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When your mission is guiding ships through congested waters

Conversation with Brett Monthie a Tampa Bay harbor pilot graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy,
Tampa Bay harbor pilot Brett Monthie stands on a dock at Port Manatee. The Queen B, a small container ship, looms behind him. (Courtesy of Brett Monthie)
Tampa Bay harbor pilot Brett Monthie stands on a dock at Port Manatee. The Queen B, a small container ship, looms behind him. (Courtesy of Brett Monthie) [ Courtesy ]
Published Dec. 26, 2020

Times Correspondent

After spending years at sea, Brett Monthie had to chart the channels in Tampa Bay from memory in order to become a Tampa Bay harbor pilot. And then he spent 30 months in training. He’s one of 13 full pilots and six deputy pilots in the Tampa Bay Pilots Association. They guide the ships safely through the bay.

It’s an exacting job, and a dangerous one, considering Monthie has to hop from the pilot boat to the rope ladder hanging down the side of a ship – or from the ladder to the pilot boat – all while both vessels are traveling at about 10 knots. Monthie loves the work.

“It’s a blast. I mean, I have to pinch myself every day,’' he said.

The 36-year-old harbor pilot, a graduate of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his job.

Climbing a rope ladder 30 or more feet up to and down from the main deck of a ship has to be a harrowing experience.

Harrowing I guess is a good word to describe it, because we’ve lost – not Tampa personally – but we’ve lost, out of the 1,200 pilots in the U.S., we’ve had two in the last eight months and three in the last year that have had incidents on ladders (and) passed away.

Does it mostly happen when a pilot falls from the ladder and is caught between the ship and pilot boat?

Yes, typically that’s the case.… Most of the time our boats, once we get on the ladder, they peel away from the ship to avoid that.

Climbing a rope ladder isn’t easy, is it?

No, it’s not easy. Usually going up, to me, is easier. You just look straight up and you go. Coming down is actually a little trickier. You really want to have three points of contact on that (ladder) at all times if you can. And the farther down you go, it almost becomes like a pendulum.… You’re coming off the side of the ship and almost swinging with every step.

A container ship piloted by Brett Monthie approaches the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at night. (Photo by Brett Monthie)
A container ship piloted by Brett Monthie approaches the Sunshine Skyway Bridge at night. (Photo by Brett Monthie) [ Photo Courtesy Brett Monthie ]

Charting the bay from memory was just one of the tests you had to pass to become a harbor pilot. How difficult was that?

You’re not only plotting the channel, but you’re plotting every aid to navigation in the channel. The Coast Guard has what they call a light list, and it basically has the details of every aid to navigation in the bay here. … So you not only have to draw the chart and the depths outside the channels and any little details about rocks, or obstructions, or bridge pilings, you also have to write exactly how high that light is off the water and how far away you can see it. Is it flashing every five seconds? Is it flashing every one second?...

It gave me a really good understanding of how the brain works as far as memorization. People have different techniques on how they go about it. … Most everyone that gets into Tampa commits a solid six months to a year to the test. If you’re not studying everyday, you’re probably not going to pass. … On average we only have two to three people who even pass the test each year. All the other ports (in Florida) have probably 10 to 15 that pass.

How is it communicating with foreign crews? Do the captains speak English?

I would say that the Filipinos, English is almost a second language to them, so they’re kind of easier to communicate (with). You’ve got to kind of know your crowd. These Chinese container ships have definitely added a new dynamic. Their English – you’ve got to try to use as minimal words as possible. ...

But it goes with a job. When we give a rudder command to someone – you know, we’re trained –

your eyes immediately go to make sure that command’s followed through. That happened the other day, I told the guy starboard, five (degrees), and he went in the wrong direction, but I quickly caught it…. It’s definitely interesting at times…. I told them dead slow ahead the other day on the engine, and he went to dead slow astern. You’ve got to constantly watch, I guess is the way to put it. It’s a pretty common occurrence that somebody is going to turn the rudder the wrong way on a foreign ship.

Photo Courtesy Brett Monthie
Photo Courtesy Brett Monthie [ Courtesy Brett Monthie ]

Do you and the other pilots talk about the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster of 1980, when a ship hit a support column during a squall and collapsed a section of bridge, resulting in 35 deaths?

Obviously it’s in everyone’s mind, especially with the anniversary this past year. We all definitely know the history.

It would seem that thought drives home the enormity of the responsibility.

Yes, it’s hard not to go under the bridge and not think about it at times. I would say that’s for sure.

Harbor pilots are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Do people ask how come you folks make so much money?

That has come up, I would say. But it’s kind of the pinnacle of the maritime profession…. Most everybody has pretty much dedicated their lives – going to sea, working their way up. The question comes up, but, it’s funny, we’re kind of a novelty. Nobody really knows about us. And, honestly, that’s how it should be.... We’re doing our job if you don’t know about us.

Brett Monthie pilots the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship through Tampa Bay. (Photo: Courtesy by Jorge Viso)
Brett Monthie pilots the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship through Tampa Bay. (Photo: Courtesy by Jorge Viso) [ (Photo by Jorge Viso) ]

These days, you’re piloting a lot of the bigger container ships through the bay, you say. How big?

These larger container ships that are coming into the port of Tampa, they’re 1,100 feet by 141 feet, coming in with drafts up to 40 feet deep, which is about a meter off the bottom. The shipping companies would like for more.… It’s a little under 40 inches. We don’t have a lot of room to work with, and obviously the bridge height as well. We’ve got to get under that and keep it off the bottom.

So more dredging has to be done?

That is, I believe, the hope Port Tampa has. They and Port Manatee both have really invested a lot in the container business, and it’s clearly paying off. We’ve got a lot more traffic.