Recommended For You

Waging War Off the Port Bow!

Near midnight off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, a pulsing white beacon on the black water signals the captain of the supertanker Chevron Arizona that the ship's 800-mile journey is fast approaching the most dangerous mile of all: the last one.

The wind is blowing briskly from the south as the ship approaches the spectral light, which sits atop a buoy marking the seaward entrance to the Port Everglades channel. With the ebb tide producing a strong rip through the channel mouth, maneuvering the ship into port will be tricky tonight.

But that's to be expected. Sea and weather conditions are seldom perfect.
More troubling for ship and crew is tension on the bridge of this 700-foot-long ship heading into port with some 450,000 gallons of high-octane gasoline aboard. Illuminated by the eldritch green glow of the radar scope, the two most important men on board are engaged in a subtle duel for control of the ship.

As the vessel passes the buoy, Tom Hackett, the pilot whose job it is to guide the ship safely into Port Everglades, is calling out compass headings to the able seaman at the helm. Hackett is doing it quickly, with only a couple seconds' pause between one number and the next -- "2-7-1... 2-6-9... 2-6-8... 2-6-5."

The rapid course corrections are necessary to keep the ship moving down the middle of the channel, a narrow chute cut into the coral sea bottom and outlined by a series of flashing red and green lights.

Normally the strong, Gulf Stream-driven current along this coast flows south to north. Tonight, though, perhaps under the influence of the rip, a narrow but strong countercurrent has reversed course and is flowing just as strongly north to south across the mouth of the channel.

This has caused the ship to spin slightly on its axis in the channel like a truck entering a power-slide on an icy road. Now Hackett has engine power set at half-ahead to propel the ship across the current, the ship is making 11 knots straight toward the port, and God help the yacht that blunders in the way now.

The helmsman is having difficulty achieving and maintaining the headings Hackett wants, so the pilot abandons the approach of calling out numbers and starts telling the helmsman exactly what to do, step by step: "Rudder five degrees left. Rudder ten degrees left. Rudder full left. Ste-e-a-dy. Rudder ten degrees left."

The captain of the ship, a big, blond, jovial fellow who earlier had been laughing and joking, isn't so jolly now. He doesn't know Hackett. He's given up control of this multimillion-dollar ship and cargo to a stranger. The two met for the first time 15 minutes ago, when Hackett shuffled through the hatchway onto the bridge, paused to peer for a moment around the darkened wheelhouse, and then announced his presence with a homey, "Anybody home?"

Now, with Hackett standing behind the helmsman and looking over his shoulder to check the man's quickness and accuracy at following orders, the captain has something to say. With a studied casualness in his voice, he asks, "So... how's that bell?"

Hackett doesn't answer because the question is a direct challenge to his competence. The term bell is seaman slang for engine power; it comes from the bell that rings whenever the bridge signals the engine room to add or cut power. The bell is indicated on a large dial. Hackett knows that this inquiry is not so much a question as it is a warning -- almost a rebuke. The bantering that took place among the officers has stopped. What the seamen on the bridge are hearing in the captain's four-word question is actually something more along the lines of: "You do realize that this ship has to stop in half a mile, don't you?"

Abruptly Hackett turns and strides toward the door leading out onto the starboard wing of the deck. "Taking it outside, Cap'n!" he calls. The captain and first mate follow.

By now two tugboats have chugged out of the port in response to Hackett's radio summons and grabbed hold of the ship's bow and stern. Hackett walks all the way out to the far end of the deck, where he can lean out over the dark water 200 feet below and speak into his radio without being overheard. He's talking to the tug captains, telling each where to push, where to pull, how hard, and in what direction. The tugs acknowledge each directive with a short blast on the whistle.

One of the tugs is positioned on the ship's port bow to counteract the pull of the ebb tide; the other is attached to the stern of the ship by a thick rope called a hawser. As the Chevron Arizona reaches the point where the channel penetrates the shoreline, the water around each tug is churning into white froth as the two boats strain to stop the ship before it plows into the berthing dock ahead. Now Hackett has the bell at full-astern to stop the ship, making the deck shake as the ship moves forward on momentum alone.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

Could the captain please have the crew turn off a set of floodlights that were blinding Hackett as he tried to make out the ship's relation to the dock? Well, the captain did get on the radio and try, but ten minutes later the floods were still on.

"You noticed that I wrote down the exact time I stepped off that ship, didn't you?" he says. "That's so nobody can point the finger at me when he runs over the sea buoy on his way out. 'God help the next port,' is all I've got to say.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >