Maneuvering a pilot boat alongside a steamer is a task (even today) which calls for iron nerve, not a little courage and seamanship of the highest order. This article was first published in the December 1932 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
As a simple formula for producing a feeling of conscious virtue I can think of none better than an early rising. I had left the warmth of my by no means downy couch at 4 a.m., long before the dawn had laid its caressing touch upon a moonlit sky, and two hours later, seated well toward the bow of the pilot boat ‘St. George’, idling a mile or so off St. David’s Head, I was quietly engaged in patting myself on the back, figuratively, of course, for I needed both hands to cling to the guard rail to keep from being pitched into the tossing sea. The errand which accounted for my presence at this particular juncture of time and space had grown, simply from an impulse to witness the putting of a pilot aboard the ‘Monarch of Bermuda’, now in the offing and bearing down upon us at a twenty knot clip.
It had been, as St. David’s renowned “Red Benny” Lamb, sitting beside me observed, a “high dawn.” The sun had just topped a bank of purplish haze to the eastward, which had hitherto obscured it from view, and was now shooting long shafts of light, fanwise, at the sea below. “When the sun looks like that,” said “Red Benny,” “we say down here she’s got her stays out looking for a breeze.” I marveled silently at the perfection of the metaphor while the breeze, as if in response to that celestial summons, freshened steadily, causing our sturdy craft to plunge and roll like an exuberant animal. Still holding to the rail I turned to watch the other members of the crew. Aft, at the wheel, behind a canvas screen to protect him from flying spray, stood our gigantic coxswain, Ira Lamb, the son of my companion, bare feet planted wide apart. Apparently oblivious to the pitching of the boat, he was handling the wheel with superb detachment. Amidships the pilot and a pilot apprentice were talking together, and from his private domain the engineer had emerged to catch a breath of fresh air.
“Do you think he’ll stop?” Ira Lamb called forward to his father. To the men of the pilot service ‘He’ can mean only Captain Jeffries Davis of the ‘Monarch.’
“Not him. He don’t stop.” Everyone grinned. They needed no reassurance on that point, for the commander of the Furness flagship has the reputation of never losing any more way than he can help to pick up a pilot. There is, moreover, not a man among the boats’ crews but would be disappointed if ‘He’ did.
By the time this conversation had taken place the ‘Monarch’ had approached to within a half mile, her heavy top-hamper magnified by some trick of the early morning light to colossal proportions. Swinging in a circle we commenced maneuvering for a ladder dangling from an open pot on the lee side. She had slowed to half speed as she came up abeam, but half speed was still ten knots. Driving along on a parallel course we gradually closed in. Captain Davis came out on the port wing of his bridge and, with hands stuffed in the pockets of his serge jacket, looked on silently. A scattering of early risen passengers stared out curiously from the decks. For a moment, after her towering bulk had shut out the horizon, she seemed to have stopped, but when I looked at the water I saw that it was streaming by her sheer gray sides like a mill race, a glassy, foamless flow. Now only a few yards separated us, and our engine room bell commenced issuing and cancelling orders in a spasmodic burst of ringing. To its stuttering accompaniment we drew up to the Jacob’s ladder, hovered there for a moment like a bird balancing on the wind, then fell away rapidly. The job was done. With the handles of her engine room telegraphs once more at full speed the ‘Monarch’ rushed on for the channel, while we turned our bows toward the entrance to the harbor and the placid anchorage of the pilot fleet in Great Bay. The entire operation had been carried out in less than three minutes, with practically no loss of time to the ship and with a deftness and finesse bespeaking a highly efficient, smoothly running organization.
Putting a pilot aboard an inbound vessel is not, however, always the relatively simple operation it was on this particular morning. When an easterly gale is raking the coast with crashing seas, maneuvering a pilot boat alongside a steamer is a task which calls for iron nerve, not a little courage and seamanship of the highest order. Not long ago the ‘Pan America’ approached the islands in a gale that threatened momentarily to assume the proportions of a hurricane—and found the pilot boat waiting. The little ‘St. George’ was behaving more like a torpedo than a surface craft. At times tremendous seas would completely hide the ‘Pan America’ from her crew, although the larger vessel was almost within hailing distance. The wind was driving the spray with the force of gunshot; no one could face it. The coxswain’s eyes were streaming with blood. Just to be on deck was like standing before a fire hose. Yet all this was just a part of the job; and the pilot was put aboard. The men who man the service take the foul weather with the fair, and if a ship is signaling for a pilot, she gets one.
It is now four years since the Bermuda Government first took over the direct control and maintenance of the pilot service. Prior to 1928 piloting was a private enterprise. The men who engaged in it were mainly St. David’s islanders. Each had his own boat and his own crew, and the first man to speak [to] a vessel got her. Competition was keen, if not cut-throat. A pilot thought nothing of going fifty miles to sea to out-distance his rivals, and there are instances on record where Bermuda bound vessels have been hailed by pilots a day’s steaming from the islands. Presumably they would have reached the point of taking over where the Sandy Hook pilots left off, if the Government had not intervened and put an end to these amazing exploits.
Without having seen one of the boats in which these voyages were made no one can have any conception of the reckless daring of the old-time pilots and their crew. They (the boats) comprised a special type, evolved from the practical necessities peculiar to their calling, and like all highly specialized types, they failed to survive the passing of the conditions which called them forth. Unless for any other purpose, the few that are left lie rotting in a cedar grove below St. David’s Light. In appearance, at least to my unpracticed eye, they resemble a cross between a South Sea Island war canoe and a New Bedford whaler. They have all the length and narrow beam of the former, and the characteristic construction and seaworthiness of the latter. They were propelled either by sail or by heavy, eighteen-foot oars, as conditions demanded, and bailing was frequently as important as rowing. One has only to look at these boats, knowing that they have been taken far beyond the sight of land in all weathers, to realize that there is no exaggeration in the statement that the St. David’s Island boatmen are the equals of any in the world.
The keenness of the competition bred, as can be imagined, a good deal of strike and dissension among the population of St. David’s. The rule for the division of the pilotage fee specified that one-third should go to the pilot, one-third to his crew and the remainder to the owner of the boat, with the results that almost everyone in the island had a stake in the game. Each pilot had a definite following, who endeavored to provide him with information of the approach of ships and at the same time to keep it from reaching the others; but even so it was no unusual for two or three gigs to put out almost simultaneously. Whenever this happened there was sure to be as fine a boat race as anyone could want to see. There is a story which, however, I have not verified, that at the end of one close finish the losing contestant so far forgot his dignity as to attempt a wild scramble across the gunwale of his successful rival’s boat in order to beat him to the ladder. And there are tales of lighted lanterns left by night in certain places to signify the appearance of a ship in the offing.
Then, in 1928, the Government took a hand. A pilot boat, the ‘Wastika’, had recently been lost with all aboard, and it seemed necessary to put an end to the needless endangering of lives resulting from dangerous off-shore voyages. In the old days, when sailing ships, uncertain of their landfalls, often got into difficulties among the reefs to the northwest, there was a reason for making these long trips; but with the advent of steamers it was no longer needful to go much beyond the entrance to the channel. More over the rapid increase in the tonnage entering annually the harbors of Hamilton and St. George’s necessitated a more adequate service than could be provided on the existing competitive basis. If the pilots could have organized themselves, as the Trinity House pilots were organized, it is probable that they could have retained the conduct of the service for themselves; but organization was the one thing of which they could not prove themselves capable. Consequently, after much consideration, Parliament passed an act making piloting a government function and placing it under the direct supervision of the Board of Trade.
And so we come to the present pilot service, an efficient, splendidly equipped organization, stamped with a somewhat military character, whose most remarkable feature is the fact that it has been built up in four scant years. At its head, as Pilot Warden, is Commander Robert Landman, a retired officer of the Royal Navy, who has been in complete charge since its inception. The pilots and the members of the boat’s crew are, in the main, the same men who went piloting on their own before the change. Most of them live on St. David’s, and all reside within the limits of St. George’s parish. The base of operations is the pilot station, an old Bermuda home of definite architectural beauty, purchased by the Colonial Government and refitted to provide sleeping quarters, locker rooms and offices; and whose location on Little Head gives it a commanding view of the approaches to the channel. The equipment consist of two motor boats, one, the ‘St. George’, launched this year in Bermuda, an auxiliary sailing vessel named the ‘Curlew’, an old-time pilot gig and a New Bedford whaler, built in Massachusetts especially for the service from plans in the possession of the grand-daughter of the man who drew them.
The personnel includes eleven pilots and thirteen seamen and engineers to handle the boats. The pilots themselves are all men of long experience at sea. Most of them have served aboard merchant ships, some hold masters’ licenses and all are intimately familiar with the hidden topography of the surrounding reefs. Each holds his pilots’ certificate by virtue of having passed a rigid examination before a committee of the Board of Trade. They are well paid, entitled to a pension upon retirement and are provided with uniforms.
Duties at the pilot station are carried out in accordance with a strict routine. The pilot warden knows well in advance the time at which vessels are expected to arrive, and assigns his pilots to their ships as far as possible in order of rotation. Against the event of a ship appearing un-announced there is always one pilot on general duty. Outward assignments are not made, as the pilot who takes a ship in is also expected to take her out. None of the pilots live on the station, but generally those who live at some distance spend the night there before going on duty. The interior of the station is a pleasant clutter of the paraphernalia of the sea, barometers, chronometers, spy-glasses, binoculars, wall charts, framed certificates and shipping registers. In the pilots’ room is a radio to help in whiling away the long night watches.
On a busy morning the station comes to life amazingly early. Long before the light of the boats’ crews have assembled from the surrounding homes; the duty pilots have either arisen or arrived and Commander Landman has appeared from his nearby cottage to direct operations. By daybreak the pilot fleet is on its way to sea, for with good weather the ‘Monarch’, the ‘Pan’ and the ‘Prince Henry’ are off the Head with the crack of dawn. Generally, the motor boat’s crew mans the oars, as in bygone days, and puts the pilot aboard from the gig or whaler. Sometimes, when she was on the run, a special procedure was used for the ‘Prince Henry’. She has a rubbing streak projecting from her hull well above the waterline which made her dangerous to approach with a motor boat. Her pilot, therefore, began his trip in the ‘Curlew’, but ended it in a tiny cockleshell of a dingy launched from the deck of the larger boat when alongside.
The main channel up which the pilots are called upon to take their ships to Hamilton is approximately three hundred feet wide and has a depth of twenty-six feet at mean low water. Except in certain places where it broadens out to considerably more than its average width vessels are not permitted to pass, and in all cases inbound vessels are given the right-of-way over outward bound ships. The channel is full of twists and turns, but is well marked and is in no way dangerous. Traffic is controlled from the signal mast at Fort George. Should it appear, for instance, that an outward-bound ship will meet one inward bound off Fort St. Catherine, the former will be held, on orders from the signal mast, in Murray’s Anchorage. The channel into St. George’s Harbour through the new Town Cut is far shorter and involves no traffic problem.
There can be no question but that the institution of government control has wrought a great improvement in the service. Organized, working with an almost drilled precision, it is perfectly adequate to all situations. The pilots themselves are men of the highest calibre; the boats’ crews have no superiors as seamen. No master, even though bringing his ship to the islands for the first time, looking down from his bridge at the trim craft and its uniformed crew bringing him his pilot, could have any lack of confidence in the ability of the service to which he was about to entrust the care of his vessel.