The Life of a Harbour Pilot
by Kathleen Mott, Saltscapes
A note written in 1918:
Rather than go away at Xmas I have run away. Do not worry over me because I am not worth it.
Your most loving son
Run away they did. Nine-year-olds Billie and Willie borrowed a rowboat, crossed the mouth of the Restigouche River, and spent four days in an abandoned shed. They had taken carrots, apples, and a loaf of homemade bread with them. Frantic parents and townsfolk scoured the coast fearing the worst. When found, the boys were cold, wet and hungry. I don’t know what became of Willie, but family lore has it that Billie, though glad to be home, was not at all penitent about his experience. The adventure instead whetted his appetite for more-more time to himself, more adventure, and more than anything, more time on the water. These passions lasted all his life. He eventually became a harbour pilot in the Baie des Chaleurs. When he was not piloting he could usually be found by himself, adventuring on a river or a lake. Living was pleasurble, as long as it was on water.
Billie was my Dad. I learned much from his lifestyle: patience, a matching love of water, respect for weather, and listening skills. Dad was never in a hurry to tell a story, nor was he short on detail. I puppy-dogged my father and the boy-next-door, my now biker buddy Billy, often tagged along. We both developed a taste for wharf life, so last summer we decided our hiking trips should take us to several wharves in the Maritimes where we could inhale the way of life of those connected to the sea.
There’s something about smells, isn’t there? I nostalgically breathed in the mix of creosote, tar, wet rope, salt and seaweed, and was whisked to the world of longshoremen and pilots.
Harbour pilots are accomplished mariners, they know the ins and outs of their home waters, and they are our best ambassadors when welcoming captains and crews to our ports. Thanks to the pilots the ships dock safely, do their business, and depart with many of their crewmembers anxious to return. The workday of a pilot isn’t an eight-hour one- it might be three hours, or it might be more than 24, but seldom is it eight. And the work is never routine! Those night-time trips from the wharf to the ship can be the stuff dreams are made of-a full moon creating diamonds on the water, a dark sky filled with stars. This is the romantic side of piloting. But it can also be a wild time with heavy seas, strong winds, rain, snow or sleet. Climbing up or down the rope ladder on the side of a ship a few miles from land under these conditions is not the most pleasant experience. Facing the challenge, guiding the ship safely to sea or to shore, and knowing it’s a job well done is the stuff pilots are made of. Sometimes in the winter the pilot boat can’t negotiate the conditions so the pilot has to greet or leave the ship in another port.
One of our summer bike trips was to the wharf in Dalhousie, NB, our hometown. There we met with Captain Ward Scott, a current Baie des Chaleurs pilot who invited us to accompany him as he brought the Ivan Gorthon to port for a load of newsprint. Capt. Scott’s conveyance to the ship is the Irving tug. Its seaworthy attitude seems to shout “touch me if you dare!” It’s a far cry from my Dad’s pilot boat, a cantankerous little thing that looked like a sawed-off dory with a cab that would buck and balk in almost any sea but still proved hardy enough.
The sea was calm, the sun was shining. As we took turns climbing the rope ladder, I was flooded with memories of doing the same thing under different weather conditions many moons ago. I was a lot more agile then! The ship’s captain welcomed us, then turned his attention to the pilot. Their immediate trust in each other was evident. The captain is always in charge of his ship; the pilot gives advice. A trusting relationship is critical to a successful docking. Billy and I were impressed with the aura of mutual confidence and competence in the Ivan Corthon’s bridge.
Things change and things stay the same. Technology has certainly changed the way pilots spend their time. In my Dad’s day a pilot only knew that a ship would be in within a day or two. Dad would go to the top of the hill to check for smoke on the horizon before he’d leave the wharf, or he’d spend hours on the bay waiting for a sign. We’d play cribbage, jig for cod, or just talk for hours, sometimes 24 or more. Today’s pilots know exactly when to expect a ship so time is not wasted. Piloting was an independent business in my father’s time; now the port comes under the jurisdiction of Atlantic Pilotage Authority. The APA communicates with its pilots in various ways, by regular phone or cell phone, or e-mail. Smoke signals just aren’t necessary now.
On another bike jaunt, this time to the wharf in Summerside, we were invited aboard Captain Raymond Arsenal’s pilot boat. The Lady Megan was on a trip to put Capt. Roy Coffin aboard a cruise enroute to Charlottetown. Capt. Arsenault’s boat was a closer resemblance to Dad’s dory, and the weather was rough enough to give both Billy and I a case of sea legs- that slightly disoriented sence when one returns to walking on solid ground.
When we did return to the wharf we discovered that Capt. Arsenault is a motorcycle sniffer. We thought we might negotiate a trade for the Lady Megan, but when push came to shove we each chose our own transports. It was close, though!
My Dad became a licensed pilot by claiming some seagoing experience, (perhaps including his early trip as a nine-year-old). He spent time as an apprentice to the master pilot in the area. When a position opened up, Dad was hired. To become a pilot today, however, one needs training, experience, knowledge of the home waters, and a master’s ticket.
Training, communication, and travel in the pilot’s world have changed over time. The Atlantic Pilotage Authority will seek even more workplace improvements in the future. What has not changed is the passion that pilots have for their way of life. The salt water courses through their veins as much now as ever. Their sustenance is the roll and the dip of the water. When they are not at work they fish, ride for pleasure, or just hang out with their buddies aboard the boat.
Billy and I said goodbye to the hiking season, but the pilots don’t say goodbye to their wharves. We often think of them with admiration and respect during these icy winter months-without them we wouldn’t have safe entry to our harbours. A tip of our helmets to all of you on our wharves-stay safe, we’ll be back!