Seaway Pilots’ launch built to take on the icy St. Lawrence

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The St. Lawrence Seaway Pilots work in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. The pilots’ new launch, Seaway Pilot V, has already shown itself up to the task.

Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding of Somerset, Mass., modified its proven Chesapeake-class hull to withstand winter in upstate New York. The 53.5-foot vessel, built with plans from Ray Hunt Design, has thicker bottom plating to operate in ice conditions and a heated deck, rails and boarding platform.

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Seaway Pilot V has an ice-strengthened hull and robust heating system to work safely and comfortably in cold weather.

The 1,300-hp Seaway Pilot V replaces the pilots’ smaller, lighter Seaway Pilot IV, which now occupies a reserve role. Capt. John Boyce, president of the Seaway Pilots, said the new vessel is heavier and more capable in inclement weather. Those traits came in handy during the delivery voyage to Cape Vincent, N.Y.

“It rode very well once we got to Lake Ontario,” Boyce said of the trip, which included a multiday journey up the Hudson River and the Erie Canal into the lake at Oswego, N.Y. “We had 8-foot seas, and we were able to do 25 knots comfortably.”

The leg from Gladding-Hearn to the Hudson was equally impressive. “We had 3-foot swells and 2-foot seas, and it went through those like nothing,” he said. “That whole time between Somerset and the canal, we didn’t get any spray of water on deck … which is pretty impressive.”

There are three pilotage districts spanning the Great Lakes. The easternmost is District 1 — served by the Seaway Pilots — running from St. Regis, N.Y., on the St. Lawrence to Port Weller on Lake Ontario, the northern terminus of the Welland Canal. The group’s 18 pilots assist about 1,500 ships in the Seaway each year. Given the length of Seaway transits, most ships change pilots at Cape Vincent.

For much of its recent history, transfers occurred more or less in front of the Seaway Pilots’ Cape Vincent office. The Coast Guard recently approved new anchorages at Tibbetts Point, several miles into Lake Ontario, and Carleton Island a few miles downriver, thereby extending some runs up to 5 miles in either direction.

These longer runs aren’t a problem during the summer and early fall when conditions are generally moderate. But winter arrives early and tends to stick around into April. Subzero temperatures, ice conditions and spray that freezes on deck are common during the early winter and early spring. The Seaway season typically ends around Jan. 1 and starts anew in March.

The Seaway Pilots have three boats in their fleet. Seaway Pilot II, also known as “Old Blue,” is a steel-hulled launch capable of 10 knots. The 40-foot Seaway Pilot IV, built about a decade ago, can do 27 knots but has serious limitations during the colder months. The craft bounces around in rough water and ice can clog its waterjets.

Seaway Pilot V provides greater flexibility and comfort, particularly for the longer voyages to the new anchorages, Boyce said. It also should reduce the number of days lost to bad weather. “It lets us service the two anchorages, operate in more inclement weather and operate in some degree of ice,” he said.

Gladding-Hearn began building pilot boats from its shipyard along the Taunton River more than 60 years ago. Since then, it has delivered close to 100 — many with the deep-V hull form developed by Ray Hunt in the 1950s and ‘60s. These vessels, adapted from high-performing recreational powerboats, maintain speed in chop and offer a comparatively comfortable ride even in rough seas.

Most importantly, Gladding-Hearn President Peter Duclos said, these pilot boats do what they are meant to do. That is, they can come alongside a ship in a wide range of conditions, stay alongside while the pilot climbs on or off, and then break away from the much larger vessel. “They are designed to be pilot boats from the ground up,” he said.

The shipyard has delivered more than 20 Chesapeake-class launches over the years. Each shares the same basic platform, with notable modifications for each depending on geography, climate and client preferences. “It is one of my favorite types of boats,” Duclos said. “It doesn’t have a lot of accommodations, and it is all about getting out there and doing its job.”

Seaway Pilot V is specially designed for work in colder climates. The bottom plating is made from half-inch aluminum rather than 5/16-inch or 3/8-inch aluminum used on vessels bound for warmer climates. It also has an ice belt along the waterline made from 3/8-inch plating inserts.

Ice conditions on the St. Lawrence and eastern Lake Ontario vary based on the weather, river conditions, the frequency of U.S. and Canadian icebreaking efforts and other factors. “Some years we have no ice, and in other years they break it out early and it flows well,” Boyce said. “But we are downstream from Lake Ontario, so all of that ice from the lake keeps funneling in.”

Chunks can be as small as a hardhat or as long as a football field, and anywhere from 1 to 4 feet thick. Seaway Pilot V, of course, won’t be tasked with crashing through heavy ice sheets. But it will let the pilots work when ice is present, rather than forcing them to wait for conditions to change.

Ice in the water is one thing. Ice on deck is another. Freshwater spray freezes on surfaces almost instantly in frigid temperatures, and it can coat the hull and deck on windy, choppy days. Seaway Pilot V  is outfitted with a diesel-fired Espar hydronic heater that warms the wheelhouse, main deck and handrails. Waste heat from the engine supplements the heater system.

The upper platform atop the wheelhouse, where many pilots board, also is heated. The system, a first for Gladding-Hearn, uses electric heating pads and handrails to prevent ice buildup. The front, roof and forward side windows are heated, as is the forward-facing Carlisle & Finch spotlight. “The whole mechanism is heated, so at 20 below zero it will turn on and it will go around,” Boyce said.

Propulsion on Seaway Pilot V comes from twin 650-hp Volvo Penta D16 main engines turning 30-inch Hung Shen props through ZF reduction gears. The maximum speed exceeds 23 knots, although it will likely cruise between 15 and 20 knots to save fuel. Electrical power comes from a single Northern Lights genset mounted aft of the mains. Humphree interceptors are installed at the transom.

Boyce describes the propulsion package as “keep it simple, stupid” —  a mantra that extends to the interior outfitting. The small head commonly installed on Chesapeake-class launches is gone, owing to the relatively short hops to and from ships. The forecastle instead has a full-length settee and a floor-mounted chest-sized toolbox.

The vessel’s navigation electronics and dashboard layout represents a major step forward compared to other boats in the Seaway Pilots’ fleet. Seaway Pilot II has just a single radar and VHF radio, while Seaway Pilot IV has one screen for the radar and chartplotter that’s hard to read in split-screen mode.

Seaway Pilot V has separate high-resolution screens on either side of the wheel, placed in the operator’s line of sight. The deck hand, who sits on the port side of the wheelhouse, has a single screen that can toggle between radar and charts. Necessary switches are placed within arm’s length on the dash. Rarely-used controls are located on the side heading down to the forecastle. Furuno supplied the full suite of navigation electronics, and Llebroc made the shock-absorbing seats. The cabin has seating for three pilots and two crew.

The Seaway Pilots run three boat crews, with a captain and deck hand on each boat. Capt. Mark Leet, who joined the pilots after a distinguished Navy career, helped design the dash layout. The finished product is a major improvement, he said, and one that will lead to safer operations in poor visibility.

“It allows the operator to operate without taking his attention away from his main job,” Leet said. “The stuff you actually need to do your job safely is right in front of you.”

Like most pilot boats, there isn’t much on the fore or aft decks. The bow has an open loading platform surrounded by heated handrails. The ladder to the upper platform is on the aft side of the superstructure. A control station is located on the starboard aft deck to assist with man-overboard rescues.

Boyce, speaking over the din of shipyard workers finishing last-minute tasks, spoke highly of Gladding-Hearn’s workmanship and attention to detail. “There is nothing (on the boat) that rattles, shakes, or shimmies,” he said. “It is solid.”

“If there is such a thing as a standard pilot boat, this would be it,” Boyce added. “They work and they are built well.”

By Professional Mariner Staff