Bringing ships over the Brunswick Bar

“Keep ’em on the centerline” was the resonating mantra passed to Capt. Bruce Fendig and Capt. Edwin Fendig III from their father, Capt. Edwin Fendig Jr.

The pilot boat GRAYFEN maneuvers into position to remove Capt. Edwin Fendig III from Dresden. The vessel is a retrofitted crewboat and is named in honor of Capt. Lawrence Gray, the association’s senior active pilot, and Capt. Edwin Fendig Jr.

Both men followed their father to become full branch pilots in the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association, St. Simons Island, Ga., bringing ships over the bar and up the Brunswick River to the Port of Brunswick at the apex of a curve of coastline called the Georgia Bight. Currently, the association employs three full branch pilots, two short branch pilots and dispatcher Henry Wynn.

Ships have been crossing the Brunswick Bar since 1566 when the Spanish established San Simeon, a mission on present day St. Simons Island. I met Edwin Jr. and Bruce on the pilot boat dock at the Sea Island Yacht Club where the association’s two pilot boats, GRAYFEN and Retriever, are moored. GRAYFEN was named for Capt. Lawrence Gray, the association’s senior active pilot, and Edwin Jr., now retired from active service but still serving as the association’s president. Retriever is a multi-purpose vessel that serves as a pilot boat, towboat and hydrographic survey platform.

Next to the two pilot boats, Capt. Jonathan Tennant, a short branch pilot, was conducting a marine safety class for the captains of SeaTow Brunswick, a company independent of the association, but owned and operated by its members. “The tow business is a good place to train apprentices on small vessels,” Edwin Jr said. Using the company’s official high-speed towboat, and sometimes the Retriever, to rescue boats in the channel and harbor, apprentice pilots soon learn where a boat should and should not go. “It helps the apprentice pilots gain additional hands-on experience and become local knowledge experts,” Bruce said.

Brunswick Bar Pilots achieve short branch pilot accreditation through a state-approved apprenticeship system and full branch pilot status after extending their training to include larger ships and harbor pilot duties. “The [original] 13 colonies still select and train pilots on the apprenticeship system,” Edwin Jr. said.

Brunswick Pilot, Capt. Edwin Fendig III, and master of the car carrier Dresden, Capt. H. Cielek, prepare to get the ship underway from the port. Ships have been navigating the Brunswick Bar since 1566.

The apprenticeship term in Brunswick is approximately three years and requires working on the pilot boat, performing maintenance chores, working under a full branch pilot on ship moves, working in the office, and crewing on Sea Tow vessels and local harbor tugs. “[Capt.] John Beimler had experience with over 2,000 ship moves before achieving his short branch status, which allows him to take vessels up to 375-feet and a 22-foot draft,” Bruce said.

Edwin III feels that the state pilot system emphasizes safety over economy, but economy is a consideration. “The system works. The state sets the rates and the companies comply.” Brunswick Bar Pilots are unusual in that the port is one of just a few on the Atlantic Coast where a bar pilot’s duties include those of a harbor pilot. “It takes seven to 10 years to cover all of the aspects, all the branches, moving and docking, etc., to be a full branch pilot and safely handle ships in Georgia waters.”

Edwin Jr. apprenticed under Capt. Brockington, a hard case from the old school. “He was a tough taskmaster and proud of it. It was not unusual to sit out there for four or five hours, and sometimes longer. The Captain wouldn’t get VHF, so we had no communication.” Edwin Jr. said. “I got in the business because they didn’t have female pilots in those days. He had two daughters, so he asked me to go out with him because I lived close by, and the ships would go right by my house. I never drove a pilot boat before, but I took him out and put him on a ship. I saw the days when he rented a shrimp boat to take him out when he didn’t have enough business to maintain his own boat.”

The Fendig family dovetails into the rich history of the Brunswick Bar Pilots, providing piloting continuity since Edwin Jr. began his apprenticeship in 1956. The family also contributes greatly to the collective knowledge and promotion of the port. Bruce has published a book, Brunswick, The Ocean Port of Georgia. Over a bowl of Brunswick stew at the P & C Deli, Edwin Jr., with his wife Betty, daughter Lu and Edwin III in attendance, related the origin of the Brunswick Bar Pilots.

“Back in the early colonial days, the captains on the bridge had to lead line their way in and lead line their way out. Sometimes they made it and sometimes they didn’t,” Edwin Jr. said.

One day, a British captain, who, wearied from bucking the weather and uncertainty into Brunswick, met a captain on shore who knew the channel well. The pair agreed to a deal for the captain with the local knowledge to bring the British ship out across the bar.


Capt. Edwin Fendig Jr. disembarks a ship off the St. Simons outer bar in 1995. Now retired as an active pilot, he still serves as the president of the Brunswick Bar Pilots.

They arranged a pick up boat for the bar savvy captain, who proceeded to move the ship out to sea. He was paid in gold for his efforts, but more important, he found a middle ground for his love/hate relationship with the sea. As a pilot for hire, he could satisfy his love for the sea and shiphandling without the long and lonely time away from home. He began waiting outside the bar for ships, and the legacy of the Brunswick Bar Pilots was born.

Bruce’s book recounts how early pilots raced out to speak (communicate by flag), or hail inbound ships to secure a piloting contract. “As time went on, he got competition and the competition became fiercer and fiercer,” Edwin Jr. said. “It got so fierce that they had to go searching north and south looking for a ship.” Records show some pilots, such as Capt. Duncan Wright, sailing north as far as Charleston to speak to a vessel headed for Brunswick.

Brunswick merchants were also disgruntled because the cost of piloting a ship into their harbor was driving the trade to Savannah and Charleston. In 1890, Brunswick Pilots formed an association to reduce costs and provide better service. “Each state developed its pilotage differently because Congress gave states the authority to control their own pilots within their boundaries,” Edwin Jr. said. Pilotage rapidly became a means to build the economy of the states. “The states that had advanced piloting systems became major ports because commerce could flow in and out,” Bruce said. “The chaotic system of going out and drumming up ships developed into the system we have today.”

The practice of many pilots waiting in several boats to speak to ships gave way to a station boat, anchored near the sea buoy. The pilots would row from the station boat over to the inbound ships in a regular rotation, and those debarking outbound vessels would row back to the station boat to wait their next turn. Next came the motor launches, with the pilots laying up at the pilot’s house on Floyd Street while waiting for a ship. Both the launch and the house were sold during the Great Depression, but the practice of blowing the ship’s whistle three times when passing the pilot’s house is still practiced in “gentleman’s” hours, a gesture to pilot history. The ritual started with the steam whistle, blown at any hour to signal the dispatcher that the pilot would soon be available to take another ship. Later, after the advent of radio communication, the whistle was a signal to the pilot’s wife that he would soon be at the dock and would require a ride home.

Prosperity spanned the plantation era in Brunswick but ended with the Civil War and Reconstruction. Timber interests funneled northern capital into the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, driving the port’s tonnage to peak levels before the Great Depression extinguished all but a few embers of commerce. A bond issue reopened the port and rekindled shipping in 1959, and contemporary tonnage figures are close to those of the peaks of the 1920s. “In the past four months, we did 90 ship moves per month,” Edwin Jr. said. “For our port, that’s really big business.”

Although Savannah has had more political clout to get port facilities and dredging work funded over the years, Brunswick, which has had some success recently, is improving the port. A big step forward is the approval of a project to deepen Brunswick’s inner channel to 36 feet. Another important project nearing completion is the replacement of the Sidney Lanier Bridge on Highway 17. The old, narrow drawbridge spanning the Brunswick River is being replaced by a high-span, cable-assisted bridge, and the project is expected to be complete in early 2002. The new bridge will displace the channel’s major bottleneck and the accompanying tension placed on the pilots.

Savannah has the container business, but Brunswick has attracted car carriers, mostly European, and the future looks bright. Brunswick has facilities that are closer to the sea, less vessel traffic hampering turnaround times, more area for cargo transfer and excellent rail and highway connections. “Brunswick’s advantage is that we can move ships in and out expediently,” Edwin Jr. said. The Scandinavian shipping company, Wallenius & Wilhelmsen has plans to make Brunswick its South Atlantic load center.

One of the biggest navigational challenges between the Port of Brunswick and the sea is the Sidney Lanier Bridge, with its 250-foot opening and variable currents. However, it is being replaced by a high-span, cable-assisted bridge that is expected to be completed in early 2002.

En route across the causeway to board the Krupp car carrier Dresden at the Colonel Island No.1 pier, Edwin III reflected on the growth of the port over its history “Brunswick was designated a Port of Entry in 1789 by George Washington,” he said. “It’s a small port trying to be a small/medium niche type port, which is great. It’s a low maintenance harbor for the future. If you leave [the channel] at 30-feet, it will die on the vine, but it’s going to be 36 feet. This is the place to grow.”

Edwin Jr. said of navigating into the Port of Brunswick that, “It’s not a particularly difficult transit from the open sea to the inner harbor.” The longest run a ship has to make from the STS Buoy to the farthest inland pier is 17 miles, a move that takes up to three hours inbound and half that outbound. “There are more maneuvers inbound,” Edwin III said. “The pilots call for Moran tug assist and escort inbound but not outbound, unless conditions require it.”

Dresden, moored at the end of the pier’s immense parking lot filled with row after row of sparkling new cars, sat ready for transit down the channel and to her next port of call. We boarded and walked briskly through the cavernous interior of the main deck and took the elevator up seven decks to the bridge. The first rule of business between Edwin III and Dresden’s master, Capt. H. Cielek, was a consultation on procedures for the transit. The pair then moved to the starboard bridge wing to direct letting go the mooring lines. Edwin III’s commands came in rapid succession: “Let go the stem line; take off the head lines; let go the spring line; slow ahead.”

When Dresden was clear of the pier and headed down the channel, Edwin III and Cielek moved back into the wheelhouse and checked the electronic chart. Ahead loomed the Sidney Lanier Bridge. Edwin III called for the bridge to open well ahead of time so the ship would not be forced to slow down while waiting for highway traffic to clear and the bridge to open. As Dresden neared the bridge, the ship appeared larger and larger and the opening in the bridge appeared smaller and smaller. Edwin III pointed out that the opening in the bridge is 250 feet wide, leaving a full 70 feet of clearance port and starboard for Dresden. However, he was mindful of the mantra of his youth. “If you’re 6° off the center line, something is going to touch,” he said. “Below and above the bridge, there’s a bight in the river, so you normally have a cross current and have to approach the draw on an angle.”

As the bridge receded over the stern, vessel traffic and currents became Edwin III’s main concern. “On a flood tide, the current runs an average of 2.5 knots but speeds up to 3 or 4 knots on an ebb spring tide or full moon,” he said. Edwin III used a “shotgun range” lineup of the ship’s stern, the St. Simons Light and two towers to guide the ship down the center of the bar channel. The currents are caused by outbound water from the South Brunswick River mixing with the Turtle River through St. Simons Sound between St. Simons Island to the north and Jekyll Island to the south. Lining up on the St. Simons outer bar, Edwin III remarked, “Then you’re back in good water.”

At the STS buoy, Edwin III shook hands with Cielek before descending to the main deck and down the pilot’s ladder on the lee side of Dresden to GRAYFEN and home.

Reflecting on the evolution of the Brunswick Bar Pilots during the inbound journey, I recalled Edwin Jr.’s account of his early days as a full branch pilot when he and Gray were the only two pilots in the association. “We did everything. Lawrence would take me out, and then I’d take him out and we did our own dispatching,” he said. “On numerous occasions, when I had to go get a ship at two or three in the morning, the boat operator couldn’t show up, so I went and got my sons, Edwin III and Bruce, to drive the boat. They both grew up in the business and they both love it. That’s what they wanted to do. This has been the most interesting and exciting life.”

By Professional Mariner Staff