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Meet the marine pilots guiding huge ships into Saint John's notoriously difficult port

Jun 09, 2023Jun 09, 2023

It's 4:45 a.m. on the Saint John waterfront. The water is coal black, except for the shimmering reflection of streetlights and the sea foam swirling around the new breakwater at Long Wharf.

Harbour pilot Ryan McLean is heading out on his first call of the day. He's bringing in the Oasis of the Seas, "one of the largest cruise ships in the world, and the largest that we've ever handled in Saint John," he says.

With 5,931 passengers and 2,130 crew, the Oasis will set a record for the most passengers to arrive on one ship in a single day.

Eighty or so cruise ships arrive in Saint John every year.

"We have quite a few large ones — not quite as large as the Oasis," says McLean, as the pilot boat cruised out toward Partridge Island.

He's thinking about the job ahead. With a ship 360 metres long with a gross tonnage of 226,838, "positioning is everything," McLean says. "It's quite a narrow channel for a ship that size. Also important are "speed control, of course — because of its size, it's gotta be berthed very slowly, and very gently."

Many Saint Johners have a basic notion of what a harbour pilot does: guide large ships into Saint John's port, known as one of the most challenging in the entire world with its high tides and unpredictable currents.

What most don't realize is what that involves.

The transfer is the toughest part, according to McLean.

In pilot lingo. The "transfer" is boarding an arriving ship — whether tanker, container ship, or cruise liner. It's a complex dance that takes place at the "boarding station" — nothing more than set of co-ordinates in the open water almost five kilometres past Partridge Island.

At the boarding station, the pilot climbs up a rope ladder, often up to nine metres above the water, from the pilot boat into the ship. Then, the pilot heads up to the bridge to "take the conduct of the vessel" — meeting the captain and instructing him on how to bring the ship in.

Once the ship is safely berthed, the pilot waits for the next call to do it all over again, sometimes half a dozen times a day or more.

"Transfers and rough conditions can be tricky," says McLean, who is from Bathurst and comes from a long line of pilots, sailors, and fishermen.

"It's in the blood, I guess."

Harbour pilots in Saint John work 365 days a year: at night, in storms, in fog, and when the spring freshet is running into the harbour.

Conditions can be punishing.

"We actually had a day or a night last March where we had –49 [windchill]," McLean says.

"You have to be aggressive to be a pilot. You have to think quick and make fast decisions. Things can happen very fast, especially when the weather is deteriorating."

Fortunately, it's a picture-perfect May day for the arrival of the Oasis. The cruise ship glows in the distance on the horizon like a floating skyscraper.

The transfer this time is just a few steps up a rope ladder, and into a hatch in the side of the ship. McLean and fellow pilot Gary Joyce are guided through a warren of hallways up to the bridge, where captain Ante Cavala is waiting.

Cavala, from Sweden, says it's his second time in the Port City. He says he's seen some tough conditions on prior trips.

"You really have to rely on the pilot," Cavala says. "If he doesn't agree with me, I usually will listen to what he has to say.

Even in ideal weather, there's a rule calling for unbroken silence on the bridge as the pilot and captain talk. Concentration is critical.

"What a lot of people might not realize is that the pilot doesn't just give advice — they come on board the ship and sometimes they take control.

"We're there to protect the port, its infrastructure and everything that's there, as well as the vessel."

Additional delicate manoeuvring is required once the ship arrives at the dock: markings at one-metre intervals on the asphalt help the stevedores, or line handlers, relay the position of the ship back up to the bridge.

"Everything has to line up perfectly," says Joyce.

"We're talking inches. It really has to be precise to attach the gangways and pedways so everyone can get on and off safely"

Large vessels need a pilot to come into Saint John — and they also also need one to leave.

Brent Reardon is a Newfoundlander who's been at sea for 17 years, and a Saint John pilot for just over three. He's tasked with the outbound run for the Oasis at 6:45 p.m.

Cruise ships, he says, are his favourite. They "got all the power. They got all the play toys. It can do whatever you want it to do."

Sitting in the pilot house, a little Kent home in the parking lot of the Diamond Jubilee Cruise Ship Terminal where the pilots store paperwork, do laundry, and catch a few zzz's, he's checking the tides, the river and the winds.

"We've got 20 knots south southwest. So she'll be blowing pretty good coming out here," Reardon says.

At 360 metres long, a cruise ship is basically a "massive sail," he says, and can be blown off course. "The channel isn't very wide. We'll have to be on our toes."

For the outbound trip — Reardon and fellow pilot Fenning McAlpine board the ship via the Diamond Jubilee, looking like astronauts in their big red flotation jackets next to the spiffy cruise passengers in khakis and pressed white shirts.

Back up to the bridge, Cavala, the captain, says he enjoyed a lobster lunch at Steamers, and wandering around Saint John's Area 506 container village, which is new since his last visit.

The Oasis slowly moves out of the harbour, dwarfing the waterfront condos and Digby Ferry terminal. When it's time for the transfer, the water is a little choppy — the pilot boat is bouncing around a little.

But it goes off, once again, without a hitch. And the pilots are homeward bound, bathed in the glow of a golden-orange sunset.

There are only 500 marine pilots Canada-wide, according to McLean, eight of whom are in Saint John, plus one trainee.

Both Reardon and McLean say piloting has a better work-life balance than most other seafaring jobs. While in other roles one might be away for months at a time, pilots stay close to home.

"The real reason for me to come piloting was because I was missing too much for my family," Reardon says. "It's a great life. I come in the morning, I do a job, I go home."

The tides, currents, and weather make the job of a Saint John pilot difficult. But that's part of the fun, according to Reardon.

"It's hard to get experience when things are going right all the time," he says. "When things go bad — those are the ones you learn from, you know what I mean?

"I can take a ship in here on a beautiful day, flat calm, and dock her, and say, 'This is easy.'

"It's the bad nights, the windy nights. Snow. Can't see. Fog. The tug blacked out. I lost the bow thrusters on the ship.

"That's when you learn how to get out of trouble and how to deal with situations — and that only comes from experience."

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at [email protected].

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