Ascending the Ladder

A little after noon on a clear, unseasonably warm October day, I find myself on the way to Dauphin Island with Dave Berault. Dave is a Mobile bar pilot, and his job is to navigate ships between the mouth of the Bay and the port. I’m going to accompany him on an inbound vessel.

I don’t ask Dave if they let many people do this. I already know they don’t. In fact, I’ve never even heard of anyone getting to accompany a bar pilot on a ship. I know there are insurance complications and I’ve heard that it’s dangerous. But fortunately my younger brother, Reid, is also a bar pilot, and he’s managed to land me this article.

Bar pilots have been factors in port cities for centuries. They specialize in knowing the condition of the ship channels and successfully navigating large vessels in and out of the harbors. Most people are not even aware of their profession. In Mobile there are 13 pilots divided into two groups that work alternating weekly schedules. During their “week on” they are on-call 24 hours a day, and a pilot will sail an average of 10 ships per week.

We park at the pilot station located at the east end of Dauphin Island. The station consists of two buildings on either side of a boat dock. The eastern-most building is what looks like a typical beach house. The pilots sleep in it when they are on shift at the island. Moored at the dock are two pilot boats, industrial-looking crew vessels used to ferry the pilots to and from the ships. The other building is the office for the pilot boat captains.

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Dave shoulders a small backpack and we climb aboard the pilot boat. We seat ourselves inside the wheelhouse where there are four comfortable chairs against the back wall and a small berth for the pilots to catch a quick nap. They are often working all hours of the night with little sleep between jobs.    

Soon we are underway, passing Fort Gaines and cutting into the smooth swells of the Gulf. About a mile outside the mouth of the Bay, Dave points at the ship we are about to board. It is a 400-foot German vessel called the BBS GDANSK. “She” is carrying Airbus bodies coming from Hamburg. She is roughly half the size of the Panamax ships that come into port, thus named because they are the maximum size allowed in the Panama Canal. The ship is underway, doing about 13 knots. (I find it simple that 1 knot roughly translates into 1 mile per hour).  


ABOVE LEFT A bar pilot ascends the Jacob’s ladder on an inbound ship

ABOVE RIGHT A searchlight used to assist nighttime navigation and the boarding of bar pilots.

ABOVE Apprentice pilot Jake Pose studies the port on an outbound vessel. 

“Your brother calls this a ‘coffee sipper’, ” Dave says. “Not much to this one.”

At this point I’m thinking I should be nervous. If you’ve heard anything about a bar pilot’s job, you’ve heard about the Jacob’s ladder, aka “the ladder.” If there were an action movie made about bar pilots, it would focus on the ladder. The ship is not going to stop, and we are going to drive alongside, reach out for a rope ladder and climb it to the deck.

But I’m too excited to be nervous. And the older brother in me says that if Reid can do it, I can — have to — do it better.

But mostly I’m thinking, surely, after all these years, there’s got to be a better way.

As the pilot boat pulls alongside, Dave and I go onto the bow and stand on a platform designed specifically for this purpose. When the boat nudges against the ship, Dave grabs the ladder and starts up. I get the feeling this is all happening too fast. But it’s happening. And as soon as he’s on board, I grab hold and start up after him. I don’t look down.

Suddenly, I’m on deck and relieved that the dangerous part is behind me. A deckhand leads us to the stern and up several flights of stairs into the wheelhouse. Here we look out over the length of the ship. It is an impressive view that makes you feel very small, but also very important. The thrumming of the diesel engines and the sheer size and power of the vessel pulls at a primitive manly urge in me like no piece of heavy equipment I’ve encountered. And as the crew awaits Dave’s instructions, I begin to realize just how many people and how much machinery he’s suddenly in control of.

Dave and the captain begin what’s called the master-pilot exchange. This procedure involves the captain informing Dave of any problems the ship might have that hinder navigation. He also tells Dave the general nature of her equipment. Finally he gives Dave control. There is some formality about this exchange, but overall it carries the casual nature of two men that have done this many times before.

The captain exits the wheelhouse and leaves us with his second mate who will control the speed of the ship and his helmsman who will steer it. Dave will not physically drive the vessel, but issue commands to these two. The second mate is a Russian in his early 20s. He has his hand on a sliding lever that adjusts the speed. The helmsman, a young Filipino, is gripping a steering wheel about the circumference of a cantaloupe and shaped like something that would steer the Batmobile.

Dave sets his backpack on the counter and looks over the bow of the ship and across the Bay.

“Full ahead, ” he says.

“Full ahead, Captain, ” the second mate confirms.

Even though they are of mixed nationality, everyone on the ship speaks English. The directions are given in compass headings, memorized by the pilot, and based on his view of the channel markers. “Zero-zero-zero” is north.

“Zero-zero-eight, ” Dave says.

“Zero-zero-eight, Captain, ” the helmsman replies.

And a moment later.


“Zero-one-zero, Captain.” 


ABOVE One of the perks of the job is certainly enjoying the incredible views of the Port of Mobile from towering vessels.

ABOVE Apprentice pilot Jake Pose and pilot Reid Key discuss ship maneuvers.

Once we start into the Bay there are long periods between compass headings, so Dave has time to fill out paperwork and chat with me. I ask how he became a bar pilot. Dave is from Slidell. His dad is a life insurance salesman from New Orleans. Even as a boy growing up in a large port city he wasn’t aware of bar pilots, but he knew he wanted to pursue a career on the water.

After high school Dave attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. It was there he witnessed a bar pilot for the first time.

“This guy comes on board one of our training ships wearing tennis shoes and shorts. And suddenly everybody’s doing what he says. Once we get into port he gets off and goes home. I thought, ‘That’s the guy in charge. That’s who I want to be.’

“There aren’t many openings in Mobile because we’re a relatively small port. But the qualifications are simple. You just need a college degree and a captain’s license to drive a vessel this size.”

I know it’s really not that simple. I remember when my brother decided he wanted to become a bar pilot. He had just graduated from Birmingham-Southern College with a business degree. While his friends went on to become doctors and lawyers and bankers, Reid started at the bottom on the waterfront. He faced years of working as a deckhand and then more years working supply boats out of Louisiana to get his captain’s license. This was a big gamble considering there was no guarantee that he would ever get his opportunity. When he was finally accepted as an apprentice pilot, he had to continue working offshore while training unpaid in his off time. And even while an apprentice, there is still no guarantee when and even if you will get a job as a bar pilot.

But they will all tell you it’s worth it. It’s the pinnacle of civilian waterfront jobs, bringing with it one of the highest paid, most respected positions on the waterfront.

“We’re paid well for what we protect, ” Dave says. “You can’t have just any captain from a foreign country driving a vessel this size into our harbor. Let’s say we’re carrying 500, 000 barrels of oil. Can you imagine knocking a hole in the side of this thing? The Bay would be ruined. And at $50 a barrel,  that’s a cargo worth 25 million dollars. We’re a small price to pay to protect that.”

I think about something Reid once told me: “Docking these ships isn’t like pulling up in a Boston Whaler. You don’t just nudge it against the dock. You don’t let it touch anything. All this weight, whatever you come up against, something is getting destroyed.”         

“What do you worry about?” I ask Dave.

“I’m not real concerned with the ladder. If it’s too dangerous, we just won’t board. That only happens maybe once a year. I’m mostly worried about freak storms like that one that hit the Dauphin Island regatta last year. We get three or four of those a year. You’ve got 80-knot winds, and you’re trying to keep a 150-foot-wide ship in a 400-foot-wide slot. There’s a lot of sail area on these things, and you can’t just throw out anchor. I’ve gotten into the harbor and wanted to hug the captain.”

I had imagined I’d witness the pilots much like Dave had witnessed his first pilot at the Maritime Academy — CEO-like amongst the rest of the waterfront — people moving out of their way and doing what they said as they coffee-sipped and remained unapproachable. But it isn’t like that at all. Dave seems to know everyone on the waterfront, and there is no trace of condescension in his manner. He is professionally dressed and speaks to the crew with an air of respect and appreciation.

“There’s a whole team of us out here keeping this port working as safely and efficiently as possible, ” he tells me. “We want these companies to like doing business with Mobile.” Dave is fully aware that his group of pilots introduces Mobile to hundreds of foreign vessels a month, and I can’t imagine better stewards of the city.

It takes us about three hours to make the trip into the port. Dave doesn’t need any tugs to help dock the coffee sipper. I stand out on the bridge with him where he looks down at the dock and communicates to the wheelhouse through a hand-held radio. Below us, tying up the ship, are about six line handlers. Dave addresses them by name. The two directly below us are Big Sexy and his son, Sugar Lips. I’m all over that one. Dave tells me they are amateur wrestlers, and those are their character names. Even better, Big Sexy has agreed to give me a ride back to my office. I open my notebook again.

I learned more than I’d imagined on my first trip with a bar pilot, and I expected to learn a lot more on my next. Reid promised me one more ride on an outbound ship. This next voyage proved to be much scarier.

 To be continued in our March issue…

TEXT BY Watt Key • PHOTOS BY Jeff Haller

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