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

Perceptions

Midnight. Dirty, roiled water. A nasty cloud hanging at about fifty feet. Visibility? Maybe, one-quarter mile. A pilot boards your fully laden tanker and the inward passage to Boston begins with a nudge to the engines. “Dead Slow Ahead. Port Twenty. Amidships. Steady her up on 2-8-4.” You slide your tired butt into the Captain’s chair and the usual paperwork is exchanged. The maneuvering characteristics of your vessel are given to the pilot and he hands you a piece of paper in way of reciprocal greeting. It might be one of two statements ??" depending on who might be guiding you; either of which you will be expected to sign. Click on (Exhibit A) and (Exhibit B) to read both. “Half Ahead. Starboard Twenty.” Take your time: the “BG” buoy is sliding by on the port side at only 7 knots, the confusing backscatter of Boston’s lights are just mildly disorienting and your ship is picking up speed quickly.

Ready? Which group of marine professionals do you want to guide the motor tanker “NEVERSAIL” into the harbor and safely onto the berth? Which document would you sign willingly? As the summer of 2006 approaches, depending on who guides your vessel all the way to the berth, you might just have a choice. A couple of months down the road, you might have to “take it or leave it.” And, you may have guessed that Exhibit “A” is the standard greeting provided by the Boston Pilots to their state mandated clients. Exhibit “B” won’t actually be presented to you until you begin the (always hazardous) berthing process.

Business is business. It’s an old, hackneyed saying, but it especially rings true in today’s Boston Harbor. Boston Towing & Transportation operates, by most accounts; the most modern and powerful tug assist equipment in Boston Harbor. Boston Towing performs three-quarters of all the tug work here. They also employ exactly 87.5% of all the docking pilots. It’s an enviable position to be in, especially when their $150,000 per year lobbyist is feverishly working the aisles of the Commonwealth’s Senate to ensure that no one will ever again bring a deep draft vessel into the harbor without the guidance of one of those docking pilots. They would have you believe that this is absolutely essential to preventing a horrible marine accident from occurring here. It’s a compelling argument. With the thin veneer of price finally stripped away, it’s also the only argument they have left.

The question of whether Boston Harbor needs to ensure the routine safe and competent docking and undocking of large marine vessels is superfluous. A better question to ask is who should be doing it, at what price and under what conditions.

Reality

It honestly doesn’t matter who gets to dock or undock large, deep draft tonnage in Boston Harbor. That’s right: it doesn’t matter. The two groups of professional mariners currently doing it are both well qualified to provide service to the marine consumer. Both bring to the table the right set of skills, albeit derived from a different subset of marine experiences. Different ships; different long splices. The best education can and often is trumped by the school of hard knocks. In a similar fashion, the marine pilots who ply their trade along the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline come from a wide variety of backgrounds. At each and every harbor, these mariners pilot and dock their ships and a set of rules enforced by a regulating body governs their conduct. It’s a variable that never changes. In the vast majority of these places, pilots answer to only one master; the State that controls the commerce that occurs within their jurisdiction.

MAREX asked two employees of Boston Towing if they felt that they thought that a State mandate for the exclusive right to perform docking and undocking in Boston Harbor could go hand-in-hand with continued employment with Boston Towing. Neither of them had a problem with the concept. But, can a privately held firm hope to have its employees certified by the Commonwealth to be (almost) the exclusive purveyor of marine safety? Sure, they can. This is Massachusetts. As MAREX finishes this final segment of its investigative series, the docking pilots are only a few votes short of doing just that.

Having invoked comparisons to the DP World controversy in our last segment, it is only fair that we return to fully complete the analogy. DP World was widely excoriated for nothing more than being a multi-national, foreign controlled private enterprise. In the end, they had hoped to do nothing more than operate private terminals within the wider spectrum of a U.S. port authority. Regulatory control would come from and be administered by others in a uniform fashion. That they were turned away in their bid to enter the U.S. market wouldn’t be so unbelievable had the barn door not been left open and all the horses from the Jones Act fleet left a long time ago.

Unlike DP World, the docking pilots hope to have it both ways. Maintaining an employment agreement with their private employers, the docking pilots would enjoy guaranteed employment (assuming passage of SB 1330 in its current form) while providing a distinct competitive advantage for their employers. You can’t blame them for trying. It’s what business is all about and it’s also why it’s not a good idea to mix the regulatory functions of a port with the private sector that depends on its wellbeing.

Sanity

Arthur Whittemore is pleasant sort of man. He’s been retired since 2001, but he has his opinions and isn’t reluctant to share them. When MAREX caught up with the former President of the Boston Pilot Association and thirty-year veteran of piloting ships in Boston Harbor, he was following the ongoing drama in Boston Harbor with more than passing interest. Whittemore not only draws a pension check from the Boston Pilots, he also probably knows more about the origins of the current controversy than virtually anyone else. To say that his testimony sheds new light on the subject would be a mild understatement.

More than one reader of the MAREX Newsletter has E-mailed advice to the editor to the effect that the simple merger of the docking pilots with the Boston Pilots would solve everything. The only trouble is; it’s been tried before. Arthur Whittemore says that the docking pilots turned down the opportunity and calls to individual docking pilots substantially affirmed this fact. The only question left unanswered is why?

Whittemore led the Boston Pilots through a period where huge changes were made to who, why, and how many pilots would join the bar. The changes were inevitable, he says. At one time, there were 24 Boston Pilots. As fewer ships (but not necessarily less tonnage) called on Boston, the need for so many pilots was clearly unnecessary. Also clear was the fact that with so many pilots on the bar, in a declining market of ever larger marine vessels, an apprentice from the old system had two prospects for reaching the promised land: “slim and none.” The dilemma of where to get qualified individuals as the number of pilots decreased through normal attrition to a level which matched the workload quickly became obvious.

Whittemore claims that when the merger was proposed in the “mid-nineties” that the docking pilots and harbor pilots were essentially “making about the same money.” He adds, “I could see the merits of combining the two groups. We each had things we could teach each other, and for a time, it would solve any manpower issues.” In fact, most of the seven harbor pilots who made the bar after the change in policy wouldn’t be pilots today had the merger gone through. When it didn’t happen, another solution had to be found.

The usual luxury of stringing along a flock of hopeful apprentices, often starting as no more than high school graduates, through a prolonged training period was no longer present. Instead, the Boston Marine Society recommended and had enacted a set of minimum experience and qualification standards under which someone could apply to be a pilot. And, while that is somewhat of an oversimplification of what happened, it’s also essentially correct.

Arthur Whittemore could see the writing on the wall. Although he wasn’t completely happy about how it all came about, it had to be done. In his opinion, the minimum license of a Third Mate, perhaps a Second Mate would have been sufficient, especially if augmented by some sea time and a maritime academy education. Others ultimately decided on a much tougher set of standards, and, in 1997, the system of selecting, hiring, and training a Boston Harbor Pilot changed forever. These changes also drove a deeper wedge between the State commissioned Harbor Pilots and the privately employed docking pilots that exists to this day.

Real Scenarios

The current legislative session on Beacon Hill ends in July. Truly anything could happen between now and then, but it boils down to just four possible scenarios, some less likely than others to occur. How it plays out will have a palpable effect on the safety and commercial viability of Boston Harbor. Not since the well-publicized fight of the early 1980’s in Tampa Bay between a “break-away” state pilot and the group he departed from has this level of animosity been seen in a U.S. Harbor. If the Bay State squabble hasn’t affected marine safety yet, it soon will.

The possibility of a merger between the Boston Pilots and the docking masters might still be a viable alternative. But, it isn’t likely. Even Arthur Whittemore knew that a unanimous vote to form a merged association would have had enormous regulatory and structure hurdles to surmount. The Harbor Pilots carry the combined weight of $2.4 million in pilot boat mortgage notes, pensions for retired pilots, expensive training bills, mandatory payments to the Boston Marine Society, the task of securing adequate benefits for their members and a myriad of other invoices. A privately employed docking pilot making in excess of $100,000 annually with a decent benefit scheme mostly paid for by others might blink at the potential burden.

Even at wages that can approach $250,000 per year, Boston Pilots remain one of lowest paid groups in the country and the expense load puts new perspective on the supposed glamour of being part of it all. And then, there’s price. The flat fee codified by the State of Massachusetts to perform a docking or undocking evolution is set at $350, or less than the average docking pilot invoice reported by shipping agents in Boston. Docking services performed at $350 per movement might not prove to be an economically viable practice for the docking pilots or their employers. Finally, the personal differences that have simmered for years will have to be overcome.

It is entirely possible that senate Bill 1330, in its current form (or a close facsimile thereof) will be enacted into law. If it is, the short-term future will be a sticky one for the harbor. With Boston Towing in control of almost all the docking pilot manpower, it is fair to ask whether Constellation Tug Corporation can survive in a climate where they can only put one docking pilot on a ship. Would they allow Boston Towing docking pilots to direct Constellation equipment if their own employee was not available? Would Boston Towing decline to send one of theirs, if asked? Of course, the docking masters might respond that the free market system will allow them to work for whomever they want. Short of hiring away Boston Towing’s employees at a premium rate, though, Constellation’s viability as a player in Boston Harbor will be seriously compromised.

July 2006 could also come and go without the passage of any Bill related to the docking masters. The current players would continue as before and as interesting as the conflict is to watch and write about, the bickering does not bode well for the port and its ability to attract new customers and retain the ones which currently call Boston home. One can only hope that a better solution ??" any one at all ??" can be achieved.

The final scenario involves the wild card of Foss Maritime’s possible (some say likely) entry into Boston Harbor. Marc Villa acknowledges the reality of what he calls “mature equipment” operated by his firm. He also points to the “capable and careful way in which we operate that equipment.” He pauses briefly and then adds, “Give me better equipment and there’s absolutely nothing we can’t do and there’s no one who can compete with us.” Villa knows that Boston Towing and Transportation currently has the best equipment in harbor. He also says that the arrival of a couple of state-of-the-art 5,200 HP tugs might change all of that. If he knows more than that, he isn’t saying.

Soon, and in the absence of SB 1330, the proverbial shoe may very well be on the other foot in Boston Harbor. With the choice of a superior fleet gone from the business equation, marine customers will be able to choose their towing services based on price, and service. They’ll also be able to decide how much they’ll have to pay for docking pilot services. The new generation of harbor tugs will bring a new dimension to Boston Harbor and neither the Harbor Pilots nor the docking pilots will have any clear advantage in competence when it comes to directing equipment they’ve never seen before. No matter who ultimately gets to direct the new tugs during docking, they’ll likely do it in the same way as ship masters who transitioned from 17,000 deadweight ton tankers onto 100,000+ ton VLCC’s: they’ll learn on the job.

The prospect of seeing the addition of more tug equipment in the harbor, which might not necessarily require the use of a privately employed docking pilot, cannot be very appealing to the supporters of SB 1330. In the end, the safety of Boston Harbor won’t change very much and it’s already pretty good, regardless of who docks the ships. It’s somewhat ironic then that the potentially simultaneous arrival of Foss Maritime and the defeat of SB 1330 could change the way business is done in the harbor forever. Good or bad, it might be just around the corner.

Joseph Keefe is the Senior Editor of The Maritime Executive. Contact him at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com.