Capt. Bob Stegman (right)

Capt. Bob Stegman (right) (Baltimore Sun / November 28, 2011)

Captain Robert E. Stegman, a Chesapeake Bay pilot who guided ships from Baltimore to Cape Henry, Va., and through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal for more than 40 years, died Monday of prostate cancer at his Monkton home.

He was 81.

The son of a Baltimore accountant who owned an accounting firm and a homemaker, Robert Erwin Stegman was born in Baltimore and raised on Tunbridge Road in Homeland.

While attending Friends School, from which he graduated in 1949, he became friendly with a fellow student whose father, Captain Buck Holland, was a Chesapeake Bay pilot.

"Bob had a chance to go to Washington College, but Captain Holland told him they really needed bay pilots. The port was so busy in those years. So he went out on the pilot boat with him to see what it was all about, and he liked it," said his wife of 12 years, the former Margaret Corrigan "Peg" Smith.

"It was tough in those days. The apprentice pilots rowed the pilots out to the ships, but Bob loved it," recalled Mrs. Stegman. "He had a most interesting life and a lot of great stories to tell."

"Captain Bob Stegman was certainly one of the most admired pilots of his generation. Not only was he a skilled, conscientious pilot, but his upbeat manner and great sense of humor made him a favorite of those with whom he worked," said Captain Brian H. Hope, a member of the Association of Maryland Pilots.

He said that one of the best examples of Captain Stegman's quick sense of humor took place in the early 1970s during the construction of the Key Bridge, when he was sharing the bridge of a German freighter that regularly called on the port of Baltimore.

"The master, a rather arrogant fellow, started making fun of the bridge," commenting on the length of time it had taken to build it, recalled Captain Hope.

"Bob, in his very laid-back tone of voice, said to the master, 'You know, Cap, we built a bridge across the Rhine in 12 hours.' It was typical Stegman humor," he said.

One of the most dramatic incidents of Captain Stegman's career occurred on Jan. 27, 1967, when he was co-pilot of a Liberian freighter, the SS Bodoro, which was headed north to Baltimore with a full cargo of chromium ore. The vessel collided in a dense fog with the SS Beaver State, loaded with general cargo, off Smith Point.

Captain Stegman, then a senior pilot, was off duty and resting at the time of the collision. He awoke in time to see the hull of the Beaver State in a blazing shower of sparks and squealing metal against metal, as it coursed down the side of the Bodoro.

He hastily made his way to the bridge, where he learned the Bodoro was in a "sinking condition," he explained in an interview with Captain Bill Johnson, author of "Guardians of the Capes."

With the Bodoro's anchors gone, Captain Stegman said, "we had to ground the ship. … So we hauled around almost due west and put her on the bottom less than a half mile off Smith Point."

Captain Stegman, the captain, officers and crew left the sinking Bodoro in lifeboats and were soon picked up by the Coast Guard cutter Cherokee and landed at Piney Point.

On the way back to Baltimore, Captain Stegman stopped for a drink in an Eastern Shore bar, where he reflected on what had happened.

"Two hours ago, I was coming down the side of a sinking ship!" he told Captain Johnson. "I'd like to add at this point that to be involved in a situation like this — a calamity like this — and to have no responsibility at all for the decisions that led up to it, just simply made it a great adventure for me."

He added: "There was no injury or loss of life, and the whole thing was a lark and an adventure and was something that I will remember for as long as I live. I hate to say this, but it was almost a lot of fun."

The Coast Guard, in a hearing convened in Baltimore a few days later, determined that both ships had been speeding despite the dense fog, and the two pilots involved in the incident retired.