Crescent river pilots: A proud history and promising future

Deep-sea ships entering the Mississippi River from the Gulf of Mexico via the primary route through the South Pass will be guided by three pilots if their destination lies above New Orleans. Each of these pilots belongs to a different association.

Navios Magellan, a 74,700-dwt bulk carrier, heads down the Mississippi at sundown near Venice, La., just upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, carrying a load of grain and lentils, was bound for Indonesia by way of the Suez Canal.

From the sea buoy, the Bar pilots bring the ship 20 miles up to the Head of Passes and Mile Zero on the Mississippi River, where they hand it over to a member of the Crescent River Port Pilots Association. Another 95 miles upriver, at New Orleans, ships with destinations farther upriver take on a member of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association. This latter group’s waters extend up to Baton Rouge at Mile 230 on the Mississippi.

Outbound, the pilots replace each other in reverse sequence, with the Crescent pilots boarding in front of the city of New Orleans from the same launch that takes the Baton Rouge pilot off the ship. In turn, the Crescent pilots often leave the ship at Pilot Town by the same pilot boat that puts the Bar pilot onto the ship.

In early December of 2001, Crescent Pilot Capt. Mike Rees boarded the Panamanian bulker M/V Navios Magellan, outbound with a load of grain and lentils. She was beginning a 36-day voyage to Indonesia via the Suez Canal under the command of Capt. Bienvenido Coquilla. Also onboard for the trip was Crescent Pilot Capt. Douglas Grubb.

Grubb has spearheaded the pilots’ participation in the port’s developing vessel traffic management system (VTMS). Among other things, Grubb was testing one of two portable transponders that he had brought aboard. These devices are a crucial part of the ship’s automatic identification system (AIS). When properly programmed, they transmit the ship’s name as well as information about its course, speed, size and cargo. Other vessels receiving that AIS transmission can use the data to track the ship in real time on their electronic charts.

Capt. Mike Rees, a Crescent pilot, guides Navios Magellan past a ferry at the Chalmette-Algiers crossing, near New Orleans, one of the busiest sections of the river.

A number of these devices have been placed on ferries and other boats on the lower Mississippi, and pilots have the option of bringing them aboard ships. In late 2002, the Coast Guard will begin requiring foreign trade ships that must comply with bridge-to-bridge radiotelephone protocols to carry a version of these instruments. The program will be fully instituted by 2007.

Grubb’s AIS equipment garnered considerable interest from the ship’s officers as he set it up and tested the reliability and accuracy of the units.

As Rees arrived on the bridge of Navios Magellan at 1235, he conducted the usual pilot-to-captain conference to bring himself up to date on the vessel’s draft, speed and any special information required for its safe passage downriver. The Baton Rouge pilot also participated in the conference before leaving the bridge to board the waiting launch.

With full cargo hatches, the ship had a 45-foot draft, which was just under the 48-foot maximum allowed in the river for ships under 100,000 tons. The ship was panamax size (the maximum allowed in the Panama Canal) at 74,700 dwt. Rees was pleased with the ship’s modern radars and bridge equipment. He explained that during that time of year and through the winter, the major concern was the heavy sea fog that can blanket the river at sundown. It is caused by the cold river waters pouring down from the American heartland to meet the warm, moisture-laden southerly breezes coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. This fog can be dense enough at times to force the captain of the port to close the river in the New Orleans area until it clears, causing significant delays and additional costs. Such conditions are part of why a fully functioning VTMS is so important along this stretch of river. The economic impact of permitting certain well-equipped vessels to move in foggy conditions, with VTMS support, will be dramatic.

But this afternoon was clear, and Rees’ most immediate concern was the other river traffic. Just below the city of New Orleans and Algiers Point, the twin Chalmette ferries cross and recross the river. Their operators are accustomed to the heavy traffic and, like the other ferry operators on the river, they are expert at timing their crossings to come around the sterns of the ships. But this river dance only works so long as all the partners pay close attention.

Rees checked the radar and walked out on the wing bridge to assure that all the vessels were in their place. In the 264 miles of water covered by the three pilotage groups, there are routinely between 70 and 150 ships moving at any one time. In addition, there are as many at anchor or wharves along the way. Since many of the wharves are along the river, Rees kept his speed down and tried to pass as far away as possible from the docked ships. Even though many of the ships at dock were not loaded, the 45-foot draft on the Navios Magellan could have set up enough bank pressure and suction to snap mooring lines.

Named for its position on the river relative to New Orleans, Lower 9 Mile Point is one of the first significant river bends below the city. Rees passed an upbound ship green to green. He had the helmsman hold the ship toward the port bank, knowing that the pressure would swing the bow around, while giving the ship a wide berth.

Capt. Douglas Grubb, pilot, explains the use of transponders to Second Mate Jonathan Camanga.

By 1315, just 45 minutes after taking over the ship, he was coming down on Lower 12 Mile Point. “Starboard 20,” he directed the helmsman, initiating a series of course changes to bring the big ship easy around the bend. Once clear of the bend, noting the absence of current in the river against the flooding tide, he asked for an increase to “full-ahead navigation” from “full-ahead maneuvering,” as the GPS on the radar screen showed the speed over ground increasing from 11 to 13 knots.

Below Lower 12 Mile Point, an anchorage along the right descending bank held two ships and an articulated tug-and-barge unit. This point, like a number of others, is named for the distance below New Orleans and is actually 80 miles upriver from the Head of the Passes. Rees noted the anchored vessels so he could alert up-bound pilots that he met.

An AIS-based VTMS, Grubb explained, would handle such notification automatically and eliminate the interference problem. Grubb pointed out that when all vessels are AIS-equipped, information will appear on each ship’s monitor. The information could even be relayed directly to a shipping company’s head office, allowing the company to monitor the position and state of its ships from anywhere in the world.

It is a pilot’s responsibility to advise ship captains on suitable anchorages for their ships. “In low-water conditions, Lower 12 Miles is the best deep anchorage, but with a strong norther blowing, the ship will tail to the bank; whereas, at 9 Mile, the same wind will be blowing bow on,” Rees explained, giving one more example of the range of knowledge required by a pilot on this stretch of the Mississippi.

Twenty minutes later, he asked the helmsman for course changes to follow the 90° sweep to port of English Turn around Shingle Point. On the river, there is constant traffic of towboats pushing 30 or more grain barges, tugs with tows upbound from the Gulf, ships inbound and anchored, and various offshore supply vessels. In the relative straight below the English Turn, Rees had a few moments to reflect on the pride and heritage represented by his work.

“My maternal great-grandfather, Capt. John Vogt, was a charter member of the Crescent Pilots, and my grandfather was a pilot. He lived next door to us,” Rees recalled. “They had it rough in those days. I remember seeing him come home and being told not to bother him. He would fall asleep on the couch and in a short time there would be a cab honking its horn outside the door. He would pull on his suit coat, pick up his valise and go back for another ship.”

Like many Crescent pilots, Rees started his career as a deck hand on tugs. He was fresh out of high school, but he knew what he wanted. Over the years, he worked his way up into the wheelhouse before being accepted in the pilots’ apprenticeship program in the early 1990s. He is now one of about 105 Crescent pilots who handle some of the 400,000 vessel movements per year along the 264 miles of the commercial waterway in the combined ports of the Lower Mississippi. Approximately 37,000 of these involve deep-draft vessels carrying cargoes vital to both the domestic and international economies.

Grubb doesn’t come from a piloting family. He found his way out of college and onto towboats when the summer job proved more interesting and rewarding than the winter studies. He has a keen understanding of the growing importance of electronic vessel traffic management, but he also has a nearly reverential respect for the traditional mariners with whom he has worked.

“When we’re out here piloting ships in bad weather or blacked-out fog,” Grubb said, “we have to have absolute confidence, not only in our own abilities, but in the abilities of our fellow pilots. That kind of trust can only come from experience of working together effectively over a long period of time. When we lose one of our old-time pilots, it is a real loss to our community.”

River and Bar pilots share a meal in the mess at Pilot Town near the mouth of the Mississppi. The two pilot groups closely coordinate their activities. Bar pilots guide ships between the sea buoy and Mile Zero. The Crescent pilots work between Mile Zero and New Orleans.

After passing below Port Sulphur at about 1615, Rees gave a demonstration of just how the pilots work together. With a tug and tow alongside and an upbound deep-sea ship ahead, Rees was all concentration as he began overtaking a southbound ship. Those involved kept close and clear contact by VHF, and there was never any time of danger. All four vessels got past each other smoothly with great professionalism all round. Just another day in the life of a Mississippi pilot.

Next, Navios Magellan came down on 60 Mile Point as another pilot announced that he was coming up on the point from the south. Again, the meeting, this time green-to-green, was arranged, and several thousands of tons of vessels and cargo valued in the tens of millions of dollars, as well as 40 or 50 crew, passed each other in the close-quarters river dance. And all of this took place amidst the environmentally sensitive delta lands of America’s greatest river.

An hour later, with Fort Jackson off the port side, the big Gulf sun was settling itself into the delta marshes, as the first of the sea fog started up from the lower river. A covey of oyster boats was hovering along the short looking for home. Farther downriver, amidst the oil-industry traffic into Venice and in the full darkness, a shrimp boat emerged from the gloom with no running lights and bright deck lights adding illuminated confusion. Fortunately, the ship’s good radars and keen eyes sorted some order from the sloppy boat’s neglect.

Around 1830, the Bar pilots’ launch delivered the Bar pilot to the ship. A brief conference, similar to that which greeted Rees, was held on the bridge. Then Navios Magellan was handed over to its third pilot for the day.

The launch dropped Grubb and Rees at the long pier leading up to a set of white buildings perched on stilts. Together with a neighboring pier and a similar set of buildings belonging to the Bar pilots, this was Pilot Town. Serving a function akin to that of the station boats in other ports, Pilot Town provides a welcome break from the concentration of piloting.

In the mess, several other pilots were gathered to wait for their next inbound ships. Stories were told of the old days before talk turned to the heightened security on the river since Sept. 11.

There was also positive talk of the future and changes coming in the pilotage.

Capt. Tim Donner arrived from an outbound ship with Apprentice Pilot Errol Williams. Williams, who had come up from commanding river ferries, was six months into his one-year apprenticeship and very much looking forward to continuing the tradition established through nearly 100 years of service by the Crescent River Port Pilots Association.

By Professional Mariner Staff