.

Twenty minutes later, as the ship turns in the channel, a minor emergency erupts when it's discovered that the gyroscope by which the helmsman is steering isn't calibrated to the gyroscope Hackett is using to give headings. His voice rising in anger, Hackett directs the seaman at the helm to disregard the gyroscope in front of him.

As the ship turns in the basin just before heading seaward through the channel, the captain and the scurrying third mate are engaged in a continuing commentary conducted in rapid-fire Korean that seems to have to do with navigation lights. Hackett pays no attention as he gives the helmsman a series of headings.

Thirty minutes later, sitting in the 40-foot pilot boat on the return trip, Hackett is angrily counting up the captain's deficiencies.

How many horsepower does the ship's engine have? The captain didn't know.
How many gallons of fresh water had the ship taken on (a figure the pilot is responsible for reporting to the harbormaster)? The captain didn't know.

Does the ship have a bulbous bow below the water line? The captain didn't know.

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