The Kyushu Monrovia sits at Atlantic Terminal, its belly stuffed with nearly 3,000 Nissan Pathfinders, parked bumper to bumper and cabled onto seven different tiers.
As it prepares to sail from Baltimore, the massive Japanese car carrier faces a tight schedule for discharging more cars in Newark, N.J.
But without Bill Band, the Kyushu is going nowhere.
At precisely 10 a.m., Mr. Band, a Maryland bay pilot, climbs the steep steps to the ship's navigation bridge -- a glass-enclosed area 90 feet above the water -- where he greets the Kyushu's captain, its helmsman and third mate.
On the blackboard inside the bridge, he checks the vessel's air draft clearance -- 152 feet from the water line to the highest point of the ship -- to make sure it will pass under the Francis Scott Key Bridge two miles ahead.
Quickly, he also determines the maneuvering speeds of the engine and locates the ship's all-important warning whistle.
Using a tugboat down below, Moran Co. docking pilot Jim Hicky shoves the Kyushu off the pier at the terminal in Fairfield and pushes its bow sharply into the main channel. At 10:20 a.m., Mr. Band signals that he's ready to take over. Verbally, he begins nursing the 15,700-ton vessel out of its berth.
"Starboard 10," Mr. Band says firmly to the helmsman.
"Starboard 10," the helmsman repeats, as he moves the rudder 10 degrees to the right with an electronically controlled wheel.
By law, most cargo vessels sailing between the Atlantic Ocean and the port of Baltimore must be guided by state-licensed bay pilots who are familiar with the twists and other idiosyncrasies of the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, Maryland's two passageways to the ocean.
Moving cargo ships in close quarters -- sometimes merely dozens of yards away from each other -- is Mr. Band's expertise. Yet, even after 20 years, it is skill that requires constant refinement.
"The name of the game is experience, anticipation and good judgment," said the 45-year-old Mr. Band. "You have to do this again, again and again," he said. "If I didn't do it for a couple months and then I got on a ship like this in bad weather, I'd be terrified."
Mr. Band is one of five dozen Maryland bay pilots who are members of the Association of Maryland Pilots and among the 18,000 people whose livelihoods are directly dependent on shipping activity in the port of Baltimore.
With more than 2,300 ships coming and going in Baltimore each year, bay pilots work on a rotating schedule and are required to leave with only two hours' notice. As with many port jobs, flexibility is critical.
"When I get into the top 10 on the rotation schedule, I am literally hanging around the phone," said Mr. Band, who also keeps a pager and a car phone nearby. He averages 100 trips a year.
But the erratic lifestyle rewards him well -- more than $150,000 a year in salary, though he pays all expenses much like an independent contractor. It also allows him to spend time with his wife, Tammy, and two children, Shannon, 12, and Travis, 9 at their Towson home.
Mr. Band is a oceanography-turned-business major who graduated from the State University of New York Maritime College.
Like other senior pilots, he trained in a five-year apprentice program.
The pay -- and scarcity of jobs in the American merchant marine -- make the profession highly competitive. For Mr. Band, there is still the sheer thrill of the job.
"We're handling the biggest things people make, and I get to do that," he said.
At 8 knots --10 miles an hour -- the Kyushu moves almost imperceptibly, past the rusty Dormitor, the Serbian ship that was seized two years ago by the federal government and has been stranded here since then.
A motorboat darts across its path, flirting with the leviathan towering above it. A sailboat, a mere dot on the horizon, tacks as the Kyushu moves forth into the channel.
It is a clear morning. The water is slack, a welcome change for Mr. Band, who frequently sails in unpredictable, turbulent weather, most often at night.
While Capt. Noboru Otsuka faces economic pressures to move the Kyushu's cargo on time, Mr. Band is beholden to no one, except the state of Maryland. If the weather is too dangerous, he can delay the ship, sparing Captain Otsuka the burden of making wise, yet time-consuming and costly choices.
So long as the ship remains in Maryland waters, the decision to sail rests with Mr. Band.
Dressed nattily in a tweed sports coat, tie and pleated slacks, he carries a small, black suitcase, containing charts and tide tables that provide vital information about the wind and the depth of the channel. Because of the limited water depth outside the 400-foot-wide channel, his navigation must be exact.
"You have to anticipate what's ahead and what you should be doing to get there," he said. "With so much of the ship above water, you can literally get blown out of the channel if you're not careful.
"In fog or poor visibility, you can get pushed right into another ship," he said.