River Pilots: Navigating Ship Safety

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Credit: Matheus Guimarães/Pexels

As Scott Aldridge approaches the sea buoy, located seven miles off Oak Island, he is thankful for the early morning sunshine, which hasn’t yet brought the usual unbearable July levels of heat and humidity. The weather seems promising with clear skies and calm seas, as published on Star News Online.

Ship guiding 

The passage describes the experience of Aldridge, a Wilmington Cape Fear River Pilot, as he boards the San Americo, a cargo ship, to guide it to the Port of Wilmington. With the assistance of Daniel Dixon, an experienced employee of the Cape Fear Pilots Association, Aldridge boards the ship using a gangplank and rope ladder. After about forty-five minutes, the ship reaches the Cape Fear River, and people gather to watch it pass by. The Wilmington Cape Fear Pilots Association has been guiding ships safely through the river for over 100 years, and becoming a river pilot requires a unique combination of knowledge, skill, and good timing.

From the ‘Wild West’ to a regulated industry

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, river pilots in the Cape Fear area engaged in fierce competition, often resorting to physical fights to secure ships to navigate upriver. To regulate the industry and bring order to the chaotic situation, the State of North Carolina established the Cape Fear River Navigation and Pilotage Commission. The commission consists of five members, four of whom are appointed by the governor, with one member representing the Wilmington Cape Fear Pilots Association. The commission’s responsibilities include setting rules, regulations, and pilotage rates, as well as implementing an apprenticeship program for aspiring pilots. Currently, the Association has eight pilots, and due to a low turnover rate, there are limited opportunities for newcomers to join the profession.

A ‘pipe dream’ to reality

Aldridge, who became a river pilot with the Wilmington Cape Fear Pilots Association, had a lifelong fascination with piloting ships since he was about eight years old. Witnessing a neighbour piloting a cargo ship ignited his passion for the profession. Despite the difficulty of getting into the limited field of river pilots, he managed to secure an apprentice spot with his education, local river knowledge, and maritime job experience.

Throughout his 30-year career, Aldridge has piloted ships from around the world, encountering diverse cultures and nationalities among the crew members. He recalls unique experiences, including piloting a Virginia-class attack submarine and navigating massive ultra-large container ships, which were once unimaginable for the area.

Aldridge looks back on the changes in the industry during his career, particularly the transition to larger ships and the significant improvements made to the river’s facilities. With a few years left before his retirement, he is now focused on mentoring new pilots and helping them navigate the industry.

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Source: Star News Online