A Winter Run on Penobscot Bay

Clambering across the deck of a pilot boat and up a swaying Jacob’s ladder is not an activity one usually seeks out on a dead-of-winter night. But I joined Capt. Skip Strong, a pilot and partner in the Penobscot Bay (Maine) and River Pilots Association for a winter’s evening ride up the Bay to capture a glimpse of the transition in piloting practices. I wanted to see how these marine professionals had gone from the old ways of 50 and 100 years ago, from a casual assemblage of fishermen-cum-pilots who combined dead-reckoning skills with their vast local knowledge, to the new methods that make such trips high-tech, tightly regulated processes.


We would meet the 434-foot Wellington Kent, a Canadian-owned, Barbados-flagged tanker, which was delivering a load, some 80,000 barrels, of No. 2 (home-heating) oil to the Sprague Energy Terminal in Searsport.


The terminal at Searsport is seeing more business these days, and a recent decision to revitalize the terminal will mean even more ships running up and down this pristine bay.


As a result of the projected traffic increase, the pilots will soon take delivery of a new vessel, built expressly for pilot service, which is being built in Florida by Liberty Yachts for delivery this summer. It will sport a pair of 430-hp Cummins diesels and will be capable of cruising at 20 knots, making the trip out to Matinicus or Monhegan in far less time and in worse weather.


Strong planned to rendezvous near the seabuoy off Matinicus Island at about 1800 on a December night and then spend the next three hours on the bridge, navigating our way past shoals, countless dark islands, and the twinkling lights of the two-dozen or so communities that dot the shores of Penobscot Bay, a glacial scoop about halfway to Canada along Maine’s craggy coast.


The changeover from older piloting methods to modern electronic devices has been a fairly recent occurrence. Just 10 years ago, piloting practices in this area consisted primarily of using visual and gyro bearings and ranges, and radar. Today, while these traditional skills are still used as backup methods, the pilots also use the latest in digital GPS technology, combined with a prescribed route that they developed in conjunction with the route they have historically followed, to navigate their way along a few electronic lines on the screen of a laptop computer.


Strong is a young pilot, just 40 years old, having served a 12-year career sailing deep sea, including a stint as master of an oil tanker for Keystone Shipping Co. He grew up in Maine and saw piloting as a way to have a stable family life and still earn a living in a career he enjoys.


Night coming on


As we departed Rockland Harbor, the sun was just setting over the spiky spruce trees of Owls Head and Monroe Island to the southwest. The tall lighthouse that stands at the entrance to the Harbor and marks the beginning of Mussel Ridge Channel shone a steady beam. The pilot boat, Crown Pilot, is a 36-foot Hatteras, a former sport-fishing boat run by Jane Ryan, the full-time boat operator for the pilots.


We plowed our way toward Matinicus, where the ship was expected in another hour and a half. The farther we went offshore, the bigger the seas became as the northwest wind had, with increasing fetch, a chance to build the waves. We took the seas on our quarter, which meant that Ryan had her hands full trying to combat the boat’s corkscrewing and steer a steady course. While we were warm in the diesel-heated cabin, the outside temperature hovered around 10° F. And it felt even colder in the wind and spray.


After an hour or so, we were on station, the dot-dash of the Morse-Alpha buoy blinking off our starboard beam as we idled along. We could watch the approach of Wellington Kent, which was coming from St. John, New Brunswick, as it worked its way down the radar screen from the northeast. Soon we saw its masthead lights and red running light, which, since the tanker was laden, were barely visible above the surface of the waves.


Ryan pressed up the speed as the tanker closed on our position and then spun the little boat into a U-turn to come alongside. As we made the turn, heading into the wind and seas, the motion of the boat increased, and we were soon taking green water and spray over the bow. The deck lights of the tanker flipped on, and we could see the mate on deck standing next to the Jacob’s ladder, which dangled over the side. The ship had only about 6 feet of freeboard, which meant that our boarding the ship would be relatively easy — at least we wouldn’t have a lot of climbing to do. Strong told me to pick my wave and go across when the pilot boat was at the top of a crest — to avoid getting squashed. If I jumped to the ladder while the launch was in a trough, the pilot boat might then rise up on a crest and slam against the hull — possibly leading to serious injury.


Up to the bridge


As we landed on deck, one at a time, the Filipino mate reported to the bridge, via his hand-held radio, that we were safely aboard. We walked quickly aft, ducked into the companionway via a watertight door, and climbed the five flights of stairs to the bridge. We emerged on the darkened bridge and were greeted by the ship’s Canadian chief engineer. The captain’s name was Kirk Taylor, who I would find out later was a native of Prince Edward Island. The rest of the crew, all Filipino, spoke decent English. I imagined that captain’s role, already lonely due to the nature of the job, must have been especially so as one of only two native English-speakers aboard, surrounded by crew who shared a language and culture.


Once on the bridge, Strong and Taylor shook hands and then exchanged necessary information about the ship and route. Wellington Kent calls on Searsport about 20 times in a year, which means that the pilots and captains have a solid relationship. Each knows the other’s skills.


Wellington Kent is a relatively small tanker. At just 434 feet, it resembles a miniature version of large tankers, which can be as long as 800 or 900 feet, or very large crude carriers (VLCCs), which can be more than 1,000 feet in length and weigh over 350,000 dwt. Despite its diminutive size, Wellington Kent is deceptive to handle, according to Strong. It’s a little underpowered, which means it handles like a much larger ship.


Strong set up his laptop on a table beside a radar on the starboard side and then ran an antenna, attached to the computer by a 50-foot wire, out to the starboard bridge wing. The screen lit up with a detail of the shipping route, on which he could zoom in or out, depending on the view he needed.


After taking over the conn from the captain, Strong ordered a few adjustments to the rudder to get the ship squarely in the middle of the route. A red arrow extended ahead of the ship, indicating where the ship would be in a given time — say, three minutes — if course and speed remained constant. As we approached a starboard turn in the route, which would take us along the western side of the island of Vinalhaven, Strong ordered 15° of rudder, and the arrow began to swing. When it began to approach the center of the new route, Strong ordered the mate to steady the course on the gyrocompass. Turns in the ship’s course are ordered by the pilot, but the AB or mate on the helm can also follow an ordered course.


Interestingly, since Wellington Kent is a foreign ship, helm commands were given to the man on the wheel using port and starboard. Had it been an American ship, the orders would be issued in left and right, a custom practiced on both U.S. Navy and American-flagged merchant vessels.


On the radio


Strong picked up the VHF mike and made a security call: “Security call, security call, the tanker Wellington Kent, inbound, northbound in the vicinity of the WP PA buoy. Standing by on 16 and 13 for any concerned traffic, tanker Wellington Kent.” After hanging up the mike, he explained that security calls are much more necessary on summer days when the Bay is full of traffic. On winter nights, he said, he makes the calls but knows few boats are likely to be out there. The radar screen is blank except for the blips marking buoys and islands.


“We believe in providing excellent service,” Strong said. “We take care to keep our customers informed of changes; we use the best technology available to make the passage as safe as possible.” I had noticed that on the day the ship was slated to arrive, Strong called me on the phone twice to update the ship’s arrival time, changes of only half an hour, but which would keep me from waiting. He said he also called the tug company and gauger, the person who measures the volume of cargo upon arrival, and the line handlers. Once we were underway, he continued to communicate with the ship, either by cell phone or VHF radio, to learn ETA updates. He would then call everybody back with updated times. “If I don’t do that, then the tugs are sitting there for an hour or two, racking up fees at several hundred — or thousand if there’s more than one tug — dollars an hour; and the customs guy and the gauger are sitting in their cars on the pier in the cold getting pissed off. This way the customer saves money and everybody gets along,” Strong said.


Before boarding the ship, Strong updated everyone one last time: “We’ll have first lines at about 2130 and be all fast by 2145,” he said.


The pilots in the Bay developed the shipping route and publicized it, in conjunction with the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and local fishing groups, so that the route is now published on charts of Penobscot Bay. The pilots publish a brochure of the route, which explains the nature of the business, where the terminals are, and a key that identifies the types of ships that will likely be transiting the area. The brochures are distributed to marinas and fishermen.


As we approached the north end of Penobscot Bay, I could see a blip on the screen that Strong said was the tug that would assist with our docking maneuvers. At this point, Strong began to slow the ship.


I asked Strong about how he can switch from ship to ship and still maneuver them safely. Surely they would each handle differently. “That’s true,” he said, “but there are some rules of thumb. For example, you can expect that the speed of a ship can be reduced by one knot every tenth of a mile and not have anything worked too hard. In other words, at 5 knots you need half a mile to bring the ship to a complete stop.”


Following my trip with Strong, I spoke with a retired pilot, Capt. William Abbott, who grew up on Verona Island at the head of Penobscot Bay and who joined his father, also a pilot, running ships up to Bangor in the 1940s. When oil and coal terminals were built at Searsport and Bucksport, which are at the head of the Bay and near the mouth of the Penobscot River, less traffic would venture up the river. Today, in fact, only domestic tugs go up to Bangor, reducing the need for a pilot service on the river, since U.S. officers are entitled to have their own pilotage.


Every pilot organization has stories about the old days when they would row out to meet ships in the dead of night in the middle of winter. But Abbott’s stories seemed especially bleak. Abbott and his father and their colleagues rowed out to the ships, whether it was a fine summer’s day or the middle of a winter’s night, and brought the ship up the Bay or up the river to Bangor. In the days before VHF radio, the pilots met ships off Monhegan, a rocky, cliff-ringed island 10 miles off Port Clyde, trudging down to the south beach shore to watch for their approach.


What changed the business most profoundly was the introduction of radar in the 1940s and early ’50s. “When I first started in 1946, there was no radar,” Abbot said. “We used a magnetic compass and took bearings from shore, ran buoy to buoy, and also kept a good DR. The mates would get fixes for you. I remember when we would run past Mosquito Island, there was a streetlight by Port Clyde — when that appeared, you turned to make your run up to Two Bush. In the early days of radar, we didn’t have to worry so much about traffic. When it was dark or foggy, we were the only ones out there. And then everybody started getting radar, and everybody and their mothers were out there in the fog.”


Another change that Abbott witnessed was the growth of the ships themselves. As a young pilot in the 1940s, he said that most ships were less than 300 feet long. The biggest jump in size was when T-2 tankers started running up the Bay in the 1950s. At 525 feet, the tankers were the largest ships the pilots had ever commanded. But like everything else, the changes were gradual, allowing pilots to develop their skills at a reasonable pace.


As Strong slowed Wellington Kent to about a knot and a half, the tug came up astern of the ship and put a line up. They would serve as extra braking and turning power, while the bow thruster would press the bow against the pier. We would be landing port-side-to, and the northerly wind, already blocked by the shore, would not interfere as it was coming right over the bow.


The screen of the laptop was switched to show only the ship’s speed (SOG) and course (COG), indicated in large block type that filled the screen. That way, Strong could still see the screen from the bridge wing.


The mate and ABs were relieved to assist with handling lines on deck. Putting on their jackets, hats and gloves, Strong and the captain went out to the port bridge wing as the ship closed with the pier. The slight breeze was bracing, but we were soon alongside as Strong handled the thruster and the captain made the slight throttle and rudder changes — to Strong’s orders — from the remote station. The slab-sided ship glided alongside the long industrial pier with grace.


As we climbed off the ship, the customs official and the gauger were just arriving. I looked at my watch. It was 2145, on time to the minute.




Contributing Editor Twain Braden is a freelance writer, schooner captain, and a partner in the Portland, Maine-based schooner Bagheera.

By Ocean Navigator