The 717-foot oil tanker Kite glows golden at the anchorage just south of the Bay Bridge off Annapolis. It had arrived laden with heavy fuel oil from St. Croix heading to Hess Oil's dock in Curtis Bay.
With a 42-foot draft - the depth of the ship below the waterline - the Kite is too deep to get to the dock in Baltimore, so a barge lightens the load, allowing the Kite to float at 34 feet. Now, at sunset, the tanker is ready to get under way.
Like every ship coming from international waters, the Kite, by law, will be piloted not by its Greek captain but by a Chesapeake Bay pilot, in this case Davidsonville resident Capt. Duke Adams, who knows the bay like the back of his hand.
The Association of Maryland Pilots, based in Baltimore, has been taking ships up the shoaly waters of the bay for 150 years, making it the oldest such group in the country, according to the association. It has 59 members.
Jerry Smith, whose family has been part of the Baltimore marine industry since 1905, says pilots play an integral role in maintaining safe commerce on the bay. "As a tug captain, I feel much more comfortable knowing that when I pass a ship, there is a Maryland state pilot on board," says Smith from the wheelhouse of his tug Rising Sun.
Adams has been a bay pilot since 1970. On this particular evening, he meets launchmen Bill Powell and Rick Heimerling at the foot of City Dock in Annapolis and boards the pilot boat that takes him to the ship.
Adams boards the launch. The weather is clear and brisk on this night, but the ships and the pilots must go at any hour of any day.
"It can get downright nasty out here sometimes," says Powell, of Riva.
The 40-foot launch seems tiny in comparison with the tanker as it approaches in the darkness.
A rope ladder is lowered for Adams to climb aboard the ship. The ladder swings and sways as Adams climbs 30 feet to the deck.
Heimerling keeps a close eye on the pilot and, when he is safely aboard the ship, signals for a line to be sent down to take up the briefcase.
"You really have to time that first step when the waves are large, otherwise, you might find yourself getting caught between the pilotboat and the ship," says another bay pilot, Capt. Roger Hall.
Once aboard the Kite, Adams makes his way to the bridge by way of a tiny elevator. In the wheelhouse, First Mate Stumbou Vasiliki works quietly in the chart room with light-tight curtains drawn around him. The ship's captain, Nicholas Lerias, greets Adams as "Sir Pilot" and offers him coffee.
Like those of many of the ships that traverse the bay, the Kite's crew speaks little English. Still, the pilot must be able to communicate his directions clearly and make himself understood.
Adams takes a laptop computer from his bag and plugs it in on the counter of the pilothouse. An electronic version of the chart of the Annapolis area is displayed with a global positioning system fix on the ship. But on such a clear night, Adams will rarely need to glance at the computer to find his way.
The pilot signals to the captain that he is ready to go, and with a call to the engine room, the enormous engine starts to churn. The lights are doused in the pilothouse and on deck, save for a single light on the tip of the bow that the helmsman uses to orient himself in dark.
A quiet descends on the bridge as Adams calls out commands to the quartermaster, who actually steers the ship. The captain sits quietly, looking out the window, smoking for the remainder of the trip.
When the Key Bridge comes into view, two bright red Moran Towing Inc. tugboats pull alongside the ship, and a Maryland docking pilot, Capt. Mark Adams, climbs aboard with an apprentice. He will be responsible for getting the ship safely to the Hess dock in Curtis Bay and will remain on board until the Kite is properly tied up.
His part of the job complete, Duke Adams - no relation to the docking pilot - finishes filling in his logbook. He gives the captain a handshake, turns the helm over to the docking pilot, descends to the deck and swings into the darkness down the ladder to a waiting launch.