Puget Sound Pilots

From his office, Capt. Delmar Mackenzie has a great view of Seattle’s harbor. But Seattle is not the only port he presides over as president of the Puget Sound Pilots.

“We cover a large geographical area surpassing the combined areas of the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Boston and New York and still have space to go,” Mackenzie said. “We have 3,500 miles of coastline and 151 facilities in 13 ports.”

The log ports are gone, replaced by break-bulk and container terminals and refineries. Everett, which once boasted nine log berths, has become a niche port turning six break-bulk ships per week. Port Angeles, the main pilot station and once a major log port, now serves as a mini support port for tankers. Seattle and Tacoma have become primarily container ports. Articulated tug and barge traffic has also increased.

On peak summer weekends, Seattle and Tacoma host nine cruise ships and as many as 17 containerships, requiring that an additional five or six off-duty pilots be brought in to move ships.

“The major challenge is the sheer geographical area we cover and the increase in shipping over the last five years,” Mackenzie said. “We have not been able to bring in enough pilots to replace those leaving and to expand the pilot corps to handle the new traffic.”

In the past, prospective pilots had to cover 12 to 15 trips on 25 charts on their own time and obtain a full pilotage endorsement on their license for all of Puget Sound before qualifying to take the state exam.

To increase the applicant pool, the state recently changed the requirements to allow applicants to write for their federal endorsement while participating in a training program with a stipend. Applicants are still required to have prior service as a master with the required amount of sea time. Once licensed, there is still a five-year period of license limitations on larger tankers, cruise ships and containerships.

“We don’t want to see the master’s requirement go away. We can teach most people the ship handling ability needed to be a pilot, but we can’t teach them the decision-making skills that they learn serving as a master on their own ship,” Mackenzie said.

As with all major ports, Seattle is wrestling with how to expand business without increasing in size. Both Foss Maritime and Crowley Maritime employ powerful, maneuverable Voith Schneider cycloidal and z-drive tugs that ease some of the difficulty of cramped space.

But, “there’s really nothing we can do to change the channel without shrinking the uplands,” Mackenzie said. “We need better tools, more capable tugs like the Dolphin Class, smaller more powerful and maneuverable tugs with more bollard pull and used in different configurations. The idea is to move bigger ships into the same space we have now — bigger pegs into the same sized holes.”

By Professional Mariner Staff