Leading Giants by the Helm

The bigger the ship, the safer it is at sea—and the more it needs the coastal knowledge and experience of the Sandy Hook Pilots to lead it to and from port without mishap.

Last Leg of His Commute: John Oldmixon moves from the Pilots’ launch boat to the Torm Thames. When he reaches the bridge he will guide the Danish tanker to port at Perth Amboy.
Photos by Bjoern Kils

Like a hedge fund manager or a corporate attorney, John Oldmixon usually wears a dark suit and conservative tie to the office. His commute is a bit different than theirs, and so is his office. But like the hedge fund manager, Oldmixon manages assets worth billions that he does not own. Like the lawyer, he is paid well to alert his clients to hidden dangers and keep them on prudent paths.

At work, Oldmixon commands a lofty view that no corner office can top. If the floor lacks carpeting and tends to roll in rough weather, it’s because his office is the helm of whatever huge tanker, container vessel or cruise ship he is guiding into or out of the tricky channels and maritime traffic of New York Harbor. Between the safety of a dock—in Port Elizabeth, Port Newark, Perth Amboy or the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island—and the limitless elbow-room of the open sea lie submerged obstructions, sudden changes in depth and current that no ship’s captain is allowed to entrust wholly to GPS and navigation software, advanced as those are.

To thread a 900-foot vessel through the Kill Van Kull as it snakes between New Jersey and Staten Island, you need a member of the Sandy Hook Pilots beside you on the bridge.

Oldmixon’s burgundy tie is emblazoned with the Pilots’ anchor-and-oars insignia, dated 1694—the year the colonial New York Assembly established the organization to guide tall ships to and from the already bustling port. In those days, the pilots rowed themselves out to the incoming ships. Today the commute is cushier, but it’s no ride in a stretch limo.

Oldmixon, 56, is about to ascend to his office. Boarding a ship in open water is the second most physically challenging thing a pilot does, exceeded only by the difficulty of leaving the ship.

Wearing a hooded windbreaker over his suit, he stands near the bow of the Pilots’ 53-foot launch as it draws near the 600-foot Danish oil tanker Torm Thames. The vessels are about seven nautical miles east of Sandy Hook, near the mouth of the Ambrose Channel, the dredged shipping lane that leads into the ports of New Jersey and New York. For safety, the launch approaches the tanker on the leeward (downwind) side, then pulls alongside, carefully matching its speed of 8 to 10 knots. A rope ladder with wooden slats comes tumbling down the side of the ship.

Oldmixon grabs it and clambers up. About halfway up, he stops and stretches to his right, transferring himself to the partly-lowered gangway flush with the ship’s flank. He walks up the gangway to the deck, about 25 to 30 feet above the water.

On a calm morning like this, the sea swells gently. In rough weather, it’s a bucking bronco. You want to grab the rope ladder at the crest of the rise. Grab it at the trough and the edge of the launch can pin you against the ship as it rises. What makes returning to the launch trickier is that there is nothing to grab onto. You sometimes have to leap from the rope ladder and land on your feet on a pitching deck.

“You learn good timing in this job,” says Andrew McGovern, 58, one of Oldmixon’s roughly 75 fellow Sandy Hook Pilots and president of the New Jersey branch of the organization. “If you don’t, you won’t last long.”
The real work begins when the pilot reaches the ship’s wheelhouse. Oldmixon strips off his windbreaker and pulls a laptop from his backpack to view digital nautical charts. After 35 years on the job, he knows those charts virtually by heart.

Without ever laying a hand on the wheel or other controls, Oldmixon takes command of the ship. He relays instructions to the captain, who carries them out. The ship’s speed and compass heading are the pilot’s chief concern, but he constantly notes its wake (for clues to current and wind) and swing (its rate of turning), its position in the channel relative to other traffic, and clearances below the vessel (reefs, shoals, sunken obstructions) and above it (bridges). The trip from the boarding point to the dock takes at least three hours, as does the eventual return to sea.

Like firefighters, harbor pilots tend to run in families. McGovern’s father and brother are pilots. Oldmixon, who lives in Long Valley, is fourth generation. His great-grandfather was the family’s first. His grandfather gave it up after several comrades drowned in a storm that sank their station boat (the floating dorm and command post to which the launch tethers), but he returned to the fold a year later. When Oldmixon was a boy, his father sometimes brought him along on the job.

“We had a small boat growing up,” Oldmixon adds, “and we fished together a lot. He taught me a lot about boat handling, tides and currents at a young age.”

Piloting began as a cutthroat business. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was each pilot for himself. The first to reach an incoming ship got the job of guiding it in. Rowing fast wasn’t enough. Weather be damned, some pilot boats sailed as far as Nova Scotia to get their man on board first.

“It was about the money,” says McGovern. “It was like match racing.”

Indeed, in 1851 the schooner America—patterned after a fast pilot boat—defeated Britain’s Royal Yacht to win what came to be known as the America’s Cup.

The swashbuckling era of harbor piloting produced a lot of work—and a lot of widows. After nine pilot ships and 17 men perished in a fearful storm in 1888, New York and New Jersey pilots adopted safety regulations and banded together as the United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots. (The group has been based on Staten Island for the last 30-40 years. The name originally reflected Sandy Hook’s early importance as a landmark.) Pilots were given shares of the company’s profit according to their expertise and seniority, a system in effect to this day.

“[Pilots] used to be the sassiest men in the world,” groused an old salt in a New York Times article of 1897. “Now what are they? Mere machines! There is no romance in the business.”

Today’s pilots would disagree. Oldmixon and McGovern say they love the work and, among other things, relish meeting captains from foreign lands. Early in his career, Oldmixon learned a valuable lesson from the Greek captain of a container ship. “I told him we were in a hurry, and could we increase to sea speed?” he relates. “He said, ‘Pilot, I don’t have enough time to be in a hurry.’”

Safety is the core of every pilot’s training. No matter their family history or education (many are graduates of maritime colleges), all trainees serve a minimum five-year apprenticeship, during which they shadow a full pilot on at least 1,000 transits. Then come seven years as a deputy, during which they are limited in the tonnage and draft of the ships they guide.

Finally, they must pass rigorous state and federal licensing tests. New Jersey’s exam can last up to four days and requires the candidate to draw nautical charts from memory. The first female apprentice was taken on in 1998, and later became a full pilot. Three more have joined the ranks since then.

Veteran pilots earn in the range of $200,000 to $300,000 a year. When they finish a transit, their name drops to the bottom of the list. They get their next transit when their name reaches the top again. Pilots stay on call for weeks at a time, then take a few weeks off.

A couple days earlier, after leading a ship to port, Oldmixon drove home to Long Valley. But the ports were busy. He got to spend 24 hours with his wife before his name floated to the top of the call list.

Before dawn he drove to Staten Island, boarded the tanker Kiel Express and led it to sea. The launch ferried him to the station boat, where he had bacon and eggs for breakfast. Hopping back on the launch, he rode to the Torm Thames and led it to the oil refineries of Perth Amboy. The Pilots picked him up and drove him to his car on Staten Island. No hedge fund manager or corporate attorney could have been happier in his or her work.

Kristina Fiore is a health and science writer based in Glen Ridge.

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