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We choose to come into Recife for our Brazilian stop because our friends Hans and Karina lived there and were keen to welcome us to their hometown.
Hans works as a ship pilot in the ports of Recife and Suape. He invited us to tag along with him on two maneuvers in the port of Recife and we happily said yes!
The Port of Suape 40 km south of Recife, while the Port of Recife is deep in the heart of Recife Antigo, where we went to celebrate Carnaval. The port is huge, and the area around it is very industrial. Hans showed us where there are further plans to expand the port and where there is a massive dry dock to work on these vessels.
Growing up in the maritime industry, I’ve always been familiar with the job of a harbor pilot. Many of my parents’ classmates, from A&M Galveston or Maine Maritime Academy, went on to become harbor pilots for a career. It’s a lucrative field – harbor pilots in the US make more than $400K on average – but also dangerous.
Harbor pilots like Hans generally board a pilot boat and that pilot boat takes them out to the ship which they are to pilot. (Have you seen this video of a pilot boarding a ship in iced-over Finland?) The boarding of the ship is the most dangerous process – and the part I was most nervous about. Once aboard the ship, the pilot takes control of the ship and brings it in or out of port.
As a result, pilots must be extremely knowledgable. Their knowledge goes beyond the maneuvering of a ship; they must know perfectly the conditions of their port.
As any sailor can tell you, sailing out at sea is, frankly, kind of boring. We may do some sail changes or activities to keep ourselves occupied, but there’s not a whole lot to do unless you have a situation. The hardest parts of being a boat owner are close-quarters maneuvering – docking the boat, departing the dock, dropping anchor, navigating small channels.
That’s what the pilot’s job is; the hardest part of handling a ship.
Our First Maneuver
Our first maneuver was aboard the MSC Jeongmin, a 300-meter boat flagged in Madeira. She was already at the dock; our job was to bring her back out to sea.
Even though she was at the dock, we still had to board her using the pilot boat. It was good practice since we were in the port and the sea state was fairly calm. The pilot boat nosed up to the ship, and the boarding person (one at a time, please) stood on a small step ladder integrated into the pilot boat. Hans cautioned us to take our time; only make the move when we were ready, but when we did jump onto the rope ladder, we had to do it decisively.
Because this boat was so big, it was actually a two-pilot job. Hans and his co-worker boarded first to show us how it was done.
One of the crew members of the pilot boat stood right next to the step ladder and helped me make the jump when I was ready. As soon as I was on the ladder, the pilot boat falls back; if you fall of the ladder, it is better to land in the water than on the pilot boat.
The ladder was sturdier than I imagined. There are strict rules about the standardization of the ladder, but it was taut under my feet. It still took quite a bit of body strength to haul myself up.
Once on board, one of the ship’s crew met us. They were all very polite and always shook hands with us before leading us up to the pilothouse. We walked through hallways and even rode an elevator! In the pilothouse, we met the captain and a few other crew members.
The starting action was out on the wing station, a platform that extends out from the pilothouse nearly the entire width of the boat. From the wing station, we could see all the way down the dock and could watch crew prepare to untie lines.
The pilots were debriefed on the boat, everything from the cruising speed to which was the propellers spun. Any little idiosyncrasy that the captain knew was relayed to the pilots.
When they were ready, the pilot started the maneuver. He was communicating with three people; the captain of the ship and the captains of the two tugs. The captain stood right with us, and any command he was given, he relayed to his crew, by radio if necessary. The tug captains were communicated with via handheld radios.
In Suape, the ships come directly in and dock, which means they are facing inland. First, the tugs had to pull the ship away from the dock. Then, when the pilot had determined it was far enough, he began instructions to the tugs for turning the ship – a full 180-degree turn inside the tight harbor.
The visibility over the bow is nothing – it’s a 300-meter ship, plus it’s stacked with containers. We were turning and turning, and suddenly I could see the channel marker just ahead and off our port side, which we had narrowly missed. What a tight fit!
Then we moved inside the pilothouse and the instructions shifted to the captain. “Ahead at [whatever] RPMs.” the pilot would say. The captain would repeat it into the radio and get a confirmation from his crew. “Rudder twenty degrees to starboard.” The captain would repeat it to the helmsman, who would make the changes and then confirm “Twenty degrees to starboard.”
Like this, we navigated out of the entrance to Suape. Its a bit of a zag to get out, but the view was amazing; we could see in both directions down the coastline for miles. It’s a very straight coast!
Once we were out at sea, it was time to disembark. Another adventure down the ship to the pilot’s ladder. The ship does NOT stop moving while you disembark, so you are climbing down a rope ladder, jumping (stepping) from the ship to the pilot boat, and then walking back to the seating area.
The pilot boat that had picked us up took us directly out to the next boat, which was waiting out in the open ocean.
The second maneuver was aboard the MSC Barcelona. This ship was slightly smaller – 270 meters – and only required one pilot. The rope ladder to board was noticeably shorter too.
This time, we got to walk through the engine room of the ship, which was amazingly loud. We also passed through a machine shop (my engineering mind loved it!).
The maneuver was very similar to the first but in reverse order. However, this time we didn’t have to spin the boat around; the incoming boats keep their bow inland.
This time, since Hans was the only pilot, we got to watch him in action. Skillfully, the boat was maneuvered to the dock and tied up safely.
It’s amazing to note how slow these boats move, but due to their bulk, it is extremely hard to slow them down from even a crawl. Hans has a lot of interesting insight into ships out at sea, which is what we interact with most commonly.
The whole trip was actually pretty short! We were in the port for about three hours in the afternoon.
We are so thankful to Hans for giving us this opportunity to see a very cool part of the maritime industry and spend the day with him on his job!