Pilots’ president feeling hopeful despite loss of tankers

February 28, 2014

It’s said that Native Americans familiar with the shoals of Delaware Bay served as the first pilots for vessels trying to navigate safely in local waters. Eventually, those piloting skills evolved into an industry for local seafarers who found they could make a decent living from what captains would pay them for safe guidance.

Those earliest pilots used to compete among one another to race out to sea and intercept incoming vessels to gain the piloting fees. By the late 1800s, however, stiffening competition driving captains farther out to sea in increasingly dangerous weather resulted in occasional wrecks and drownings. That provided impetus for creation of a cooperative system that became the Pilots’ Association for the Bay and River Delaware. No longer would pilots compete for ships. Rather, they would take turns, with the fees pooled and distributed on a share basis.

That system has been in place for more than 100 years now with offices for the association in Philadelphia, port of call for the majority of the ships now serviced by the pilots. The pilots also have a headquarters in Lewes, in a transformed Coast Guard station next door to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal. From there, pilots are dispatched to vessels coming into Delaware Bay from the Atlantic. Launch operators working for the pilots, using vessels stationed in Lewes, also retrieve pilots who come down Delaware River and Bay from Philadelphia, Wilmington, Camden and other upriver ports of call. On rare occasions when storms force normally intrepid launch operators to remain tied to the docks, pilots have found themselves watching Lewes and the U.S. coast disappear behind them as schedule-bound vessels carried them to their next port of call - which could be South America or Europe - before they could disembark. Such unexpected sea cruises are rarely welcome.

Piloting a roller coaster

Capt. Ward Gilday, current president of the pilots’ association, said piloting economics tend to be a roller coaster ride. “A lot of it depends on what people are demanding,” he said. The pilots’ association has been hit hard in recent years by a double-digit percentage drop in the number of oil and petrochemical tankers going in and out of Delaware Bay. Two reasons for that, he said: “There has been a reduction in the demand for refined products on the East Coast, or refining on the East Coast, and cheaper crude oil is coming out of the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota.”  That oil, he said, is being shipped to East Coast refineries by rail cars instead of by waterborne tankers.

“We used to get a lot of deep-draft vessels loaded with oil that would anchor in the mouth of Delaware Bay and get lightered to 40 feet before heading up to the Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania refineries. That has been drastically reduced by the changes.”  That’s why, said Gilday, people at Lewes Beach are seeing far fewer tankers at the Big Stone Beach anchorage a few miles north. Because of that, he said, there is no huge demand for new pilots. “I think the complement we have is good right now, and we’re holding our own, hoping things begin to tick up.”

Gilday said he’s feeling improvement. He noted that while tanker traffic on the river is down, news outlets recently reported that ships carrying eucalyptus pulp from Brazil  - used to manufacture fine papers - will soon be coming to the Tioga Marine Terminal in Phildaelphia instead of the Baltimore terminal where ships had been going. “That will mean another 15 to 20 ships a year. Then there’s the deepening of the shipping channel from 40 to 45 feet. That should mean more container ship traffic for us.”

Capt. H.D Parsons’ head and charter boats at Fisherman’s Wharf in Lewes often fish in the tanker anchorage. He had another angle that he shared which shows how national debates can have local implications: “Most persons in this area don’t think the proposed Keystone Pipeline has anything to do with our area, and it might not. But if it is built, then the oil that is moved by it to Houston, Texas, which is the largest oil port in the country, could be shipped by tanker ship to the Delaware river refineries which make for the second largest oil port in the country.”

Finally, noting that the U.S. is flipping from a net importer of oil and gas to a net exporter, Gilday said a number of ships carrying gas bound for northern Europe from the Utica and Marcellus gas fields in Pennsylvania and New York could start using Delaware River and Bay terminals.

“People are more confident than they have been for a while. I hope things get better for everyone. I always have to keep in perspective that when we lose a tanker, some other guys up the river may be getting jobs as engineers on the trains,” said Gilday. “I want everyone to make more money: engineers, pilots and the people who serve me at Wawa.”

Lots of people are hoping that Gilday, representing one of the nation’s earliest professional trades, is correct in his sense that this economic tide is rising, and will lift all boats as it rises.

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