Charleston docking and harbor pilots continue a long tradition

Capt. Chen Chi-chung takes his containership, Ever Deluxe, on an endless round-the-world route, making the 70-day westward voyage several times a year. He visits a lot of ports on each circumnavigation, and he sees a lot of pilots at work.

The McAllister tug Louis G. Seabrook stands by for pilot orders to assist the containership Maersk Nagoya off the dock.

On a recent call at the Port of Charleston, S.C., he seemed at ease as his deep-draft ship navigated along the port’s miles of dredged channel, through the wind and tidal currents, under bridges and up the Cooper River. His confidence in the skills of Charleston Branch Pilot Capt. Dan Waldeck reflected the good reputation of this long-established group of professional mariners.

The Port of Charleston traces its origins to the early 18th century when the British established a permanent settlement. The port figured prominently in both the War of Independence and the Civil War. While it is quite possibly the only port in North America that retains virtually the same urban skyline today as it had in the 19th century, it is also a thoroughly modern container and general cargo port for ships in the Atlantic trade. In keeping with that status, the Charleston Branch Pilots maintain an organization rooted in tradition while embracing the latest in technology and training.

In the past year, the pilots have brought two new pilot boats into the operation. Built at Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding, Somerset, Mass., the all-aluminum boats serve as both run boats and station boats. Each has two crews working 12-hour shifts. The twin boats and their crews spell each other off week by week so that maintenance can be kept current and there is always a backup boat available.

This past August, as Ever Deluxe and the car carrier Brilliant Ace approached an area some miles off the Charleston sea buoy, senior pilot boat captain Brian Frank called for the lines to be let go from the pilot dock on the historic Charleston waterfront. With boat operator trainee Brian Dinwidde at the controls, Frank had him ease the throttles up and cruise out toward the sea buoy.

Passing Fort Sumter, whose ancient cannons still guard the harbor entrance, just as they did at the outbreak of the Civil War, he checked by radio with dispatcher Jim Revenal on the location of the ships. In the boat’s comfortable main cabin, pilots Andrew McIntire and Dan Waldeck switched off the TV and settled into a homestyle meal of roast pork with beans prepared, to high praise, by Frank.

The pilot boat has accommodations for four pilots in two bunk rooms, each equipped with direct-to-bridge phones. The sea buoy is currently eight miles off the end of the jetties that extend two miles outside the harbor mouth. Pilots coming off an outbound ship will often stay aboard the pilot boat as it holds station waiting for another ship, rather than running the 13 miles back into the pilot station.

Over the summer, dredges have been working to deepen the ship channel to accommodate an operating draft of 47 feet, up from 42 feet. Because the dredging will extend the channel farther out into the continental shelf, the sea buoy will have to move another five miles to sea. The greater distance to the sea buoy will likely increase the use of the pilot boat for station keeping.

The dredging has also created an immediate, although temporary, problem for ships approaching the sea buoy. Several smaller dredges along with a huge one, Great Lakes Dredging’s Texas, present enlarged navigational hazards with their spoils lines stretching off to one side.

After taking the Hapag-Lloyd containership Koeln Express off the dock and handing her over to the harbor pilot, docking pilot Colman Summersett gets a hand back onboard Brooklyn McAllister.

As the pilot boat headed for the rendezvous, Brilliant Ace was approaching the sea buoy from the north, while Ever Deluxe was inbound some distance to the southeast. Frank decided to put McIntire up on the car carrier first. Because the car carrier has a pilot door well up from the waterline, McIntire elected to board the pilot ladder from the port side of the pilot boat’s cabin top, where ramps extend out either side. With a deckhand acting as lookout, the boat maneuvered alongside in the 3-foot chop, allowing McIntire to step easily across the space separating the two vessels.

In winter, when prevailing southeast winds can kick up huge seas, this is not such a cakewalk. But the August breezes were benign, and a few minutes later, at 1400, Waldeck had boarded Brilliant Ace from the pilot boat’s bow while the vessels were still two miles outside the sea buoy.

The 16 full-branch and four short-branch Charleston Branch Pilots handled 5,200 jobs last year. While the origin of the term “branch” is clouded in time – some say that it referred to long and short branches hung in the rigging of old-time pilot boats to indicate the skill level of the pilot – today, full-branch refers to a pilot fully qualified to handle ships of any draft. Short-branch pilots are beginning pilots who start with a 32-foot-draft limit and work their way up through progressively deeper-draft vessels. At each level they must pass an exam based on a realistic scenario until they qualify for full-branch status, usually in three years. At that time they also buy shares in the pilot company.

Waldeck graduated from Kings Point in 1974 and handled his first ship at 26 years of age. The practice at Charleston is to recruit young apprentices and train them within the organization. Now a full-branch pilot, Waldeck can still elicit surprise from visiting shipmasters with his youthful appearance. But as he went onto the familiar bridge of Ever Deluxe, he was all business, checking with Chen on the specifics of his three-year-old, 965-foot ship.

The key information for Waldeck was the draft, just under 38 feet. Waldeck has taken this ship or her sisters in a dozen times or more. However, pointing out variables of draft and trim, he recounted the words of a senior pilot, “A ship is like a horse: One turn and you know what you are dealing with.”

This ship, with her hull deep in the trough of the 1,000-foot-wide dredged channel, was steady but not particularly responsive. Low water slack, at minus .7 feet, came at 1500, an hour after Waldeck boarded the ship. By 1600 he was well into the channel but still outside the jetty, where the current is mostly wind driven.



Brooklyn McAllister accompanies Mukaddes Kalkavan, a 452-foot Turkish containership as it leaves the Charleston container terminal. The duties of the 4,300-hp z-drive tug include delivering docking pilots to ships.

On this day there would be a high tide of 7 feet, big for Charleston. That meant that tide would be pushing hard on the stern of the ship once it got inside the jetties. “With this draft, I’m watching that I don’t Ôsmell’ the bank on the starboard side. So I’m holding a 9-knot speed,” Waldeck explained.

At 1642, he made one of several course adjustments to offset the “crabbing” of the ship, a tendency to set into the starboard side of the channel. At 1700, the ship was passing between the last two buoys before the mouth of the jetties and the Fort Sumter range, with its powerful lights set up on the point of the historic district of Charleston, where the church steeples that guided ships in the 19th century still tower over the mansion roofs.

Waldeck arranged a port-to-port meeting with the tug Hollywood and her tow while he talked with two fellow pilots bringing ships down the Cooper River. They agreed to meet “off the city.”

Twenty minutes later, off Fort Sumter, a motorless Hobie Cat sailboat seemed about to cut across the ship’s course. Taking no chances, Waldeck sounded repeated blasts on the ship’s horn. “I’d rather do it early than late,” he said. “If I get close enough to take his wind, then he can’t do anything.”

By 1730, the ship was passing over the ground at 11.2 knots with a good 2.5 knots of that coming from the flood tide. Minutes later, Moran Towing’s docking tug, Elizabeth Turacamo, arrived alongside and put docking pilot Brian Curran aboard. Here, at a point where the channel had narrowed to 600 feet, the first of two outbound containerships, MSC Monica, met Ever Deluxe.

Waldeck called course changes to give the two ships adequate passing clearance without setting up a bank-effect problem with the channel side. The deep-draft ship, heavy on the helm, required lots of rudder to begin.

“Hard to starboard,” he directed the helmsman; then, as the ship began to swing, “Ease to 10,” followed by “Midships.”

The Cooper River comes into the harbor to the right of the peninsula on which the city is built. Ships must pass under the twin Cooper River bridges, then make a hard 72° left turn into the cross current in the river at the point where the Wando River branches off.

The bridge piers showed about 2.5 knots of tidal current pushing upstream. Waldeck waited until he was well clear of the bridge before making his turn. Speaking to the tug through docking pilot Curran, Waldeck asked that a line be put up to the ship’s stern. He then called for the tug to assist him around the difficult turn. Finally at 1755, he directed the helmsman, “Midship, steer 298°.”

Dredge Texas works on deepening the Charleston channel system to 47 feet from the current depth of 42 feet. The deeper channel will require moving the sea buoy five miles farther out.

The tug was let go, and the ship steadied on up the Cooper River past the fleet of ready reserve ships and the privatized naval shipyard.

“If I had gone hard-to-port while still under the bridge, there might have been a little more meat on the bone,” Waldeck said, “but as it was, I knew that I had the tug, and I landed right where I wanted.”

A half-hour later, the ship was coming up under the Mark Clark Bridge with tide still pushing her upriver. Waldeck handed the conn to Curran, who would bring the ship to a portside landing at the container dock on the left ascending riverbank just above the bridge.

“Most ships handle better than this,” Curran said, “so I wouldn’t need the tug to have a line up. This ship could make it by white-knuckling it, but why chance it?”

With the tug working the stern quarter, Curran and the ship’s captain leaned out the open window on the covered port bridge wing. Curran worked the remote control to the 2,700-hp bow thruster with one hand, while holding the VHF, through which he directed the tug, with the other hand. He gave helm and main engine directions over his shoulder to a ship’s mate at the bridge-wing control console, while a cadet watched and took notes. The captain directed the line handling by the deck crew through his VHF. In a very short time, the big ship was fast to the dock, and the two pilots went down in the ship’s elevator and out onto the dock.


Engineer Eddie Richardson Jr., left, and Chad Hilton, deckhand on Brooklyn McAllister, while away a few moments of idle time after putting a pilot aboard a containership.

The use of docking pilots is common at many eastern U.S. ports. While the Charleston Branch Pilots retain responsibility for the ship until the first line is up on the pier, they turn the conn to the docking pilot, whose expertise comes from tug work. Unlike the harbor pilots, who typically serve an apprenticeship early in their careers, the docking pilot usually begins as a tug captain. Curran, one of five docking pilots working for Moran Towing, started his career with Atlantic Towing in Savannah and has been in Charleston for 16 years, 11 of them as a docking pilot.

McAllister Towing has provided ship-assist tugs and docking pilots in Charleston since they bought Marine Contract Towing in 1988. Capt. Colman Summersett is one of four regular McAllister docking pilots that average 50 to 60 ships each, per month. He has been docking ships in Charleston for 30 years. He started as a 15-year-old deckhand in 1952 and was a tug captain 10 years later. In his time on the waterfront, he has seen dramatic changes in the ships that visit.

“Thirty years ago, a big ship was 525 feet with a 30-foot draft. Now we get a ship like the Regina Maersk, 1,044 feet long with a 140-foot beam and a 42-foot draft. The old T-2 tankers carried 125,000 barrels as cargo, but a big new containership can carry 100,000 barrels of bunkers,” he said.

As he headed out, onboard the 4,300-hp, EMD-powered z-drive tug Brooklyn McAllister to meet the containership Greenwich Maersk, he recounted her specifications to tug captain, Mike Sistare, from memory. The ship is 958 by 106 feet with a single 2,000-hp bow thruster and a 1,150-hp stern thruster. “She has plenty of rudder,” he added. “It is a standard design but designed right, like all Maersk ships. She has 52,000-hp on the main. At dead slow, she does 4 or 5 knots.”

Just after 1100, Summersett boarded the ship through her pilot door as she entered the Wando River. The tide was still flooding at about 1.5 knots. Sistare commented, “He is the best docking pilot I’ve seen. If he can’t do it, nobody else better try it.”

Summersett’s voice came over the VHF asking Sistare for “Ahead one bell.” Sistare smiled and gave the throttle on the EMDs a nudge.

“That means one-quarter speed. We got it from the old bell-and-jingle boats that we were still using up until 1988. It was three little toots for dead slow, one for quarter, two for half, four for three-quarter and jingle for full ahead. We had one boat that was an 1,800-hp, single-screw Fairbanks Morse. Guys used to laugh at us. But there were times when some of the engineers were quicker than the wheelhouse controls.”

One of those legendary engineers was Sistare’s father, Henry Sistare. Families figure strongly in the stories of the Charleston waterfront. The engineer on Brooklyn McAllister this day, Eddie Richardson Jr., is the son of another of those engineers. But he no longer has to hang out in the fiddley waiting for bells. He was out on deck lending a hand with the lines to deckhand Chad Hilton and helping the pilot on and off the ships.

The docking of the big containership, Greenwich Maersk, went smoothly. With all the lines fast, Summersett came back along the dock to reboard the tug. In the pilothouse he said, “I didn’t use the stern thruster at all because I had the tug, but I could have used a couple of thousand more on the bow with that draft over 38 feet.” He went on to explain, “The ship was doing 7 knots ahead at three-eighths of a mile off the dock. I went to dead slow and slow backing down to stop her, and by that time we were right up to the berth. With less horsepower, I would have had to back much harder.”

The next job was an hour’s run up the Cooper River. At the container terminal just above the Mark Clark Bridge, Summersett climbed aboard the small, 452-by-36-foot Turkish containership Mukaddes Kalkavan. Arriving on the bridge, he saw a state-of-the-art computer-controlled system. Built in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1997, the ship has a 15,463-hp main engine, as well as 800-hp bow and stern thrusters. As Summersett and Charleston Branch Pilot Capt. John Stuhr watched, the smiling Turkish captain walked his ship off the dock with a joystick and his two thrusters.

Not all ships are this small, and not all jobs are so easy. As ships continue to grow in size and their cargoes escalate in value, there will be a guaranteed place in ports like Charleston for both harbor and docking pilots.

By Professional Mariner Staff