Memoirs from a seafaring captain
"During the time when events in the “Absentee Training Pilot” narrative occurred (circa 1977), our pilot organization was short of pilots. The opening of the Trans Alaska Pipeline Terminal at Valdez would further accelerate the need for new pilots. As a consequence new members (including me) were being put through what might be described as an expedited and intense training program. Training at that time followed more of a “guild system” than formal training.
Although we all had considerable prior experience in the maritime industry, maritime pilots in Alaska bore some similarities to Alaska Bush Pilots in that our job experiences and training regimens were often unique from our counterparts in the “Outside”. The attachment relates to that uniqueness.
For the record, training over subsequent years became more regulated and comprehensive. It is difficult to imagine any circumstance where such an experience as described in the attachment could be repeated today. Although, it should be noted that many highly regarded shiphandlers were the products of that often stressful system." Captain Jim Wright
The Absentee Training Pilot
"The following account escaped being recorded in my job log although it remains fresh in my memory. The vessel in question was a “handy bulker” of probably 15K to 20K DWT.
The assigned pilot for this job was quite a bit my senior in both age and experience and was possessed of a rather irascible temperament. He had supervised my handling and docking of a similar vessel on her inbound leg and his response to my question regarding the job was unexpected. Rather than discussing the job as was expected, he simply said, “You did a fine job of bringing in that other ship, the weather tonight is expected to be good, there’s no reason you can’t handle this outbound job by yourself. Click – end of conversation. Having had limited experience with this type of job, my first thought was, “you’ve got to be kidding”, until it dawned on me that he wasn’t.
Departing the Homer Airport that evening in the well-worn Alaska Aeronautical Industries twin Otter the weather remained calm. This changed markedly during our 30-minute flight to Kenai. Well before final approach the experienced passengers had double reefed their seat belts as the Otter seemed to be enjoying an attempt to conduct unauthorized aerobatic maneuvers. Landing in the gusty winds at Kenai was one of those “anything-you-can-walk-away-from” experiences.
The taxi ride to the terminal confirmed my increasing apprehension that this job was going to fall well outside the parameters of normal. By the time we reached the terminal the wind had increased to a point where the taxi was shaking in the parking lot.
Conditions worsened upon reaching the berth. The vessel was starboard side to with the increasing wind and swell causing her to surge heavily. The gangway had been removed to avoid damage and the Greek Captain, who had come ashore to confer with the loading supervisor, was glancing in my direction with an anxious look in his eyes while fingering his “worry beads”.
The loading supervisor briefed me on the situation stating that although loading had not yet been completed he didn’t believe the dock could take much more pounding from the vessel without sustaining damage. Then, apparently uninterested in discovering my experience level, he asked the dreaded question, “Mr. Pilot, can you get her off the berth under these conditions?
Should my response be direct, or should it be what the supervisor wanted to hear? Suddenly it occurred to me that there is a considerable similarity between a harbor pilot’s duty to inspire confidence and a stage actor’s duty to influence an unfamiliar audience. How would Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton answer the supervisor’s question? Avoiding a direct answer, my response was, “If you can hook a couple of slings on the crane runner and swing us aboard, we’ll see what we can do”. With the vessel now taking seas on deck and the Master and I both swinging in the wind 30 feet above the deck trying to gauge our landing point, we must have looked like a “poor man’s Flying Wallendas Act”.
Time was now of the essence. The opposing ebb current was nearly exhausted. Once the flood began, it would bring a heavier swell and force us to make a “fair tide” undocking without tug assist with the wind and swell pressing us on the fenders.
The “absentee training pilot” had demonstrated this maneuver to me once before during a previous observer trip although the weather had been much better. In simple terms we had to take in all the lines then use a fairly strong “astern bell” to build up enough sternway into the wind and swell to get the vessel in a position where we could use the engine and rudder to roll her around the knuckle while getting enough angle between the bow and the forward fenders to give her a “Hail Mary bell” and drive her out and clear of the berth.
On my first attempt, all seemed to be going well until the “Hail Mary” part where the courage of my convictions failed to produce a strong enough “ahead bell” and she laid back on the fenders. It should be noted that this miscalculation did nothing to strengthen my confidence.
Our situation could now be compared to an airline pilot who just aborted a take-off and had to retry without fully appreciating the reason for the first abort. Not a comfortable situation to be in.
Our options were two-fold. Try again with a stronger bell and risk taking out the entire berth or remain alongside and let the vessel’s surge against the fenders take out the entire berth. These unhappy options encouraged me to make another try.
This time, a “full ahead” bell was ordered followed by judicious rudder orders to keep the vessel rotating off the fenders and the stern just clear of the knuckle. This more aggressive plan produced better results. As we built up speed, we avoided contacting the knuckle with the stern and the bow began to gradually move away from the fenders. Using an aviation analogy, you could say that we were at “V-2+ with a positive rate of climb” except that the LNG berth to the north of us was now closing rapidly. Fortunately, there was sufficient room between the north end of our berth and the south end of the LNG berth to order hard-a-port and make our getaway to more open water. Once clear of the berths, we anchored close enough to remain in radio contact with the terminal. Finally, laying down on the bunk in the pilot room, my sense of distress (bad stress) began changing to eustress (good stress).
The following morning conditions had improved when the terminal called and asked if it was possible for me to bring the vessel back alongside (without a tug) to load some remaining bags of urea. Somehow our conversation afforded me the opportunity to convince them that bringing the bags of urea out on a barge (which had showed up during the night) would be the more efficient solution. Or perhaps they had become aware of my relative inexperience and did not want to risk having me bring a nearly fully loaded vessel back alongside. In any event, we both seemed satisfied with the chosen remedy.
The absentee training pilot reportedly enjoyed his evening at home. He later made some remark about hearing it might have been a bit windy at the terminal. Nothing further was heard." Jim Wright
Enjoy the Journey...
It's an adventure!