Centuries ago Hawaiians began serving as pilots for visiting vessels helping by providing local knowledge of Hawaii’s coastline. According to an article from Hawaii Ocean Industry and Shipping News, the first record of Hawaiians serving as pilots comes from an account written by a captain aboard the HMS Resolution describing the departure from Kealakekua Bay, commanded by Capt. James Cook.
Although Hawaii’s ports may have changed over the years, one thing has not, the knowledge of pilots familiar with Hawaii’s Harbors to assist in guiding vessels into and out of port safely.
For 40 years, the Hawaii Pilots Association (HPA) has provided the pilotage services important for the smooth and safety operations within Hawaii’s commercial harbors.
HPA operates a fleet of seven pilot boats throughout the state to shuttle pilots to and from the ships off-port. There are five pilots available at all times, ready to board ships on 2 hours notice. In addition, there are supporting staff consisting of over 20 pilot boat operators and dispatchers.
“We handle roughly 2,500 ship movements per year. There is a lot of behind the scenes administrative work to ensure smooth service and there is also a lot of inter-island travel with approximately 20 percent of piloting assignments in neighbor island ports,” explained Tom Heberle, President of the Hawaii Pilots Association. “But, it’s always an honor to walk onto the bridge of an arriving ship and welcome the captain and crew after a long sea passage.”
Once a pilot boards the ship, they work closely with the ship’s captain and navigation officers to guide a ship into or out of harbor. The captain knows his ship, and keeps the pilot informed about the capabilities and condition of the ship. The pilot’s knowledge supports the ship with port and local weather conditions. The pilot directs the movement of the ship by giving helm and engine commands to the bridge crew. If tug boats are assisting, the pilot also directs their movements via hand held VHF radio.
According to Heberle, there are some differences between piloting cruise ships vs. cargo ships, but these are mainly weather dependent. “We are normally tracking weather forecasts for several days before a cruise ship arrives, and occasionally scheduled port calls have to be canceled due to high winds.”
In addition to a pilot’s professional skills, the job may require that pilots board a ship offshore. Often a pilot must meet arriving ships several miles out at sea and climb aboard while it is moving at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour. The pilot often climbs aboard via a rope ladder that can be up to 30 feet long, a challenge in rough seas.
Heberle says there is lots of opportunity in the industry but notes there is a projected shortfall in qualified applicants expected over the next 20 years throughout the world as the path requires at least 10-15 years prior experience working on board ships. In his opinion, “The best way to get started is by attending one of the maritime academies or enrolling in an apprenticeship program. There are seven maritime academies in the United States that offer a traditional college education combined with shipboard training. The alternative route of enrolling in an apprenticeship program offers a fast track to shipboard employment.”
As for the cruise ships in general, Heberle commented that after the big increase in the number of cruise ships visiting Hawaii in the early 2000’s, cruise ship traffic has been fairly steady since 2006. He expects the largest challenge will be working to keep Hawaii’s harbors ready for the larger size of today’s ships. Through good planning and additional pilot training courses they will be able to deliver smooth and safe services as ship sizes continue to increase.
To learn more about HPA visit hawaiipilots.net/riversafe/home
Captain Tom Heberle, who has been the president of the HPA for the past seven years and a member of the association for 20 years, is a State of Hawaii licensed port pilot who has guided countless ships to port. He is one of only eight senior pilots that provide 24-7 pilotage services for the four major Hawaiian Islands,
Heberle, originally from Buffalo, graduated from King Point (the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy), before heading out to sea as a deck officer on merchant ships. He’s served on a wide variety of ships from bulk carriers to oil tankers to passenger ships. He was introduced to Hawaii during his last seagoing position as Captain on the M.V. MOKU PAHU, a ship that was owned by the Hawaii Sugar Grower’s Association. His regular runs had him traveling between Hawaii and different refineries on the mainland before he settled in Hawaii.