Sandy Hook Pilots Association

Piloting a Freighter in New York Harbor

“All stop! Rudder amidships!”  The command from the pilot to the helmsman was loud, almost harsh, betraying the pilot’s anxiety.  The M/V Marina Star, a 400-foot freighter, was in the narrowest part of the New York Harbor ship channel, heading south toward the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

But a 40-foot sailboat was passing directly in front of the freighter’s bow, perhaps 100 meters ahead of the big steel ship.  Both the pilot, Capt. Rick Schoenlank of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association, and the vessel’s master, Dunceal Constantin, were on edge, their anxiety about a near collision blossoming into barely restrained anger.  The ship’s horn blasted five times in the international signal for immediate danger. 

New York Harbor is a busy place and the shipping channels are narrow.

New York Harbor is a busy place and the shipping channels are narrow.

This is why I was onboard: to sample life from the other side.  On assignment for Mad Mariner, and with the blessing of the pilot’s association, I had followed Schoenlank onto the Greek-built freighter to observe first-hand the challenges of safely conning some of the world’s largest ships in and out of one of the world’s busiest harbors.

Schoenlank looked over at me, his afternoon ride-along, and said, “Well, you wanted to understand our concerns about how the recreational boaters sometimes get in trouble out here with these big ships?  Here you go.”

The sailboat had been observed for the last several minutes through the binoculars by the pilot, the master and the navigator, and her course had not varied.  She was on track to collide with the freighter. With her bearing unchanged and range decreasing, something had to be done.

It was then that the pilot ordered the big ship to stop – a move not without risk in the relatively narrow ship lane leading out of New York Harbor to the Ambrose Channel and the Atlantic. There were vessels astern of us who would have to adjust their speeds, and if the tide or winds had been stronger the ship could have drifted out of the channel and quickly run aground or into an adjacent anchorage crowded with other vessels.

There was considerable discussion – I’ll spare the coarser details – between the pilot and the vessel’s master about what the sailor might have been thinking.

Ultimately, the freighter came nearly to a dead stop, and the sailboat passed safely in front of her at what must have seemed a comfortable distance to the sailboat’s helmsman.  But without or the freighter’s drastic maneuver, the sailboat would very likely have been run down.


The amount of large commercial traffic in and out of New York Harbor is staggering: more than 12,500 commercial transits a year.  That means the Sandy Hook pilots, with their fleet of 12 pilot boats based on Staten Island, handle more than 35 ship movements a day.  These ships range from small coastal freighters to the biggest ships in the world – supertankers and container ships more than 1,000 feet long.

Schoenlank and I boarded the Marina Star shortly before noon at her pier in the Port of Newark, where she had just finished loading a cargo of steel pipe bound for Houston.  Schoenlank went through a formal routine of introducing himself to the vessel’s master, asking permission to enter the bridge, and then setting up his own equipment and preparing to depart.  Sandy Hook pilots use a specially-configured laptop equipped with dedicated software – Wheelhouse II, in this case – and a portable DGPS receiver that the pilot mounts out on the bridge wing.  The laptop is then connected to the ship’s AIS system through a special port that is required by international maritime law to be installed on all commercial ships that require pilots. 

A sailboat forces the freighter Marina Star to stop dead in the water in order to avoid a collision.

A sailboat forces the freighter Marina Star to stop dead in the water in order to avoid a collision.

The laptop and its software allow Schoenlank and his fellow pilots to have their own reliable navigation system, customized for local conditions.  Schoenlank also had a wireless broadband Internet connection that allowed him to double-check detailed tide and current information online.

Some of the chaos of harbors like New York is minimized by the Vessel Traffic System, a monitoring and advisory service run by the U.S. Coast Guard.  The VTS takes advantage of fixed cameras, radar and AIS systems aboard commercial vessels to monitor the flow of ships into and out of piers and anchorages throughout the greater New York City area.  Harbor pilots talk to the VTS, who can give them notice of traffic in their area and assist with conflict resolution.

But when it comes to recreational boat traffic, they are all but blind. The VTS –- and consequently the harbor pilots –- have no reliable means of monitoring the recreational traffic in the harbor.  On a nice summer weekend, that can mean literally hundreds of small boats of all kinds moving in every direction, into and out of shipping lanes and often, in the case of recreational fishermen, sitting or even anchoring directly in the Ambrose channel.


Schoenlank said many recreational captains don’t understand how restricted large vessels really are.  “They look at this harbor and see a big open area, not realizing that this ship I’m guiding has only a 150-foot wide channel to maneuver in,” Schoenlank says.  “They also have a hard time judging the speed of an approaching ship.  They’ll sit here fishing in the middle of the channel until the last possible second, not realizing that the ship approaching is actually doing 12 or 13 knots.  There’s a kind of optical illusion that makes these big ships appear to be going more slowly than they really are.”

Marina Star is a smaller, lighter vessel with a top speed of about 7 knots, and she slowed more quickly when power was taken off to avoid the sailboat. B ut Schoenlank points out that a fully-laden supertanker will simply not stop in less than a half mile – and often it takes far longer.

“If that fisherman can’t get his motor started on the first pull,” Schoenlank says, “he’s in trouble.” 

The Master watches the Harbor Pilot navigate busy waters into port.

The Master watches the Harbor Pilot navigate busy waters into port.

In recent years, the Sandy Hook Pilots have worked with the Coast Guard and with some of the bigger fishing tournaments to try to reduce the hazards to both commercial and recreational boats.  A program called “Clear Channel” uses Coast Guard launches to clear the waterway ahead of the ships.  But Coast Guard resources are limited and they are not always available to run interference for the commercial ships.

As the sailboat passed off to starboard, Schoenlank ordered the ship to make headway again and we passed uneventfully then under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and down along the Ambrose channel toward the pilot rendezvous area, where incoming and outbound ships pick up and drop off their pilots.  The rendezvous point is a little farther offshore than the old Ambrose light tower, damaged last winter when a tanker rammed it.  It was recently removed for good and the ship channels and pilot rendezvous zones re-aligned.

As we headed southward toward the rendezvous, the windy afternoon had kicked up the seas offshore and whitecaps were everywhere.  Schoenlank tapped me on the shoulder and pointed in the distance off the port bow where the sun glinted harshly on the rough water.

“Do you see a boat out there?” he asked.

I strained to see, even through polarized sunglasses, and eventually saw a fishing boat glinting in the sun every few seconds, when it wasn’t hidden behind a wave.

“Yeah, I see it,” I replied.

Schoenlank smiled. “Yes, but do you see all three of them?” he said.  “Now imagine they were directly ahead of us, or that the whitecaps were just a big bigger.”


For the harbor pilots of New York, “local knowledge” seems an insufficient term to describe the depth of their understanding of the waterways where they work.  And it is not obtained quickly.  The training and apprenticeship of a harbor pilot involves more time on the job than many doctoral programs. 

Bridge crew of the tanker Sichem Onomichi monitor the vessel's approach to a pier. The tanker was assisted by a tug boat.

Bridge crew of the tanker Sichem Onomichi monitor the vessel's approach to a pier. The tanker was assisted by a tug boat.

Each candidate arrives as a licensed Master – itself an accomplishment – and begins a five and a half year apprenticeship, during which the trainee will operate under the direct supervision of a full pilot.  During these years, the apprentice will gradually move from smaller vessels up to the largest supertankers.  The long apprenticeship ensures that each candidate has plenty of opportunity to experience all the waterways New York City has to offer, in all kinds of weather, traffic and sea conditions.

After that, the apprentice is ready to become a deputy pilot.  As a deputy, the candidate still has seven full years ahead before acquiring the title of Full Branch Pilot.  And even after gaining the full pilot designation, there will be continuing education and training requirements.

At the pilot rendezvous station, our outbound Marina Star was met by one of the Sandy Hook Pilots’ new “America-class” pilot boats, a 53-foot, diesel-powered all-weather vessel built by the Derecktor Shipyard. The rendezvous is coordinated by one of two large, pilot-relief ships: either the 182-foot New York or the 145-foot New Jersey.  In our case, the New Jersey was on station, manned by a crew of apprentice pilots who spend as much as two weeks at a time offshore.

The pilot boat came along the port side of Marina Star, carefully matching our speed and staying as close to the big ship’s hull as possible.  Schoenlank and I said goodbye to the master on the bridge and made our way down to the main deck, where a Jacobs ladder – a rope and wooden slats – had been rigged for us to climb down to the pilot boat.

Sichem Onomichi approaches a pier in New Jersey, where its diesel fuel cargo will be offloaded.

Sichem Onomichi approaches a pier in New Jersey, where its diesel fuel cargo will be offloaded.

While the helmsman of the pilot boat deftly controlled his vessel in the heaving, confused seas between the two boats, another apprentice pilot stood on the foredeck of the pilot boat and helped us time our final steps aboard.  It’s a physically demanding evolution, and not without risk.  Pilots and crewmembers can be injured or killed if things go wrong.

Once aboard the pilot boat, we were quickly transferred to the New Jersey, where we were able to grab a quick cup of coffee and regroup before getting right back on the pilot boat for transfer to an inbound tanker. The New Jersey has a special hatch well down her hull side to ease the movement to and from the smaller pilot boats, but it can still be hairy when the seas are rough.

We pulled along the starboard side the Sichem Onomichi, a brand-new 400-foot Korean-built tanker.  Schoenlank had taken Marina Star from pier to sea; now he would be charged with getting Sichem Onomichi from sea to port.  The apprentice pilot on our boat cautioned me to step onto the Jacobs ladder only when the tanker was rising relative to the pilot boat. To step aboard on a downward cycle would put me between the two vessels and in danger of being crushed.

Sichem Onomichi is a chemical and petroleum carrier and, like most commercial ships these days, she had an international crew that included an Indian master and Singaporean and Filipino mates (all are supposed to speak English on the bridge). Sichem Onomichi was bound for an oil company wharf along the New Jersey banks of the Arthur Kill, where specialized equipment ashore would unload the ship’s diesel fuel cargo. Because of the tightly-constrained waterway there, the vessel would require the additional services of a tugboat and tug pilot, who would take over from Schoenlank for docking.

It was time to do it all again.

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Posted by Tom in People