A Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Long Island Sound - Marine Pilots MOA

Uneasy Peace

When and if the state of Connecticut decides to step up and change how it controls commerce in its ports and on its waterways, one thing and only one thing is certain: Someone is going to be unhappy. On the other hand, state’s department of transportation (Bureau of Aviation and Ports) might do nothing at all. To their way of thinking, the current situation is working just fine and absent a compelling argument for change, most likely none will be forthcoming.

Pilot associations in neighboring New York (Sandy Hook) and Rhode Island (Northeast Pilots), who all participate in Connecticut marine pilot responsibilities under the umbrella of a rotation agreement known simply as the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), are also content with the current arrangement. It’s also not hard to see why. The rotation system in Long Island Sound, as stipulated by the MOA, could eventually leave out-of-state pilots as the only purveyors of marine expertise in Connecticut waters.

By some accounts, the MOA in place today in Long Island Sound is working well. The document, formulated by the state commissioners in New York and Connecticut in 2000 and then adopted by the Connecticut Legislature and DOT in 2003, involves a total of three different pilot associations, along with several independent individuals, all of whom perform pilotage duties. The MOA was put into place to answer to what has been characterized by industry observers as disorganization and cutthroat tactics prevalent in the sound. Today, the MOA holds together a fragile peace between rival pilots and their professional associations. In lieu of a cohesive professional association to join the 17 pilots who take turns piloting vessels in the Sound, it’s the only thing that does.

Jurisdiction: Future of MOA & CT Pilots Could Hinge on Federal Case

Vince Cashin is the President of the Connecticut State Marine Pilots Association (CSMPA), representing 5 of the 8 “Connecticut only” sound pilots. Talking with Cashin, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s less concerned with what is happening now in Long Island Sound than what comes next. Cashin is 63 years old and has piloted large, deep draft vessels on Long Island Sound since 1987. Before that, he worked as a tug captain and piloted smaller, self-propelled tank vessels in and around the New York area. By his own reckoning, he’s got a lot of good years left to give. He also knows that when the day comes for him to retire, not too far down the road, he’ll draw his final check of any kind when he disembarks for the last time.

Cashin’s desire to see wholesale changes in how Connecticut structures, licenses and supervises marine pilots in Connecticut takes root in his desire to take at least something …quot; anything at all - with him when he goes. But, there’s more to it than that. According to Cashin, Connecticut, absent significant and far-reaching changes in how they operate, is poised to abdicate its ability to control waterborne commerce in its own waters to neighboring Rhode Island and New York.

Cashin, who is a registered lobbyist in the state of Connecticut, has petitioned the State Pilot Commissioners and the CT DOT on many occasions to change various aspects of pilot oversight, with little success. His latest, formal bid to change the law in Connecticut takes the form of Senate Bill 521, which addressed the training of apprentice pilots, among other things. The Bill, diluted in committee negotiation to the point where Cashin thought it would do more harm than good, is dead. Connecticut Pilot Commission meeting records obtained by MarEx show firm CTDOT opposition to the bill.

The MOA was, for a time, supported by Vince Cashin and some of the other “Connecticut only” pilots. In fact, Cashin says that the CSMPA lobbied with the Northeast (RI) pilots to bring it into effect. He felt that the pact would facilitate marine safety and personal security and, eventually, produce a cohesive Connecticut pilot organization. So far, he says, none of that has happened.

Another player on the Connecticut side of the equation is Captain Tom Walker. His Long Island Sound State Pilot Association consists of just one pilot, but he claims to be the founder of the first Connecticut state pilot association and is adamant that the current system in place is not only illegal, but also contributes to danger in Long Island Sound. He points to the ongoing lawsuit (New England Shipping vs. Block Island Pilots) in Federal Court. The Block Island Pilot Association is the administrator of the MOA rotation system. At issue in the case is jurisdiction over different areas of Long Island Sound …quot; who has it, who doesn’t, and what that could mean for the validity of the MOA.

Industry sources close to the matter who also did not want to be identified say that case is indirectly tied to how “The state of New York forced Connecticut’s agreement to the terms of the MOA.” Beyond this, our source continued, “The implementation of the MOA was driven by the state of New York and the Northeast Pilots.” Curiously, Connecticut has chosen not to participate in a lawsuit which is widely regarded to be all about control and jurisdiction of Long Island Sound.

A ruling in the case is expected any day and if New England Shipping’s claims are deemed valid, then the system of rotating pilotage in Long Island Sound could quickly become mired in red tape, or worse, a target for legal action from an unhappy pilot. At 64 years of age, time is running out on Tom Walker, although he says he intends to continue to board ships for another ten years, or more. He also claims to have spent $140,000 in legal fees over the years in an attempt to keep his license and livelihood.

Safety in Numbers or Divide and Conquer

While Walker and Cashin clearly have their personal differences, both are in general agreement in terms of what needs to be done to overhaul the pilotage system in the state of Connecticut. With no rate increases in the past 23 years, he and Cashin say they are each grossing maybe $90,000 per year (a figure disputed by some as low) …quot; and that’s before they pay bills such as pilot boat fees, surcharges to the State of Connecticut and other miscellaneous travel expenses. Also responsible for their own medical and pension benefits, Connecticut state pilots …quot; based on the only numbers available to MarEx - are easily the lowest compensated pilots in America today.

Vince Cashin admits to having engaged in some sort of (personal) merger talks with Northeast Pilots in the past, but the discussions proved fruitless. He had little in the way to offer someone who could wait him out under the current system and with no buyout to be had, he had little choice (and no incentive) to do anything but proceed as before. His effort to introduce a bill which could begin the process of apprentice training for the next generation of Connecticut pilots eventually failed. Cashin also knows that at the age of 63, even the influx of qualified apprentice pilots to a cohesive Connecticut State Pilot association would do him little good in terms of pension prospects. The bill was, he says, “The right thing to do for Connecticut.”

Charles Beck is the Maritime Transportation Manager, Bureau of Aviation and Ports for the State of Connecticut. He’s been at the newly created post for little more than a year, but brings to the table thirty years of Coast Guard service, as well as command experience at sea and ashore. While generally satisfied with the way things are working in Long Island Sound, he allows that “Opportunity exists to tweak and improve the system, but not without first having a cohesive pilot organization in place in Connecticut.” He calls this an “incentive” for the Connecticut pilots.

For years, attempts by the Connecticut “only” pilots to organize themselves into a single group have failed for one reason or another. As it stands now, until they do organize to the satisfaction of the state, it is unlikely that a rate increase will be granted and the formalization of some sort of apprentice training program will remain out of reach. On the other hand, the state pilot commission recently granted a fuel surcharge of $150 per movement to offset the rapidly raising cost of energy for the pilot boat(s).

A Hazy Future

New England Shipping is a ship agency based in New Haven, Connecticut. Its President, Dave Pohorylo, is a Connecticut State Pilot Commissioner. He also originated the pending lawsuit against the Block Island Pilots. Pohorylo takes a pragmatic approach to the MOA and the disagreements which surround it. Despite reservations about certain aspects of the MOA, he also thinks it’s here to stay and he’s resolved to do everything he can to make it work. As for the Connecticut pilots and their efforts to form a single association, he says, “It’s not that they need to operate as one organization as much as they need to operate efficiently.” So far, that has been easier said than done.

The state of Connecticut is not issuing state pilot licenses at this time. If it were, the only real requirement for such an appointment would be possession of a Federal license, which in most other places doesn’t count for very much. In Boston, Massachusetts, for example, a prospective pilot is required to make literally hundreds of trips and pass a state exam in order to obtain a state license. In Connecticut, just twelve trips and the federal endorsement (with recent experience) are all anyone needs to apply. Charles Beck says that the current requirements are sufficient and then points to the solid safety record in the Sound as proof. With no changes to the current system, it isn’t hard to extrapolate 10 years down the road. Most if not all of the current Connecticut pilots will have retired, leaving pilotage duties primarily in the hands of Rhode Island and New York pilots.

Today, there is arguably little or nothing to attract adequate and competent talent into the ranks of the Connecticut pilots. Poor pay …quot; less than that earned by a typical seagoing Chief Mate sailing maybe 7 months per year …quot; combined with the Connecticut DOT’s reluctance to raise rates or start a training program for the next generation of pilots, has all but dried up the pool of interested applicants. And the last such individual who began riding (to learn the job) with a Connecticut state pilot quickly saw the light and is now engaged by another out-of-state pilot group.

Cashin and Walker both maintain that, eventually, Connecticut will have to rely on marine expertise from other states to fill the vacuum here at home; both in the harbor and in Hartford. And the ramifications of this reality extend well beyond the simple pilotage of marine vessels. Both men expressed concern that pilots based elsewhere who perform services in more than one location will owe no allegiance to the State of Connecticut. Marine commerce, they say, which is already draining away, will leave and with it take the shoreside jobs which depend on the cargo that passes through state docks.

Next Week: The case FOR the MOA. CT DOT, NY & RI Pilots all weigh in and set MarEx straight…

Contact Joseph Keefe, Managing Editor at: jkeefe@maritime-executive.com