Rain pelts the windows. Three-and-a-half-foot swells toss the 52-footer around in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Lightning strikes in the distance.
"Pretty calm out here today," Randy Grinnin says, without a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
He's captain of the Virginia Pilot Association launch boat, the Virginia. Each day, he ferries pilots from their three-story brick station near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the mouth of the open bay, a half-hour sprint where the weather is a constant variable.
Last Thanksgiving, for example, swells in the Chesapeake were 13 feet, he says.
So today's thunderstorm? No problem.
On board this rainy day in mid-July are Bill Edmunds and Keith Hudgins, two Virginia pilots headed out to intercept two container ships, the Rotterdam Express and the Paris Express, both Hapag-Lloyd vessels destined for Norfolk International Terminals.
Edmunds and Hudgins will each take over the controls of the ships to steer them safely into Hampton Roads harbor. Under a long standing Virginia law, commercial ships must employ a pilot with the association to guide their vessels in the harbor.
The requirement is in place because pilots know the harbor better than anyone else in the world, and certainly better than vessel captains who visit Hampton Roads perhaps a couple of times a year.
And the pilots are paid handsomely for it. The average pilot pulls in between $200,000 and $300,000 a year.
But getting there wasn't easy.
Edmunds, who's been a pilot for the Virginia Pilot Association since 1970, and Hudgins since 1981, each made it through a grueling, six-year apprenticeship program in which they boarded 2,000 ships.
Intimate knowledge of the harbor is crucial. Working 14 days straight, pilots guide up to 14 container ships, Navy vessels, tankers and cruise ships in and out of the harbor.
On the vessels, the pilots rarely take over the controls. They'll "verbally steer the ship," giving orders to the ships' captains about speed and direction.
"It's different every time you do it," Hudgins says. "You get different weather, different nationalities of the crews, different challenges."
Seated in elevated, navy-colored vinyl chairs in the air-conditioned Virginia, the men sport khaki pants and button-down shirts with neckties. They occasionally steady themselves as the boat cuts through the choppy waters of the bay at about 20 knots. Soon, through a steady downpour and a low-lying haze, the Rotterdam Express is in sight.
Grinnin takes a wide arch and brings the pilot boat alongside the giant container ship, cruising at about 8 knots. He steers the powerful boat into the hull of the Rotterdam, a maneuver he calls "a controlled crash." The Hapag-Lloyd vessel's crew opens a side deck portal that cuts a hole through the letter "g" in its label and throws out a rope-and-wood Jacob's ladder.
Hudgins pulls on a navy jacket emblazoned with "VA PILOT," grabs a briefcase and steadies himself before latching onto the unsteady ladder. A deck hand stands below, pulling the ladder taut.
While the 800-foot container ship cuts through the swells with little problem, the 52-foot pilot's launch lists up and down against the Rotterdam Express' steel hull.
Within a few frenzied seconds, Hudgins is aboard the ship, ready to guide her into port. The trip to Norfolk International Terminals from here will take about three hours. Vessels headed to Richmond can sometimes take a full day.
Edmunds is next. The 58-year-old who lives on the Eastern Shore says that the older he gets, the more difficult it is to scale the narrow ladders, especially in inclement weather.
"It gets harder every year," he says with a chuckle. "Especially if it's a long climb with big ocean swells and the ship is rolling."
He ducks out the door and a minute later, without much fuss, he's on the Paris Express. Just like he has done thousands of times in the past.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun