Puget Sound Pilots keep cargo and passengers moving during pandemic

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Puget Sound Pilots were founded in 1935, but official “pilotage” of vessels in Washington dates to the 1860s; this is the steamship “Santa Rosa” arriving on the Seattle waterfront on December 18, 1932. (MOHAI)

Big ships move through the Strait of Juan De Fuca every day on their way to Puget Sound ports, or headed out toward other parts of the world. Aboard each of those ships while they’re in local waters is a Puget Sound Pilot, a skilled and seasoned maritime professional licensed by the US Coast Guard and the State of Washington.

That pilot’s job is to keep critical cargo and passengers moving, in spite of regular hazards to navigation, as well as, nowadays, the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unless something goes wrong – like it did in 1978 when a freighter struck the old West Seattle Bridge — the role of a Puget Sound Pilot is not a highly visible job.

The idea is that when a big ship sails in local waters, it’s best to have a local expert at the wheel. That’s been the law around here since the Washington Territory days of 1868.

For Puget Sound waters, this service is managed by a group called Puget Sound Pilots.  The group was founded in 1935. They have an office in Seattle, but their 49 pilots work rotating shifts, roughly two weeks on, two weeks off, out of a “pilot station” on the dock in Port Angeles.

Port Angeles, the seat of Clallam County, is ideally situated on the Olympic Peninsula along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The city and the pilot station – and the long and skinny peninsula called Ediz Hook – serve as something of a front gate for Puget Sound.

The 49 Puget Sound Pilots – for the record, 48 are men and just one is a woman – are independent contractors. Captain Eric Von Brandenfels is one of them, and he’s also president of the organization.

Reached by phone earlier this week at his home on near where he grew up on the Eastside of Lake Washington, Captain Von Brandenfels described how a typical pilot assignment works.

“We get on in Port Angeles via a pilot boat while the ship is under way. They slow to about 10 knots, and we climb up a ladder that goes outside the ship. It’s called a Jacob’s Ladder. It’s a wooden rope ladder we climb up,” Captain Von Brandenfels said.

Once safely aboard, the pilot meets with the ship’s captain, and then “take[s] conduct of the vessel,” according to Captain Von Brandenfels. This means the pilot is doing the navigating and guiding of the vessel to its final destination, one of Puget Sound’s port facilities. The typical assignment lasts about nine hours.

“Our profession is the last leg of the voyage,” Captain Von Brandenfels said, describing his job as being like an airplane pilot who only does takeoffs and landings. “And it’s done all over the world.”

Piloting like this is also done around the region, too. There are similar pilot organizations operating at the mouth of the Columbia River, at Grays Harbor, and for Vancouver, BC.

Captain Bradenfels has been a Puget Sound Pilot since 1994. He says that Puget Sound is challenging because of the volume of marine traffic – it’s a busy place for commercial and recreational vessels. And there are parts of the job that are just tricky regardless of any traffic.

“I think some of our more challenging jobs are down in Tacoma in the Blair Waterway, which was built and dredged out for ships that were about half the size that we are bringing down there now,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “We bring 1,100-foot ships that are 168 feet wide [and] drawing 45 feet down that channel, where we have to maintain the azimuth [or compass heading] of the channel, and there’s a crosswind component that makes that really challenging.”

Also challenging nowadays, of course, is the coronavirus pandemic. The ships that Captain Von Brandenfels and the other pilots are going aboard come from all over the world, and so the crews on board each ship do, as well.

Add to this the fact that the bulk of those nine-hour piloting assignments on Puget Sound involve sitting in the wheelhouse in what can be pretty cramped quarters, even aboard huge vessels.

Captain Von Brandenfels says that with these factors in mind, Puget Sound Pilots are taking precautions.

“We’re doing the social distancing,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “If a pilot feels like somebody’s not well [among the crewmembers], then [the pilot is] wearing a mask. We’re spending a little bit more time out on the bridge wing [an exterior walkway near the wheelhouse, often spanning the entire bridge] and it’s kind of up to each pilot to consider what level of threat they feel.”

The pilots are also sensitive to the feelings of the captain and crew of the vessels they board, especially since the Puget Sound area was first in the United States to report a case of coronavirus in January.

“If the crew isn’t comfortable with us not having a mask, we usually wear a mask,” Captain Von Brandenfels said.

Puget Sound Pilots has also been in regular communication with shipping companies about what the pilots expect from each vessel they assist.

“We sent out some expectations early on about what we’d like to see them do, and that’s minimize the people on the bridge of the ship; wipe down with the chlorine bleach solution the vessel — the interior of the wheelhouse, anyway; and make sure they don’t have anybody on board that’s exhibiting symptoms.”

Puget Sound Pilots is also taking precautions at the pilot station on the pier in Port Angeles with additional cleaning and disinfecting. Captain Von Brandenfels says the state and federal government has impressed upon the pilots that they are key to keeping the supply chain moving. It easy to see how all of this could be a stressful job, but that might also be part of the appeal.

“It’s high adrenaline, managing some of the biggest man-made objects in the world and getting them in and alongside a dock without anything happening,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “The goal of us is to have no trace left behind that we’ve ever been there, except for that there’s a big ship sitting there the next day.”

Speaking of adrenaline, the part of the job that seems the trickiest is getting on and off of the ships on that ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ that Captain Von Brandenfels mentioned. It’s tricky because the ship is underway, the pilot boat is moving alongside, and then the waves and swells are making everything move up and down.

“Going up is easier because you’re just going up, and you can just see it,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “You can kind of judge when the boat’s going up and down and make your way. Of course you want to get off at the peak of the wave there so that you don’t get slammed. Coming down for me is more difficult because you’ve got to kind of look over your shoulder and judge the height of the ship or the pilot boat.”

In even the most routine times, pilot transfer is something of a team sport.

“We’ve got good deckhands telling us how many more steps to go,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “And we do it pretty regularly, but it’s not something we take for granted.”

Captain Von Brandenfels says safety is always the main focus of the pilot transfer. He says the industry loses an average of one pilot each year somewhere around the world in the process of transferring from the pilot boat to the ship or vice versa.

And while the Puget Sound Pilots play a very important and serious role in maritime safety and the regional and national economy regardless of the effects of the pandemic, if Captain Von Brandenfels is any indication, it seems they also enjoy what they do.

“Everybody that’s piloting, they do it because they love it,” Captain Von Brandenfels said. “They do it because they were kids who were playing in the bath with a little boat long after the bath water got cold.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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