Two pilots clamber down a rope ladder, dangled over the side of a towering oil tanker flying a Liberian flag, and into a waiting pilot boat.
As the two men take their time descending the ladder, with choppy waters down below, Derek Tracy, in another pilot boat farther back, recounts the time he was climbing down from a ship and the rope snapped, leaving him hanging by one hand.
“You don’t really think about it until you’re up next to a boat,” Tracy said. “But you can’t help thinking about that rope breaking. I say a prayer each time I’m about to go up and down.”
Tracy and the other two men are three members of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association, charged with guiding foreign-flagged vessels into and out of Galveston County ports.
Boarding a vessel underway to port or docked and bound for sea, a pilot is in charge of directing the ship’s captain and crew on how to navigate the port’s ship channel, Tracy said.
The association, a group of 16 pilots, is a state-sanctioned monopoly regulated by the Board of Pilot Commissioners of Galveston County, which must approve tariff rates on oil tankers, cruise passenger ships and other vessels calling at the ports of Galveston and Texas City.
The board of commissioners, a five-member panel appointed by the governor, oversees the pilots and ensures the association is following the state’s directives. The commissioners historically have granted state pilot licenses only to members of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association.
The board and association have been involved in litigation from cruise companies over a recent increase in tariff rates that would have raised rates as much as 30 percent over the next three years. Rates had long been a point of contention between several maritime groups, the association and the board.
The Port of Galveston, Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises sued in September over the tariff rate increase.
The litigation continues, but the Board of Pilot Commissioners recently amended the rate increase to a one-year agreement that would see the tariffs raised by 16 percent.
Critics of the rate increase point to the fact the pilots make about $417,000 a year, based on numbers from an audit report, and operate under a monopolistic system.
The pilots argue that a rate increase is necessary to maintain their fleet and to hire deckhands to enhance safety.
Tracy and the other pilots contend the group is following the chief directive of the state, which is safe passage of vessels to and from the ports.
“The biggest responsibility to the state is that they’ve been tasked with no pollution getting in the bay and no collisions,” said Henry de La Garza, spokesman for the pilots. “But the thing you have to remember is that every ship has that potential.”
Safety is a frequently used word by the pilots.
Through the first quarter of this year, the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association hasn’t had a vessel collision or allision since 2000, according to reports. An allision occurs when a moving ship strikes a stationary ship, which is distinguished from collision.
The pilot group averages about 6,000 vessel transits a year, officials said.
A 2014 collision between a cargo ship and a barge near the Texas City dike involved Houston pilots.
“If we do our job well, you don’t hear about us,” Tracy said.
It is this service — transporting vessels safely in and out of harbors — that the pilots insist they do well and effectively.
And some maritime executives agree.
“Pilots provide a valuable and essential service for maritime commerce,” said Niels Aalund, senior vice president for maritime affairs with the West Gulf Maritime Association.
The Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association is the oldest pilots association in Texas, formed in 1845, and over that time has developed a lengthy process for identifying and training its 16 pilots.
Tracy, for instance, was accepted to the organization in 2010 after a seven-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard and several years as a tugboat operator.
About 60 people apply for each pilot vacancy, Tracy said.
Upon acceptance into the association — which is subject to approval by the board of commissioners — the pilots enter a two-year deputy pilot program, during which they learn how to handle ships of various shapes and sizes, as well as the intricacies of the particular ports in Galveston County.
“We handle a wide variety of vessels,” Tracy said. “Everything from tankers to cruise ships to cargo ships.”
Part of a pilot’s training involves recreating an in-depth chart of the area’s ship channels and waterways — from depths to buoys to turns and currents.
More than tech
While each ship in need of a pilot has access to much the same technology pilots do — such as radar and radio communication with the Houston/Galveston Vessel Traffic Service that provides updates on the waterways — the ships coming into the ports don’t have the local knowledge of the area, Tracy said.
While some ships have quite advanced technology, having the local knowledge is an underrated skill, Tracy said.
“Each ship gives out its own information about things like weight, size, destination and draft,” Tracy said. “But you’re only as good as the information you have and you can’t just rely on technology.”
Pilots charge tariffs on foreign-flagged ships coming in and out of the ports weighing more than 10,000 tons, but must be cleared by the Coast Guard to come in.
“If they have a known mechanical deficiency, then the Coast Guard will get involved,” Tracy said. “But we try to get every ship in and out that we can.”
While the pilots try to get in all the ships that they can, they must weigh ship movements against the safety of the ports in all of their decisions, Tracy said.
“It’s up to the independent judgment of the pilot on whether to move ships in fog,” Tracy said.
And, at the end of the day, the need for safety and the news-catching evidence — such as the Exxon Valdez — of what can go wrong without pilot involvement is enough to validate the current setup, Garza said.
“Anyone in this industry has a chance to move up,” Tracy said. “Years back, nepotism might have played a role. But not anymore. Becoming a pilot is an open competition for everyone with enough qualifications.”