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Boston: One Harbor, Two Stories, Public Welfare in the Balance

Part III: Terror, Trust and Tactics

Terror

“There are no checks on these guys. A terrorist could be behind the wheel of a tug bringing in an LNG tanker.” The preceding quote probably sounds familiar, especially if you are up on current events, especially maritime things, in particular. You may have guessed, incorrectly, that Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) or perhaps Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said these things in context to the recent DP World firestorm. Actually, these remarks were attributed to Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett Barrios (Boston Herald, April 15 2006). Speaking in response to a so-called “near-miss” incident involving the “M/V HATO,” a loaded salt vessel, which was attempting to berth in the Mystic River, his comments heightened concerns about safety and terrorism in Boston Harbor. The sound bite also brought new scrutiny to Senate Bill 1330, which among other things proposes to require the use of a docking pilot on all deep draft marine vessel movements in Boston Harbor. Mr. Barrios is the chief sponsor of SB 1330, which he characterizes as an act relative to Massachusetts safety.

The current situation in Boston Harbor has a lot in common with the attempted takeover of a few U.S. terminal facilities by a Dubai-controlled company in February. In both cases, lawmakers have been asked to weigh the public welfare against the bottom line of a business. In both matters, the specter of terror and concern for safety has been used as a means to sway public opinion. However, that’s where the similarities end. DP World’s bid to operate some terminals in the United States was derailed by an intense and effective campaign that alleged security concerns were far too great to take a chance on a world class, multinational, and experienced terminal operator. In striking contrast, and as Massachusetts legislators ponder the merits of SB 1330 in committee, the public relations drumbeat beckons them to put the safety of the millions of people who live and work within a stone’s throw of Boston Harbor into the hands of a private marine transportation firm and its seven docking master employees.

Trust

There’s a near-miss incident about every 24 hours in the port of Boston, but you won’t read about it in the paper or see it on “Eyewitness News.” Every time a vessel is guided through the Fore River Bridge, the only thing standing between a potential disaster and the almost virtually assured “routine” outcome is the combined ship-handling expertise of the harbor pilot (docking pilot), the power of a couple harbor tugs, and the discipline of a sea-going ship and its crew. In the case of the “M/V HATO,” a missed dock approach in a reportedly strong river current changed the tactics of the vessel, which was eventually berthed safely.

Piloting large marine vessels and safely berthing them, isn’t an easy task. If it was, everyone would be a marine pilot or, as the Boston Towing & Transportation employees call themselves “docking pilots.” The reality of the matter is that it takes years of training, experience, and preparation before being considered ready to assume these responsibilities. It’s also why, once deemed qualified by the appropriate governing body, State Commissioned Marine Pilots can command salaries which in some places, (not Boston though) can soar to over $500,000 per year. It is no wonder that docking pilots employed by Boston Towing & Transportation want a guaranteed piece of this lucrative pie. By virtue of Boston Towing’s ironclad “no docking pilot, no tugboat” policy, they’ve already got a place at the table. Some observers ask why it necessary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to enact a bill, which perpetuates what they’re already doing.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts sets the bar particularly high when it comes to allowing mariners to even apply to be considered as a State Commissioned Harbor Pilot in Boston. No one familiar with the rigors of the job would counsel otherwise. In addition to the usual physical and education requirements, Massachusetts requires an unlimited Ocean Master License issued by the U.S. Coast Guard and service in a senior licensed capacity aboard a deep draft vessel for a minimum period of time in the five years immediately prior to the submittal of application. The reality entails at least ten years spent sailing on an unlimited license, and for most mariners, this type of resume takes at least fifteen years to compile. Once admitted to the pilot’s association, a trainee spends almost two years in relative poverty while accumulating literally hundreds of trips “in and out” of the harbor while watching others, and spending thousands of hours training in the process. Obliviously, this period of indentured servitude does have its rewards.

By and large, the seven docking masters from Boston Towing, who aspire to achieve similar status enjoyed by their harbor pilot colleagues, cannot bring the combined sea service and paper documentation to the table. Instead, they argue that their experience in the command of the tug boats is sufficient. Furthermore, they add, it places them in a far better position to perform the job of docking vessels. There may be some merit to their argument. In more than a few places, Louisiana for example, the route to the wheelhouse does not necessarily have to entail ten lonely years spent at sea. In Louisiana mariners with a wide range of maritime experience can competently guide large vessels “to and from” the berth. However, under current Massachusetts law (since 1997), Boston docking masters simply cannot hope to achieve a state certification.

Comparing the qualifications of the harbor pilots and the docking pilots is not a simple apples-to-apples comparison. While, it might be conceded that the current group of docking pilots have a much deeper grasp of the capabilities of a tug boat, it can also be said that the harbor pilots are probably the more logical choice to direct the engines of a 40,000 ton loaded vessel to ensure that it handles correctly in tight quarters. It is a gross over-simplification of the docking process to say that tugs push and pull. It is also true that large marine vessels often have large arrows and the words “PUSH HERE” painted on their hulls for a reason.

The delicate operation of safely in docking or undocking a deep draft vessel is an event which requires a combination of two sets of skills, but not necessarily two individuals to do it. The concept of whether there should be room for in the State Commission process for people like George Lee or Michael Duarte is worth exploring. It has to be noted that three of the ten harbor pilots now employed by the Boston Pilot Association are not deep sea mariners, but achieved their commissions via the previous training and apprentice system. Greg Farmer, President of the Boston Pilots, says that they’re fully qualified to pilot vessels.

Tactics

The “M/V HATO” has been hailed by supporters of HB 1330 as the galvanizing event which should, in their minds, convince Massachusetts lawmakers to codify the requirement for marine docking pilots. But U.S. Coast Guard investigations have not revealed any negligence on the part of the marine pilot who guided and berthed the large vessel. In ordinary times the event would simply fade away, as just one of 2,500 ordinary ship movements in Boston Harbor each year. But, according to Casey Ross’ byline in the Boston Herald (April 15, 2006), the event was captured on videotape by an amateur photographer named Tim Bishop, who was working at a nearby fuel depot. In reality, Bishop is an employee of Boston Towing’s parent company, Reinauer Corporation of New York. The film has since been used to embarrass Boston Towing’s chief competition in the harbor, Constellation Tug Corporation, and of course, the Boston Pilots themselves.

MAREX contacted Casey Ross to ask him if he was aware, at the time of his story, of Bishop’s relationship with Boston Towing. He replied, “I am now.” When pressed on whether he intended to clarify the matter for the Boston Herald’s readers; he was noncommittal. As MAREX goes on-line for this edition, the Boston Herald’s readers probably still think that Bishop’s first attempt at cinematic drama was a happy accident. Casey Ross can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the difference between a collision and an allision, but his article was reflective of at least one of two things; less than thorough investigative work, or being duped by someone who was less than clear on his intentions. We may never know which.

Marc Villa of Constellation Tug Corporation has watched the drama unfold around him as the stakes in the harbor conflict become clearer. As the work of his harbor tugs and the direction they receive from the Boston Pilots was disparaged in the wake of the “HATO” berthing, he lamented simply, “We’re disappointed that Boston Towing feels that this type of campaign is necessary.” Villa has more than that to be concerned about passage of SB 1330 will create at least a temporary, virtual monopoly in the harbor for Boston Towing by virtue of their control of 90% of the manpower which is presumably qualified to provide the docking services they hope to have codified as law. In addition, and as lobbyist Robert Durand and his friends in the State Senate continue to turn up the heat for passage of the bill, the marketing campaign by Constellation’s competitor has taken a decidedly less friendly turn.

MAREX has been given, from sources in Europe, correspondence sent by Boston Towing employee and Marketing Director, Michael Duarte, to a Constellation Tug client. On Tuesday, Michael Duarte was asked if he stood by the statements in these documents and he replied, “Absolutely.” The letter, dated January 20th 2006, starts out like any typical marketing effort but quickly moves to discredit BT&T’s competitors. In the letter, Duarte states, “I believe that due to management decisions and personnel changes within the last two years, the company you are presently contracted with no longer has the experience or expertise required to safely navigate your vessels into and/or out of Chelsea Creek.” The letter goes on to explain that State Pilots have never been trained, have no experience and have never performed docking service. The balance of the letter deals with BT&T industry affiliations and the many impressive quality certifications of their fleet.

Duarte had more to say. He maintains that the harbor pilots are unlawfully performing docking work, without the necessary licensing and documentation. In response, Greg Farmer says, “Out of ten pilots now working in Boston Harbor, eight of us have the required towing endorsement, and the other two are in the process of securing those certifications.” Beyond this, Farmer also reports that every single Boston Pilot has attended a training seminar for the new generation of tractor tugs, including simulator and class work.

Today, the docking pilots perform the lion’s share of docking work in Boston Harbor. Few observers dispute that they provide professional and competent service. Along the way, however, the harbor pilots have performed more than a few of these tasks themselves, perhaps 10% to 15% of the total work, or hundreds of ships every year. They are also present on the bridge for each and every docking or undocking maneuver performed in the harbor. They have to be, because state law requires it.

Next Week: Final Segment: Analysis / Opinion / Sensible Solutions