Bringing the Tankers Through
by John Cheeseman, The Charter
There are certain things that I won't do to get a story, I thought, as I watched the ladder on the tanker's port side sway above the deck of the pilot boat. Climbing up that ladder is one of them. The pilot boat's captain, Barry Spencer, swings the vessel around to starboard, and pilot Ambrose McCarthy radios the tanker's captain to increase speed.
Ambrose climbs aboard first. I wait for the pilot to ride a swell, and then scamper up the ladder. It's easier than I thought. With one of the ship's crew as a guide, we walk back to the ship's superstructure, where we climb five flights to the bridge.
The M.T. Eagle is 287 meters long and 48.5 meters wide. She's carrying 1,000,000 barrels, or 152,399 tons, of crude oil, and is one of the 20 to 30 tankers a month that ply Placentia Bay on their way to the refinery at Come By Chance. Along with the transshipment vessels and the Hibernia oil platform, that makes for a lot of risky traffic. Traffic, and nearly 400 islands and reefs, small fishing boats and gear, and visibly less than a kilometer for more than 187 days a year on average - all that makes pilots like Ambrose McCarthy that much more important. Placentia Bay has been named the most likely place in Canadian waters for an oil spill. The damage would be devastating and probably irreparable.
Today the weather is fine as we greet Captain Agarwal, who answers Ambrose's questions about the ship and the trip, and hands over a sheet from the ship's bridge manual, listing all the particulars of the ship. Ambrose proceeds to check the radar and set up a course, and behind him, the navigator works on the charts, marking our position every ten minutes. Ambrose paces the bridge chatting with the captain. Some people might conclude that being a pilot isn't that hard. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ambrose leans over the charts and points out the depth, land masses, channels, berthing and anchoring areas. One day he counted 43 boats in this area. The most lucrative grounds for crab are within the shipping lane boundaries. "Whenever we see fishing gear in the channel, we do our best to avoid it."
"You always have to be thinking ahead, anticipating what the next move is going to be," Ambrose tells me. And you need a masters' certificate, two years training to be a pilot, and even then you can only work in the areas that you've written a test for.
The steward arrives on the bridge with lunch for Ambrose, and I got to the officers' mess. When I return after a tour of the ship, he's watching the radar, correcting the course and calling out the headings to a new helmsman. We chat with the navigator, who is from Lahore, Pakistan. All the officers are Indian or Pakistani, and the crew is Filipino, Iraqi, or Romanian.
The refinery can be seen off in the distance, as can Arnold's Cove, where the pilot boat ties up and where an apartment is maintained for the pilots. "The dispatching is done from Halifax," he says. "There's a call 12 hours ahead of a ship's departure, and a confirmation two hours before it leaves." Pilots can only work certain timeframes, as a safety measure. Scheduling must be adjusted accordingly.
By now, the tugs, Osprey and Petrel, are maneuvering into position beside the tanker.
"Now heading, zero-zero-zero," says Ambrose.
"Zero-zero-zero," the helmsman replies.
"Zero-zero-zero, thank you," Ambrose says.
To be honest it feels like we're scarcely moving. The heading soon begins to change frequently. 037, 038, 040, 047, 045. Ambrose gives orders to the tugs, and the helmsman, as I watch the crew on deck prepare the lines.
"What I'm going to do, captain, is put her on the fenders and then move her about three meters forward," Ambrose tells him, so they can line up the pipes between the ship and dock.
It's dark. We know we're against the wharf when we hear its fenders give as the ship makes contact. All told, it's taken about six hours to bring the ship in, and half and hour to actually dock the vessel. It will take about 36 hours for the Eagle to unload her cargo, and then she'll sail back to Gibraltar. The gangway is laid on the railing and Ambrose and I scamper across the dock to his truck and head out to the highway.
Ambrose wasn't on duty when he was called to bring the Eagle in - the pilots are short a couple of bodies right now - so unless he's needed, it'll be a few days before he's called again for a regular shift. But no matter. I've just seen him park 1,000,000 barrels of oil as carefully, yet as easily as someone sets down a glass of water.
All in a day's work.
(Condensed from John Cheeseman's article in "The Charter')