Magazine

The tricky work of guiding massive ships into Boston Harbor

Harbor pilots escort the biggest ships into port. Once dredging is done, these vessels and their task could grow even bigger.

The container ship Maersk Kalamata was recently guided into the port of Boston.

Webb Chappell

The container ship Maersk Kalamata was recently guided into the port of Boston.

Webb Chappell

After being dropped off by a pilot boat, harbor pilot Scott MacNeil, 48, climbs a ladder to board the container ship Maersk Kalamata and guide it into the port of Boston.

THE MARE DI VENEZIA, a refined-petroleum tanker almost as long as two football fields, stands out among the other Lilliputian-in-comparison vessels entering and leaving Boston Harbor. It’s a calm and sunny day as the behemoth waits some 7 miles east of Deer Island Light for one of Boston’s nine harbor pilots to help steer it into port.

One of those pilots, Chris Hoyt, is on a boat racing to meet the tanker, which is 12 times the length of his vessel. Once there, he climbs a rope ladder that extends down to him from the deck of the tanker. One slip on the rungs could be his last; he wouldn’t be the first pilot to have died that way, simply getting to work.

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The 57-year-old Hoyt, gray-haired and lean, meets an officer who leads him to the captain on the bridge, the control center of the ship. They shake hands. Now it’s the pilot’s responsibility — using his extensive maritime training and deep understanding of the underwater landscape — to guide the tanker into the shallower waters of Boston Harbor.

Without harbor pilots escorting the 11.4 million tons of cargo into and out of the port of Boston each year, there wouldn’t be enough gas for the region’s cars, heat for its homes, or clothes to buy at the shopping mall. The pilots here earn about $300,000 a year, minor compared with the value of the ships and their cargo and the damage an accident could cause to the environment. The vessels these pilots guide are massive — and they’re expected to get bigger.

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After years of study, the US Army Corps of Engineers plans to start dredging portions of Boston Harbor in early 2017. The main channel used by container ships will be deepened from 40 feet to 47 or 51 feet. Boston is one of several ports on the East Coast dredging navigation channels to stay competitive and accommodate the bigger “post-Panamax” container ships that will fit through the enlarged Panama Canal, set to open next year.

One of the goals of Boston’s $300 million-plus dredging project is to reduce the amount of cargo being dropped off at ports in New York and New Jersey and then trucked to Boston. While Brad Wellock, Massachusetts Port Authority manager of maritime regulatory affairs, predicts the number of ships entering Boston Harbor will stay the same, he says their size and loads should increase. The port of Boston can currently accommodate vessels that carry 7,000 20-foot containers, or TEUs; once the project is done, ships carrying 10,000 TEUs can make their way in.

“We’re huge advocates that the harbor is dredged,” says Andy Hammond, the executive director of the Boston Harbor Pilot Association, especially since bigger ships hauling more containers make for more efficient transportation. It’s true that maneuvering longer, taller, wider vessels is more complicated, but Hammond maintains that Boston’s pilots are up for the challenge.

The container ship MSC Lorena.

Webb Chappell

The container ship MSC Lorena.

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IN HEAVY WINDS, 60-year-old harbor pilot Frank Morton finds his way up to the bridge of the Great Eastern, a refined-petroleum tanker with a draft of 34.5 feet, the distance from its waterline to the deepest point of its hull. He begins directing the boat toward President Roads Channel. He is caught in a peculiar situation. The cruise ship Crystal Serenity is heading out, and as a rule, boats pass “port to port,” the left side of one facing the left side of the other. But the channel is deeper on Morton’s left side, and he is bringing in a loaded petroleum tanker. Over the radio, the two vessels agree to an exception and pass starboard to starboard, buying the Great Eastern more water depth.

As pilot, Morton acts as an adviser to the captain on where and how fast the tanker should go while entering the harbor. On a petroleum tanker, there is usually a crew of around 20; they listen to Morton’s instructions to ensure that the vessel gets safely to port. They’re relying on his intimate knowledge of his home turf.

Pilots have been around ever since ships started to voyage to unknown ports. Massachusetts requires that every foreign vessel 350 gross tons or more and every US vessel of that size engaged in foreign commerce have a state-commissioned pilot on board while traveling in and out of Boston Harbor and its approaches. These pilots must hold the highest US Coast Guard endorsement possible, have significant seagoing experience, and have completed a two-year training program. Because of such credentialing, pilots tend to be older. The ships pay the self-employed pilots for their services, though the money is collected and distributed by the Boston Harbor Pilot Association. Pilots work one week and then have the next week off. They are on duty 24-seven and in all weather.

For Chris Hoyt, “just being home” was among his reasons for seeking a pilot’s job. “When I sailed [as a captain], it was seventy-five days — two and a half months away and two and a half months home.” Hoyt also appreciated giving up the captain’s responsibility for everything, and everyone, on board the ship. “It’s easier being a pilot,” he says. “It’s much easier to handle a ship than to handle people.”

One aspect of the job, however, is far from easy: those ladders that take the pilot from pilot boat to ship. “The biggest downside of this job,” says Hoyt, “is that it is dangerous climbing ladders in bad weather — and you lose that ability with age.” Captain Joseph Murphy, a professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, adds: “The idea that you are in an open ocean, in an open sea, [going] from a small vessel to a large vessel in all conditions of weather is very, very dangerous, and many pilots have lost their lives in that exchange.” The bigger ships that Boston could accommodate after dredging might bring a bigger headache: even longer ladders to climb.

Pilots do function independently and can use that to their advantage. If they deem weather conditions too dangerous, they can delay guiding a ship. “That’s the beauty of the system,” says Hammond. “If the pilot says no [to meeting the ship], the pilot says no.”

Webb Chappell

Scott MacNeil steadies himself as he climbs onto the MSC Lorena.

THE SHIP MEDI NAGASAKI, filled with scrap metal on a visit late last year, has a draft of about 38 feet. This is also the depth of some parts of the channels during low tide. So the Medi Nagasaki has to wait to leave Boston until high tide, when the typical channel depth is closer to 50 feet. The less space between the bottom of the boat and the seafloor, the harder it is to maneuver. Unfortunately, the Medi Nagasaki is “really slow,” says Gregg Farmer, a 53-year-old harbor pilot. “Or as they say in Boston, wicked slow.”

Dredging the channel could increase the window of time for departing or arriving vessels, or even eliminate it. Waiting for high tide might no longer be necessary. Going out in bad weather, because you don’t want to miss high tide, could also be avoided. “It’s more efficient, it’s safer, and it gives more flexibility,” says Andy Hammond.

One thing dredging won’t help is the reckless behavior of small-boat operators. Although a large ship going through Boston’s inner harbor is typically traveling less than 10 miles per hour, Hammond says, it would still need thousands of feet to come to a complete stop. If a small vessel were to dart in front, the ship wouldn’t be able to stop in time and might have to attempt to maneuver around the boat. This would be dangerous to the smaller vessel, he adds, and could cause the ship to run aground or worse.   

“Everybody tries to squeeze by them,” Sergeant Joseph Cheevers, Boston Police harbormaster, says. “The channel is like a valley under the water. They might think that a larger vessel has space to maneuver, but they are confined to the channel.”  

Beth Treffeisen is a junior metro editor with NewBostonPost. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Because of a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story made reference to the Medi Nagasaki scraping the bottom of the harbor. That did not happen.

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