A Day with a New York Harbour Ship Pilot

Monkey Fist
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February 20, 2010

image From Financial Times

The sun is rising somewhere off the starboard bow, lending the East River the reflective properties of burnished steel…

Those of us unaccustomed to morning sea-glare stumble across the wheelhouse clutching handrails and trying to stay out of the way of the captain, crew, and especially the docking pilot. Jeff McAllister, you see, is presently occupied with keeping this 17,000-ton, 565ft former cargo freighter from careening into the Williamsburg Bridge.

After 20 years of docking ships in New York Harbor, ­McAllister is impervious to the elements. He claims you couldn’t ask for a finer day to work. Blinding sun, iridescent blue sky, enough wind to unzip your skull. What’s not to love? Pacing the wheelhouse, he seems equally impervious to the looming bridge.

Five minutes ago, with the help of three powerful tugboats, McAllister hauled the freighter – called the Empire State – out of a maintenance dock in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and swung her north for a three-hour trip to Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.

The job is a “dead tow”, meaning the ship’s 17,250hp engine is idle and her rudder locked. Ten storeys below us, unseen off the bow, the tugboat Marjorie B is fastened to the Empire State by hawser line, pulling us along, while another tug, the Ellen J, is tied to our stern for directional control. A third tug, the Charles D, follows behind…

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