The World of the American Marine Pilot: Never a Dull Moment

These are interesting, if not necessarily the best of times for America’s small fraternity of state-licensed marine pilots. Look for one or both metrics to continue into the near future.

We begin this week by stating: ‘you can’t be all things to all people, all of the time.’ The pilots know it and so do most of us in the industry. At MarEx, we are regularly labeled by various constituencies as either “anti-pilot,” or “pro-pilot,” depending on what we are writing in a given week’s e-newsletter or our regularly scheduled print editions. In the end, when both sides are upset at you – especially in the world of journalism – it’s also probably a good indication that you are doing a pretty good job at reporting the facts.

At a trade show in New Orleans a couple of years back, I was chastised – in front of a large group of maritime executives – by a prominent East coast-based tug executive, who said somewhat sarcastically, “Do the state pilots own THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE?” I had to laugh. These comments came in close proximity to at least two series of investigative articles that I had penned about marine pilots and docking masters in the Northeast – New England, to be precise. It wasn’t always that way, of course. A few years before that, I also wrote a series of articles about the pilot situation in a certain U.S. Gulf Coast state. Those articles predictably elicited a totally different response from some pilots.

Most recently, we’ve taken some shots across the bow from the American Pilot Association. In their most recent quarterly newsletter, the APA alleges, among other things that, “There have been several grossly inaccurate reports and discussions regarding the long-term impacts of the criminal prosecution of the COSCO BUSAN pilot in some media and trade magazines -- the Maritime Executive magazine in particular." And, in a public forum in Houston just recently, APA Executive Director Paul Kirchner echoed these remarks in front of a large throng of tanker owners. In the choppy wake of all of that, we contacted Mr. Kirchner directly to clarify his meaning.

In a pointed but polite telephone conversation that spanned some twenty minutes on Wednesday, Kirchner told MarEx Editor Joseph Keefe that APA’s concerns went more towards the remarks laid out by MarEx readers who responded to our July 30th editorial, entitled “Game Changer: Reflecting on the COSCO BUSAN Debacle”. In that editorial, we asked the following simple question:

1. What is the relationship of the Pilot and his responsibilities to the vessel and the Master?

a.) The Pilot is in command of the ship;
b.) The Captain and the Pilot share responsibility;
c.) The Pilot is an advisor to the Vessel and Master; or
d.) None of the above.

The answers to the preceding question were as varied as the readers who sent in comments to address the matter. Notably among our respondents were John Clandillon–Baker, UK pilot & Editor of The Pilot magazine (UK), Susan Johnson, Administrator - Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots and, yes, Paul G. Kirchner / Executive Director - General Counsel (APA). Not everyone agreed with Mr. Kirchner’s assessment of the situation. We won’t apologize for that. But, the dialogue created by our editorial – there’s no need to thank me again – is less important than the end result of getting people to talk about something that has long languished; hidden under the bed sheets. Like the obscure, weird uncle that nobody likes to talk about at Thanksgiving dinner, the question of pilot liabilities and responsibilities has long been a thorny issue, with no clear answers. To be fair, APA’s Kirchner has tirelessly worked to educate his constituency that they are not merely advisors to the Master anymore, assuming that was ever the case to begin with.

Some of our most recent accounts of the marine pilot situation here in the United States have also not been well received by some in the pilot industry. That’s understandable, but the news is the news. That news includes analysis of the COSCO BUSAN debacle and some online pieces about the ongoing (never ending?) rate hike war being waged in Galveston, Texas. Both of those situations are related, but perhaps not in any obvious way that you might think. And, both represent palpable changes in the way that marine pilotage is being perceived here in the United States, with particular regard to liability, compensation and responsibilities of pilots as they go about their appointed tasks. That renewed scrutiny might not be the most pleasant of things for pilot associations, but that’s not to say that the heightened attention is not warranted. It is.

The regulatory oversight of pilots and how that affects liability issues going forward is but one part of the equation. Also in play now, and no less important, is the heightened interest by local stakeholders in the price of pilot services. Marine pilots, in most places on this side of the pond, make a lot of money. That compensation reflects the heavy burden of guiding deep draft traffic laden with sometimes nasty and dangerous cargoes through difficult river transits. And, that’s how it should be. Not everyone is happy with that. In places where an average pilot is cranking home as much as $400,000 annually, people can be downright vociferous in their opposition to increasing that compensation package. In Galveston, a recession-weary marine stakeholder group has drawn the line in the sand.

In fact, there aren't too many people lining up to support anything related to a rate increase in Texas right now. Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises Line and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association has filed an objection to the proposed GalTex Pilotage increases (with particular concern over the revived requirement for two pilots on some cruise ships) and requested that further proceedings be abated until resolution of their Petition of Judicial Review has been resolved. They have been joined in that effort by the Port of Texas City and the West Gulf Maritime Association (WGMA).

But Galveston isn’t the only place where the pilot requests for raises are falling on deaf ears. In Puget Sound, pilots came up short for the first time in recent memory when they were denied any sort of increase in May. In Boston, the local harbor pilots last applied for a raise in 1998, finally received one in 2001 and have been waiting ever since for any sort of help from the State legislature. A bit farther to the south, Long Island Sound pilots waited almost 25 years before finally receiving a rate hike. In Galveston, though, local pilots – in a surprisingly quick turnaround from the August 24th withdrawal of another rate increase that also took local stakeholders by surprise – filed a new request for a rate increase with the Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Ports of Galveston County. In the latest rate request, dated 11 September 2009, GALTEX pilot chief Captain Chris Gutierrez insisted, “The Galveston County Pilots will show good and sufficient cause exists to support the requested application.” Local stakeholders, led and represented by the West Gulf Maritime Association (WGMA) aren’t so sure about that.

The new request comes less than one month after the pilots withdrew their previous application after last summer’s acrimonious and lengthy meetings with stakeholders and the Pilot commissioners. Those talks, which initially appeared to yield a rate increase – although not the one pilots or industry was hoping for – proved fruitless when the pilots abruptly withdrew their request with little notice or explanation. The withdrawal came just as the Board of Pilot commissioners was to vote on a 5 percent rate increase.

WGMA Vice President Niels Aalund told MarEx on Tuesday that “The WGMA has always preferred to work out agreements with pilots before those matters come to a hearing. In the recent past, we have been able to work out mutually beneficial agreements with 4 out of 5 pilot groups on the Gulf Coast. We work at the consensus of our members and this is what they want.” Indeed. The net result is that local pilots, already offered a raise at a time of fiscal crisis for their customer base, may eventually come up empty, especially with litigation now in play.

Increased regulatory oversight, the firming of pilot liability and responsibilities and the (almost certain to continue) close scrutiny of pilot finances in all North American ports are all here. That’s not my opinion. That’s a fact. Pilot organizations, also feeling the pinch from reduced ship transits in their ports, will continue to be squeezed as local users, port authorities and pilot commissions chafe at providing “the usual increase” at a time when everyone is hurting.

I had a boss who once told me that the mark of a good deal was one where everyone left the table somewhat unhappy. But, the opportunity to achieve even that modest goal in Galveston may have already been lost. I know of at least two pilot organizations right now that would probably jump at the chance to benefit from the give-and-take compromise offered by local stakeholders in Galveston. You can probably think of a couple more. It will therefore be interesting to see what plays out there.

Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com. Join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685>