Bay Pilot Guides Great Freighters In The Darkness

December 22, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

When the tugboat peeled off into the inky darkness of the Patapsco River, more than 30 tons of ship and cargo fell into the hands of Captain Joseph B. Smith.

He was headed 51 miles up the bay, from the Toyota Terminal in Brooklyn to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, a channel so narrow that if you raise too much wake you can spill seawater onto somebody's lawn. Smith, of Pasadena, makes his living in places like this.

He's one of 74 Maryland bay pilots, a member of a fraternity of the night that shepherds great freighters through the state's shallow shipping lanes. Working almost always by night, Smith and his brethren stand on the unlighted bridge of one ship or another watching the radar, peering into the dark for lights of ships or buoys, steering for deepest water.

Shoes from Italy, shirts from Taiwan, cars and stereos from Japan, container ships sometimes piled so high with merchandise that the pilot cannot see the water ahead -- thousands of tons of cargo move quietly through the Chesapeake Bay, the Port of Baltimore and the canal every day. And since clipper ship days, bay pilots have guided the way.

Aside from the long and often unpredictable hours, Smith said, "I love the work . . . I've always liked ships. I like maneuvering ships."

Smith, a 44-year-old native of Long Island,N.Y., who lives on Stately Drive with his wife and three children, has been on this job since 1977, since he left the Merchant Marine forwork more suited to a stable family life. It took him six years withthe Association of Maryland Pilots to work up to a full share in thebusiness, meaning he earns $80,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on shipping traffic.

The association gets paid per trip by the shipping companies, pools the money and distributes it among the members, each of whom makes about 100 trips a year. Their services are requiredby state law, which says that all foreign ships must be guided through inland waters by a state-licensed pilot.

On a recent Friday evening, Smith took charge of a 600-foot Norwegian-registered car carrier, the Troll Forest. The ship left Kawasaki, Japan on Nov. 7. After delivering 94 cars to Jacksonville, Fla., it dropped 752 cars in Baltimore and was due in Boston with 1,355 cars the following Sunday.

To look at Smith, you'd never know he was about to take command of a freighter. Dressed in a tweed jacket and dark slacks, striped shirt and tie under a parka, he looked ready for a day at the insurance office. Nevertheless, he climbed the steep gangway up the 60-foot sheer wall that is the hull of the Troll Forest. He walked another flight of stairs, crossed the breezy deck to the bridge. Once the tugboat got the ship clear of the pier, the ship was his.

Capt. Arne Rinnan, who had taken the Troll Forest across the Pacific and up the Atlantic coast, would now stand back and play the gregarious host. During the course of the night, he offered fresh coffee in china cups, sandwichesand Danish cookies.

It isn't always so pleasant, said Smith. Sometimes the crew speaks little English, sometimes the ship is old, poorly maintained or infested with bugs. The Troll Forest was a lucky draw.

And conditions were fine for the next leg of its journey, aboutfour hours to Chesapeake City, where Smith would hand the freighter off to a Delaware pilot about five miles into the C&D. There was no rain, no fog, and most important, no wind. In his 15 years as a pilot,Smith has worked in all weather, in fog so dense he couldn't see theship's bow, in water thick with ice floes that wiped the buoys off the radar.

"Wind is the worst, worse than fog," Smith said, becausethe pilot has to keep steering against it to keep the ship on course, away from the shallows. Grounding a ship can not only damage it, but can also mean a reprimand or suspension for the pilot.

It's beenfive years since a Maryland pilot was disciplined, said Smith, who sits on a nine-member state board that oversees the work of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

Smith has never grounded a ship, never even grazed a buoy. He has been the subject of complaints from the woman who once lived along the C&D Canal, but who hasn't? For her frequent accusations about ships passing too close to her property on the canal's north shore, the woman became a legend among the pilots.

AsSmith remembered it, the low point of his dealings with the canal lady -- whom Smith declined to name -- came on an evening when a storm surge had raised the water three feet above normal. He brought a 950-foot freighter through, passing about 200 feet from her backyard. He had dropped the speed as much as he could, but not enough to keep thewake from rolling water onto her lawn, which she was mowing at the time.

"It put out her gas-powered mower," said Smith. "It's just anunusual set of circumstances. You try to go through without doing any damage. It can be difficult."

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