It’s 2:30 a.m. on a chilly Friday in October and instead of being in bed like most everyone else in Mobile, David Berault is eight miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, preparing to scale an untethered rope ladder to board an inbound ship carrying 5,500 Hyundai and Kia vehicles.

As the 750-foot-long, 106-foot-wide vessel makes its way into state waters, Berault greets its Filipino captain and crew and surveys the massive roll-on, roll-off ship. Approximately 90 percent of vessels coming into the Port of Mobile have foreign crews, but Berault said most captains speak English in order to conduct business in the port.

It was the Filipino captain’s first time in Mobile Bay, where the ship channel is 400 feet wide. Berault is one of 13 licensed members of the Mobile Bar Pilots Association, so named because they assist with navigation around Dixey Bar, a shallow sand bar east of the Mobile ship channel, south of Fort Morgan. The channel is 600 feet wide at the bar, itself named after the Robert H. Dixey clipper ship which disintegrated there in 1860 after a hurricane set it loose from its anchor in the bay.

All foreign ships coming into the Port of Mobile are required to have a bar pilot on board. According to Alabama Port Authority executive director James Lyons, many American ships use pilots as well to safeguard their cargo and the port’s environment.

“The pilots play a critical role at the port, just like every other port in the world,” Lyons said. “The captains of ships are not knowledgeable of local conditions, navigations in and out of the port. The pilots provide an important service.”

Bar pilots have helped foreign ships navigate Mobile Bay for more than 300 years, according to the association, which comprises a small group of men who are part of a selective and elite profession operating in ports around the world. Pilots perform an essential and dangerous service for the Port of Mobile and are paid handsomely for it, but State Sen. Trip Pittman is pushing for reforms to the business, which is currently regulated by just three people in Mobile.

On this particular morning, the inbound car carrier was drawing 30 feet deep, meaning the bottom of the boat was 30 feet below the waterline. The Mobile ship channel is dredged to 45 feet between the bar and the APM container terminal, then becomes slightly shallower — 40 feet at the tunnels.

The ship, which Berault described as a “gigantic sight,” is like most modern-day ships, built to fit within the confines of the Panama Canal. Ships passing through the canal had to be less than 106 feet wide, so most ships coming into Mobile are about that wide. Lately, Berault said the bar pilot’s job has become more interesting as newer ships are built wider and longer than before.

“That’s very important knowledge for me because I need to know how much room I have between the bottom of the boat and the floor,” Berault said. “If it is really deep there might be some interaction with the sides of the channel.”

Mobile’s bar pilots are stationed at Billy Goat Hole on Dauphin Island and are on call every hour of every day of the year. Through agents who represent the shipping companies, the bar pilots receive notice of the ships that are arriving several days in advance.

Berault said the pilots knew the car carrier was coming about a week ahead of time. A dispatch station in downtown Mobile lets the pilots know when a ship is nearing the bar. Then, pilots board a small pilot boat and head out to meet the incoming vessels. On approach, the pilots notify the ship which side its rope ladder should be let down so they can board without being rocked by the tide.

“We come up alongside the vessel while both vessels are moving,” Berault said. “One of the pilots will climb up the rope ladder onto the deck of the ship to greet the captain.”

Once aboard, the pilot has a conversation with the captain detailing all of the information necessary to safely navigate Dixey Bar, as well as the traffic they may encounter.

“It is important that I can communicate to them in a way that is comfortable for everyone,” Berault said. “I might board a ship and ask ‘how deeply loaded is your ship?’ If it is light and out of the water, it might maneuver differently than one with a good amount of cargo.”

From there, Berault takes command of the ship from the captain. A Louisiana native and graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Berault has worked as a bar pilot for six years following a two-year stint as an apprentice.
As a child in Louisiana, Berault knew how Mississippi River pilots guided vessels through the state’s river port system from Plaquemines to Baton Rouge. As a 19-year-old at the academy, he considered a profession spending months at sea, but saw another opportunity integral to the port’s operation where workers were free to go home at the end of the day.

Many bar pilots are graduates of maritime academies. Others gain experience on tugboats and smaller vessels in the port itself, which Berault said is an important training ground for potential bar pilots.

“We are a complex group, with guys who have experience in all kinds of areas,” he said.

Berault said there are six apprentices waiting to become Mobile bar pilots. Apprenticeships are governed by the State Pilotage Commission, a three-member state agency founded in 1852 and based in Mobile. Apprentices are selected to become pilots on a frequency dictated by the needs of the port.

The commission’s regulations stipulate that at no time should there be more pilots or apprentices than are necessary to conduct commerce, a number left to the commission’s discretion. Apprentices are required by law to complete at least six months of training as an apprentice pilot or make at least 50 trips with a branched pilot — a pilot who has been licensed by the pilotage commission — to vessels in the bay.

After taking control of the boat, the bar pilot gives commands to the professional helmsman trained in steering this particular ship. At this point, the bar pilot’s local knowledge comes in handy. For example, with the car carrier, Berault let the captain know the ship would encounter an outbound vessel leaving the McDuffie Coal Terminal.

“In this narrow channel, if we meet another boat I need to be able to tell the captain and helmsman that it is OK,” Berault said. “He needs to know that we can both do our jobs to maneuver out of each other’s way. A big part of our job is navigating the ship for a foreign crew like this one.”

Berault said a pilot might board one or two ships on a typical day. When the rotation works properly, a pilot sails a ship out of Mobile, then moves into the lineup of pilots on Dauphin Island to bring another ship in. In the old days, bar pilots were stationed on a boat a few miles offshore and waited for ships to come in.

The morning’s car delivery is one of many that come into the port every day with cargo that might be headed to common retailers. Other times, the shipments have a more local flavor. Berault said a few years ago, a shipment of Mardi Gras beads was delayed by fog in the bay. After a few hours the fog cleared and the revelry could continue as planned.

The ship’s agents are billed by Mobile Bar Pilots LLC for fees based on a formula taking into account the registered tonnage of the ship. The pilots bring approximately 3,000 ships into and out of the bay each year. The majority of those are sailing under foreign flags, but the pilots also escort American vessels like the Navy ships built at Austal.

A 12-member Sunset Committee is required to review the operations of state agencies scheduled for review under the sunset law. Ahead of last week’s Sunset Committee meetings chaired by State Sen. Paul Bussman, the state’s Department of Examiners of Public Accounts released an unaudited report on the operations of the State Pilotage Commission.

The report contains information obtained from the commission’s management, staff and records, as well as an anonymous questionnaire with answers from commission members as well as a handful of bar pilots.

According to Pittman, the committee agreed to allow the Pilotage Commission to operate for another two years before facing another sunset hearing. That recommendation is scheduled to see a vote by the legislature in the next regular session.

The State Pilotage Commission comprises one representative from the Mobile Bar Pilots LLC, Patrick J. Wilson, as well as Mobile Gas Service Corporation Vice President Edward E. Fields and W. Britton Cooper II of Cooper T. Smith Stevedoring. Members are appointed by the governor and serve six-year terms. Fields’ and Wilson’s terms will expire in 2018, while Cooper’s ends in 2020. The members are not paid a salary, but are reimbursed for any travel expenses they may incur.

The commission regulates the piloting of all ships into and out of Mobile Bay. The commission is required to have one bar pilot, one business person and one official from a steamship company. There are no diversity requirements for female or minority representation on the commission, language Pittman would like to add in the next legislative session. Pittman said a request from the commission for a cost-of-living raise during the 2015 legislative session drew his attention to the regulations governing the bar pilots, where he also noted the absence of a consumer representative.

“I’m not saying they are necessarily doing anything wrong, but with just three members it makes it easy for just two of them to make decisions that affect the entire port,” Pittman said. “I think there needs to be at least four or five members on the commission, so there can be more diversity.”

House Bill 77, sponsored by State Rep. James Buskey, would have given the commission the authority to give pilots an annual cost-of-living raise based on the Consumer Price Index, but it failed to pass in 2015. Pilots nationwide typically earn six-figure salaries, but Pittman said some in Mobile make as much as $500,000 annually.

Lyons said the pilots are paid fairly for the service they provide to the port.

“It is dangerous work, they board ships in all weather conditions and at all hours of the day, early in the morning and in the middle of the night,” Lyons said. “The pilots are paid very well, but often not as much as some other places in the states. Ours are paid fairly, especially for some of the expenses they have.”

Berault said the pilots are state licensed and responsible for ensuring the safety of the bay and the port. He noted shippers, not taxpayers, pay the pilots for their services. While he declined to put a dollar figure on it, he said pilots are adequately compensated because of the costs and risks associated with the business.

“One mistake and the pilot could lose his license or even his life,” Berault said. “Five American pilots have lost their lives while on duty during the past five years. We lost one of our own this past January while piloting a ship.”

According to the Examiner’s report, pilots pay an annual privilege tax of $100 to the commission to keep their license. Nonpayment is grounds for the commission to revoke or suspend a pilot’s license. Before becoming a pilot, applicants must pay the commission a $2,000 bond, which is renewable every six years. Pilots are also assessed monthly fees by the Mobile Bar Pilots LLC to pay expenses of the commission not otherwise covered by renewal fees.

Alabama’s 13 licensed pilots number fewer than neighboring states Florida and Georgia, which have 115 and 26 pilots, respectively. Florida has at least 11 pilots associations, while Georgia has two, in Savannah and Brunswick. However, each port in those states has just one association. Mississippi has one pilots association and seven licensed pilots.

The report shows the commission had $30,035.50 in receipts from the license tax, fees and licensee assessments and disbursed $30,551.44 for personnel, benefits, travel, communications, utilities and other services from 2013-2014. From 2012-2013, the commission reported $29,473 in revenue and $28,315 in expenses.

The anonymous questionnaire attached to the report includes answers from the three commissioners. One respondent said the commission’s greatest challenge is selecting and interviewing apprenticeship candidates. Another said overseeing the safety and efficiency of licensed pilots was his top concern. All three said no changes to the commission’s laws and regulations were needed at this time.

The anonymous answers from eight bar pilots were more varied. While some respondents said there were no significant issues facing the association, one said he could not answer “for fear of existing implicit threats and reprisals for having an opinion.” Another said “slander” by people who don’t understand the profession was a major issue. At least three others cited finding qualified apprentices as a significant problem.

Another of Pittman’s concerns is the way potential apprentices learn about vacancies. The senator said he heard complaints from some former apprentices about the difficulty of moving up from apprentice to pilot.

“I’d like to see an unbiased third party write the qualifications in job postings to make sure the bar pilots are giving opportunities to qualified people,” Pittman said. “I want to work with the legislature to try to modify the statute to make the selection process more transparent.”

Some critics have suggested it is difficult to become an apprentice if you aren’t related or connected to a current bar pilot in some way. Berault said there may have been some historical nepotism in the field, but over the years the profession’s training regimen and desired minimum qualifications have made it more difficult for unqualified relatives to break into the business. Ultimately, the commission picks the apprentice candidates.

Pittman also questioned the need for pilots to be on every ship coming into the harbor when many vessels have computer mapping technology. Berault said the human element will always be a necessary part of the equation.

“If a ship comes in with an electronic chart of the bay and say they don’t need a pilot, that chart isn’t going tell them the intricacies of the way the tides move in Mobile Bay,” Berault said. “It is not as simple as playing a computer game and letting the computer drive the ship into the port. It just wouldn’t be responsible or safe.”

Additionally, Pittman said the pilots have a monopoly on piloting in the bay.
According to the American Pilots Association, there is no competition among pilot associations in each state because pilots serve a public purpose and are expected to use independent professional judgment to prevent ships from engaging in unsafe operations. The association says pilots would not be able to do this if they had to compete for business.

“Pilotage here is much like it is in other parts of the world, with just one pilots association,” Lyons said. “I don’t see having more than one pilots association as being practical. I think it works much smoother with just one, you don’t have to split up the work among competing pilots.”