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The high cost of bringing the biggest boats to port

Harbor pilot Joseph Shary ticks off some hazards of his profession as he rides out to climb aboard a tanker bigger than the tallest building in the Tampa Bay area.

An engine could malfunction. A rudder could fail. A sudden storm could push the ship aground. A helmsman from a foreign country could misunderstand a command and steer in the wrong direction.

Any of which could lead to disasters.

Now, the 98 harbor pilots who guide huge freighters and the world's largest cruise ships into Florida's 14 deep-water ports face a different threat: a challenge from shippers compelled by law to use their services.

A trade group dominated by cruise lines argues that Florida pilots charge too much. Rates, the trade group says, are kept artificially high because pilots hold a monopoly over an essential maritime service.

State harbor pilots earn average annual compensation of $369,000, according to a study sponsored by the Florida Alliance of Maritime Organizations. That's far more than professions with similar responsibilities, such as ship captains ($230,000) and airline captains (up to $225,000), the group says.

Charges would drop if the state licensed more pilots, said FAMO president Michelle Paige.

"Pilots put themselves up as the only people in the state of Florida qualified to bring these vessels in,'' Paige said. "They should be open to competition.''

Florida statutes state that piloting is too important to the economy and the environment to be left to market forces. Licensing an unlimited number of pilots would lead to competition based on price instead of safety, they say.

Harbor pilots hold unquestioned authority to refuse to move a ship if they believe weather or any other hazard makes the trip too risky. Competition would undermine that, they say.

"Without that, it would be: If you won't do it, we'll find someone who will,'' said Shary, 57, a Tampa Bay pilot for 23 years.

• • •

The pilot boat pulls aside the Clipper Mars, a freighter plowing through the gulf at 14 mph near Egmont Key. Shary grabs a rope ladder and scurries 30 feet up the tanker's side. He heads to the bridge and hands the Ukrainian captain a local newspaper, a traditional welcome for officers coming in from weeks at sea. He studies a card with the Clipper Mars' specifications: 58,000 tons, 673 feet long, a clockwise spinning propeller, which won't pull the ship left while backing up like one that turns counter-clockwise. He checks how fast the ship moves at various engine setting like dead slow ahead. The captain tells him the year-old ship responds almost instantly to engine commands. Some ships take 20 seconds, an eternity in an emergency. The captain calls out a compass heading for the vessel. Shary repeats it.

He's now in control.

• • •

Shippers began voicing organized opposition to paying ever-higher pilot fees at a hearing in Tampa a year ago.

Tampa Bay Pilots were asking the state's rate review board for a whopping 27 percent rate increase over three years. Cruise and cargo companies howled.

How could pilots expect a big raise while everyone else in the maritime business was barely scraping by, they asked. Board members granted a modest 6 percent over two years. Months later, Jacksonville pilots fared even worse.

Their request for a 23 percent increase over three years was cut nearly in half. Shippers won a rehearing on a technical objection, then persuaded the board to deny any rate change at all.

In Tallahassee, the shippers' lobbyist attacked from another angle. Brian Ballard got an item slipped into a Florida budget bill to prohibit reimbursing members of the Pilotage Rate Review Board for travel to meetings where rate increases were on the agenda. His idea: no rate hearings, no fee hikes. House members eventually yanked the travel ban.

Ballard succeeded in adding a directive for a state study of Florida's pilot regulation, and how it could be changed. That report will be released later this month.

"This issue is so big to the industry that they're not going away,'' Ballard said. "We can't have this archaic system continue unchecked. They've awakened a sleeping giant.''

The other side is ready to rumble, too. Pilots enlisted their own high-powered lobbyists and communications experts. Since Jan. 1, pilot associations and individual pilots have pumped at least $80,000 into election campaigns of Florida legislators and the Republican Party of Florida.

"For pilots to compete against the mammoth pocketbooks of these foreign cruise lines is like comparing David and Goliath,'' said Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the Florida State Pilots Association. "We've had to focus our membership on increasing our presence in the state.''

• • •

Shary has piloted tankers full of toxic anhydrous ammonia at least 100 times. The ships glide into the Port of Tampa once or twice a week, delivering a critical element in producing fertilizer made from Florida phosphate. The dangerous cargo requires extra precautions. A Hillsborough County sheriff's boat sails in front and a Coast Guard boat behind. They keep other ships at least a half-mile from the tanker. Ships are forbidden from passing the vessel from either direction. Shary's always aware of the potential for disaster if something breaks open tanks of the super-cooled chemical. The liquefied gas could form a huge cloud capable of killing tens of thousands of people. "This,'' he says later "is a very serious job. People could say we make serious money, and that's true, too.''

• • •

The pilot profession goes back to ancient times. It's referenced in the writings of Homer and Virgil. Spanish explorers kept a pilot on board while sailing the coasts of Florida.

Mark Twain worked as a Mississippi River pilot. He adopted his pen name from the term for the second mark on a lead-weighted line that indicated two fathoms, or 12 feet — safe depth for steamboats. In Florida, piloting took its modern form as a regulated profession in 1868.

Today's harbor pilots compare their maritime skills to those of medical specialists. But unlike a neurosurgeon, they risk serious injury, even death, each day on the job.

During an eight-month span in 1990, two Tampa Bay pilots died after falling off ladders while trying to climb onto ships in the gulf off Egmont Key. On average, about one pilot a year in the United States is killed in what the Coast Guard calls "transfer accidents.''

Still, the lure of a six-figure salary assures plenty of qualified applicants. Job openings for starting deputy pilots attract ship captains and deck officers with at least a decade at sea and pilots from other ports, said Galen Dunton, a consultant to the state's Board of Pilot Commissioners.

Pilots are overwhelmingly white and male. In Florida there are only two women, three Hispanics and no African-Americans. They work two-week shifts when they're on call around the clock, followed by two weeks off.

The state exam includes charting the location of channels, navigational signals and hazards of a specific port from memory on a sheet with an outline of the coast for the specific port, a compass rose and latitude and longitude lines. Tampa Bay has nearly 350 such features to remember. The winding 45-mile channel from west of the Sunshine Skyway to downtown Tampa is Florida's longest and most difficult to navigate.

About one in five applicants pass, Dunton said, and only the top scorer gets the job. Deputy pilots work under supervision of veterans and put in nearly three years before becoming full-fledged pilots. Then, they're entitled to an equal share of association profits with other pilots.

For the Tampa Bay pilots, payouts peaked at $444,000 in 2006. But ship traffic has fallen off, mostly from declining imports of gasoline and construction materials and exports of fertilizer. This year's compensation, including benefits, should amount to roughly $300,000.

• • •

Most trips are remarkably uneventful. But when something goes wrong, the results can be catastrophic.

A piloting accident in Tampa Bay brought down the old Sunshine Skyway bridge on May 9, 1980. As John Lerro, 37, an experienced pilot, guided the freighter Summit Venture toward the bay, a dangerous storm whipped up.

He tried to take the empty phosphate ship between the main bridge spans amid tropical-storm force winds, sheeting rain and zero-visibility. The bow smashed into a pier, which fell and took down the roadway.

Thirty-five people, including 26 on a Greyhound bus, plunged to their deaths. A Coast Guard inquiry found Lerro's decision to go under the bridge in zero-visibility contributed to the accident.

In 1993, a fiery collision of three vessels spilled 330,000 gallons of oil and 32,000 gallons of jet fuel into Tampa Bay, fouling Pinellas beaches. A Coast Guard inquiry found widespread complacency by mariners on the vessels, including two local pilots, led to the environmental disaster.

Pilots don't always make the news for their mistakes.

Nearly three years ago, local pilot Tobias Rose was on the bridge of the 378-foot freighter Antilles II when the generator turned off, shutting down the engines and rudder control.

Rather than risk veering toward the Skyway bridge, Rose ran the crippled ship safely aground outside the channel. Tugs later pulled the undamaged vessel, carrying 10,000 tons of fertilizer, off the sandy bay bottom.

The move avoided another potential bridge disaster and kept the channel clear. A disaster in the main channel could close the port, the spigot that supplies gasoline and jet fuel to west-central Florida. Storage tanks there would run dry in five to seven days.

"Pilots bring collective know­ledge, experience and exposure,'' says Allen Thompson, executive director of Tampa Bay Pilots. "Engines fail and steering fails. That's why you have pilots.''

• • •

Shary eases the Clipper Mars into the tight channel leading to downtown Tampa. He orders a 70-degree turn and gentle approach to the rickety pier, where the crew hooks up to pipes to unload the ship's cargo. Shary heads out for one more job before his day is done. The pilots association will send the ship's agent a bill for his four-hour trip: $4,185.55.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

The high cost of bringing the biggest boats to port 12/05/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 6, 2009 12:17pm]

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