Tired of ogling luxury yachts and racing sailboats? Take a gander at some of the Big Girls that travel up and down the Bay. Those are Bay pilots climbing the ladders and doing the hard work of bringing these ships safely into port. No easy feat. In case you were wondering, here’s a quick primer of what Bay piloting is all about.

story and photographs by Bill Band

Pilots leap from small boats onto ladders swinging off the sides of cargo ships—and that’s not all. It takes years of training and a precise knowledge of the Chesapeake's narrow deep-water channels for these men and women to safely guide commercial shipping up and down the Bay. On the following pages we offer a glimpse of what these professionals do and the ships that engage them.

Imagine being the captain in charge of an ocean-going ship that travels to ports all around the globe. How could you possibly be expected to know the nuances of every inland waterway you traverse? To get the local knowledge needed to make such a passage safely, a ship captain relies on pilots. Once upon a time, the captain hired a pilot at his discretion. In this day and age, it’s the law.

During the Colonial era, American pilots worked independently, waiting at the mouth of the Bay until they spotted a mast on the horizon and then racing to be the first to pull alongside. Soon after independence Congress decreed that all ships would carry a pilot, and that the states had jurisdiction over the shipping in their waters. The Association of Maryland Pilots formed in 1852; the Virginia Pilot Association in 1866.

Launches (pilot boats) carry pilots to and from the ships. Virginia launches are orange and white; Maryland launches are black and white. As the launch approaches, the ship’s crew drops a Jacob’s ladder down the leeward side, along with a single line to hoist the pilot’s gear. The launch has to maneuver beside the ladder and hold its position until the pilot is securely climbing. Transferring onto the ladder is a tricky proposition. The rolling of the ship and the wave action between the launch and the ship’s hull can be fierce. The plunging and rearing foredeck of the launch can knock an unwary pilot into the drink. Crushed bones and fatalities are a constant risk (a pilot was killed boarding a ship at the Delaware Capes in 2006).

Once on board, the pilot is escorted to the bridge where he or she meets the captain and discusses the nuances of the ship—steering, power and other pertinent information. Then the pilot takes over the con and gives orders to the helm. At that point the pilot is essentially in charge of the movement of the ship, maneuvering precisely along the narrow channels of the Bay and threading the center spans of the Bay bridges.

Pilots have extensive training—six years for Virginia pilots; five years for Marylanders, who have in-depth maritime experience before they are accepted for training. Among other courses of study, fledgling pilots must memorize (and be able to re-create) charts of the Bay shore to shore: channels, shoals, depths and navigational aids. Maryland pilots work the longest route in the United States: 150 nautical miles from Cape Henry to Baltimore and another 40 miles from there to the C&D Canal.

One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the Chesapeake Bay is the variety of vessels that ply its waters. From the smallest kayaks to the colossal container ships, boating traffic is a constant. Pilots play an enormous role in keeping it safe for all. In the story that follows, pilot Bill Band demonstrates just how hard that can be.

Continue on to "Dancing with Irene" by Bill Band.

[November 2014 issue]