ON THE SALISH SEA NEAR PORT ANGELES – From our home in Port Angeles, my wife and I have a commanding view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Guests from Seattle enjoy watching the ships come and go, and they take a particular interest in the pilot boat that launches from Ediz Hook to connect with the vessels. From our faraway perspective, that boat is a tiny red dot, but it has a crucial task: delivering a pilot who can take those giant ships safely through the inland waters of Puget Sound.

Licensed Puget Sound pilots are required on all foreign-flag commercial vessels sailing those waters: freighters, tankers, cruise ships, container ships. Once a ship enters the Strait, that “tiny red dot” brings to the vessel a pilot to navigate the ship to port. Pilots have extensive knowledge the depths and currents along the Sound’s 2,000-plus miles of shoreline; they’re familiar with weather patterns and tidal action at the various harbors, piers, and docks.

Each year, Puget Sound pilots facilitate the shipment of over $80 billion in cargo.

A crucial cog in this massive machine is the operator of the pilot boat, diligently placing the pilots where they need to be. I recently shadowed Richard Welch, a pilot boat operator with more than 40 years of maritime experience, who showed me what a working day looks like for these truly unsung heroes.

Here’s what I saw.

On the water

How important are these pilot boats? All commercial traffic plying the waters of Puget Sound enters and exits through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, passing by the pilot station on Ediz Hook.

“It all starts and finishes right here in Port Angeles,” Welch said. “There’s just one station, so all of the pilots either begin here and board inbound ships or get off outbound ships and return here.”

With a firm hand on the wheel and a cold wind blowing over the water, he revved the pilot boat’s engines and pulled away from the station toward a mammoth container ship bound for Seattle.

Welch is one of four operators working out of Ediz Hook. Operators work shifts of 12 hours on, 12 hours off, in a sequence of 15 days on and 15 days off. While a dispatcher in Seattle keeps track of where and when the pilots come and go, it’s the pilot boat operator’s job to safely transport them.

“Of course,” Welch said, “that means balancing each ship’s individual schedule and keeping an eye on other marine traffic, as well as taking into account currents, wind, waves and visibility. Basically,” he said, giving a knowing smile, “we make it all happen smoothly.”

It’s a lot to juggle, considering the four operators make thousands of trips annually. When I asked how often high winds and stormy seas affect his work, Richard didn’t blink: “We’ve never missed a transfer due to weather.”

That morning, we connected with a freighter and a pilot left our cabin, stepping out onto the open deck. This is the most important – and the most dangerous – part of the job. The freighter was moving at 7 or 8 knots, and Welch worked our boat’s controls to match the ship’s speed, bringing the highly maneuverable pilot boat close alongside the freighter’s enormous, imposing mass. Our deckhand helped steady the pilot, who reached for a rope ladder dangling down the freighter’s side. In one swift motion, the pilot grabbed the ladder and hoisted himself onto it, then climbed several stories above the churning water to a shell door to enter the ship.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the pilot; one of his colleagues had mentioned the worldwide average of one pilot fatality a year. I had assumed the ship would stop for the transfer.

“No,” Welch said. “In the open sea, it’s actually easier if the ship is moving.”

I couldn’t help but wonder about a transfer in high swells or thick fog. Later, I’d learn that for every transfer there is on the Strait during the day, two take place at night, in the dark.

Smooth sailing

Back at the pilot station, Welch checked the computer database of all the shipping patterns in the area, noting dispatches for upcoming vessels while monitoring weather conditions and traffic. He also recorded the incoming and outgoing pilots’ times in a log. In between tasks, he and other operators keep the station in good order – organizing the sleeping quarters for the pilots, grocery shopping, maintaining the pilot boats. I admired the camaraderie between the operators and the pilots: a maritime fraternity most of us never get to see firsthand.

“This job involves wearing 10 hats,” Welch said. “We act as chauffeur, butler, maid, mechanic, adviser, gofer … pretty much a jack-of-all-trades for these people. And it’s all in an effort to make things run smoothly.”

On the open water again, Welch talked about his years at sea.

“I’ve been drawn to the water my whole life, starting off working on fishing boats in Alaska, getting in my ‘sea time,”‘ the pilot boat captain said. “I worked on crab boats and long-liners [a type of commercial fishing vessel] and worked my way up, beginning as a deckhand.”

Asked what he likes best about his job, Welch swept his outstretched arm across the slate-gray horizon.

“You can taste the salt sea air, you’ve got the cold wind in your face,” he said, shrugging. “The work is fun. Who could ask for more?”

Now, whenever I gaze out to the Strait from my house, I don’t see a tiny red dot approaching a container ship; I see a master mariner performing a precise, thankless job that’s vital to the supply chain.

“It’s hands-on, practical work,” Welch said. “It’s dynamic … liquid. We stay on top of it, anticipating problems before they happen, and just try to make it all run.”

He stopped. With the sea breeze blowing between us, he looked at me. “There’s that word again – smoothly.” He turned back to the water and nodded. “That’s what we do.”

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