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Harbor Pilots Reap High Rewards For Dangerous Job


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Whether the economy is good or bad, every day, thousands of ships move in and out of U.S. ports. State and federal regulations require local harbor pilots to guide in these mammoth ships. It's a job that pays very well but can also be dangerous. Since 2006, four U.S. harbor pilots have been killed on the job. We sent reporter Gloria Hillard to hitch a ride on a pilot boat at one of the world's busiest container ports, Los Angeles.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: It's a clear day and the winds are relatively calm as the 52-foot pilot boat moves past the breakwater towards the open sea.


HILLARD: Ray Mease throttles the boat's engine and pushes through the rolling swells. Behind him, harbor pilot Ed Royles scans the horizon for the Martorell, a ship two football fields in length carrying a small city of cars from Japan.

ED ROYLES: What Ray will do is we'll approach the ship, come around the stern, come up on the starboard side. He'll just pin the pilot boat alongside where the ladder is and I'll climb up the ladder and bring the ship in.

HILLARD: Like many of L.A.'s thirteen harbor pilots, Royles is veteran mariner. He came to this job after spending more than two decades at sea as a ship's captain. The silver-haired 57-year-old is wearing a crisp white shirt, black tie and rubber-soled shoes.

ROYLES: The pilot ladder is probably one of the more dangerous parts of the job. And so the ship is actually rolling while we're trying to board. So that means the ladder is going up and down while we're alongside. So, you have to time your movement closely.

HILLARD: Ray spots the Martorell. The ship is going about 12 knots - too fast for boarding.

RAY MEASE: Martorell, good morning. You got a captain just off the port beam here, requesting six to eight knots for pilot boarding, please, six to eight knots.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Six to eight knots. Decreasing now.

MEASE: Roger. Thank you.

HILLARD: Approaching the ship, it's as if we've entered the land of the giants. As Ray pulls alongside the Martorell the pilot boat has become an amusement park ride as the waves toss it up and against the ship's massive hull.


ROYLES: OK. It looks like they're ready for us.

HILLARD: Royles moves to the bow. The pilot boat has now matched the speed of the ship but there is a small chasm of churning ocean still between them. The next moment is heart-stopping. With a well-timed leap, Royles catches himself on the ship's ladder and quickly climbs three stories.


HILLARD: With Royles safely aboard, Ray Mease and deckhand Garrick Gillham peel away from the ship and head back to port. Harbor pilots get onto and off ships in all kinds of weather. Just recently, an L.A. pilot was injured when disembarking a ship in high seas.

MEASE: When he decided to release off the ladder and repel down the man ropes is when the boat actually decided it wanted to basically drop about ten feet.

GARRICK GILLHAM: He had to let go and so he fell about ten feet. And luckily I was there, so I was able to latch onto him.

MICHAEL RUBINO: There is the ship right at Reservation Point passing us right now. And this ship will travel all the way up the main channel, about four miles.

HILLARD: From Berth 68, the pilot house, Chief Port Pilot Michael Rubino is tracking the ship's movements on a large screen. He says imagine a skyscraper.

RUBINO: Turning it on its side and floating it, that's what it would be like moving one of these ships through the harbor. The waterways are narrow and the ship's rudder gets less and less effective as the ship slows down.

PAUL KIRCHNER: When a ship enters a port area, that's the riskiest part of a ship's voyage. That's where the hazards are.

HILLARD: And that's where the knowledge of local pilots comes in, says Paul Kirchner executive director of the American Pilots Association. Shipping companies pay fees for the piloting service, which can run as much as $6,000 roundtrip.

KIRCHNER: A pilot is there to protect the public interest. For that reason, the pilot is independent of the ship and is expected by the licensing authorities to exercise independent judgment to prevent a ship from engaging in unsafe operations.

HILLARD: It's a job for which they are well paid. A Massachusetts Maritime Association reports pilots earn an average of $411,000 a year. L.A.'s port pilots are municipal employees who average an annual salary of 320,000.

ROYLES: OK. Line aboard ship.

MEASE: Very good leader.

HILLARD: An hour and a half after boarding the Martorell at sea, pilot Ed Royles is back in port.

ROYLES: The helmsman steered the ship very well, followed my direction very well.

HILLARD: He's not sure how many nautical miles he's logged as a pilot the last 12 years, but he plans to stay on the job as long as he's able.

ROYLES: It's the kind of a job that you do, most people do it as long as they can do it, because it really gets into your blood.


HILLARD: Every year, those ships get a little bigger and the ships' ladders - particularly the ropes ones, he says - feel a little longer. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.