bar-pilot3

A tugboat that fetches pilots once they’ve guided ships in from sea.

“I’M NOT GOING TO LIE TO YOU: this thing is built to take a beating.” Michael Bruhn, the hoist operator on the bar pilot’s Seahawk helicopter, is yelling over the banshee howl of helicopter blades. “It’ll run on one engine if it has to. So if we have to ditch, it’s because something unexpected happened. And if that’s the case, we’re done. But at least you won’t be alone. It’s not some prank—we’re all dead.” We’re at the bar pilots’ ramshackle helo-base at the Astoria airport, and Kevin Rebrook, the pilot, has just asked me for an emergency contact number: “In case you don’t come back.”

This isn’t black humor; it’s protocol. Seventy percent of ship boarding is done via helicopter, because choppers get out to the ships faster than pilot boats, and the boats are often in use. Ships barely have to slow down for a chopper to land—the bar pilots call it “walking to work.” Otherwise, pilots are lowered aboard with a cable and harness. From fifty feet above the deck of a ship, Bruhn feeds and kills line with the push of a button. If things get sketchy for the chopper and the pilot is dangling within ten feet of the deck, Bruhn will cut him loose—it’s not a far enough drop to be fatal, and it’s better than everyone crashing into the Pacific.

Captain Barry Barrett saunters up the runway. Pale beard, face raw from spending forty of his sixty years on the ocean (twenty of them as a bar pilot), he is a potent mix of Santa Claus and beef jerky. He locks himself into his seat on the Seahawk, gives the thumbs-up. Within minutes after liftoff, the Oriente Sky, a 506-foot Panamanian bulk carrier, grows from a blip on the radar to a mass of steel just a few feet beneath us. The deck features a four-story wheelhouse and four towering cranes, which allow the crew to load and unload cargo without calling in that kind of equipment at port. Despite the obstacles, Rebrook decides to forgo the hoist and land.

The landing pad is a closed cargo hatch sandwiched between one of those cranes and the wheelhouse. The Seahawk is forty-two feet long, the touchdown point fifty-four feet in diameter. Rebrook has to negotiate that tricky math and keep the chopper moving at a steady thirty miles an hour—a moving target hitting a moving target.

It’s hard to tell if the Oriente’s crew members are taking pictures because they’ve never seen a chopper land here before or because they have shows like Horrible Videotaped Death Crash back in Panama that they’d like to submit the images to. But, as with Kevin Dooney’s workmanlike boarding on the Columbia, this touchdown is horrifyingly smooth.

As a welcoming party guides us over and around exhaust pipes and portholes, a man with a walkie-talkie steps forward and shakes Captain Barrett’s hand. Barrett follows the fellow up four flights of metal stairs. The air smells strongly of fish.

“Hello, gentlemen!” Barrett’s voice rattles the Jesus posters hung along the wheelhouse walls. He and the Panamanian captain begin a well-rehearsed dance, trading information about the ship in broken English, checking the radar, double-checking maps. Barrett is now in charge of a vessel weighing twenty-four thousand dead-weight tons and a crew he’s never met in his life until now.

“Port ten,” he calls out.

Port ten, the baby-faced boy at the wheel calls back.

“Midship,” Barrett commands.

Midship.