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Eyes of the Harbor

Made up of 72 fearless pilots, the Sandy Hook Pilots Association is charged with guiding cargo ships into New York Harbor.

The Sandy Hook Pilots rely on well-tied knots and calculated movements to stay safe.

The Sandy Hook Pilots rely on well-tied knots and calculated movements to stay safe.

As the ship pitches and rolls 25 miles east of New York City, I think I’ll be sick. I try to keep it together as I chat with men wearing ties and suits. They sit on a deep leather couch, leaning back with legs crossed and paying no heed to the waves. It makes sense, I suppose, for people who have made their lives at sea. A strong stomach is practically a job requirement.

The Sandy Hook Pilots Association, founded in 1694, is made up of 72 pilots who guide cargo ships, tankers and private yachts over 100 feet in and out of New York Harbor. It’s the largest port on the East Coast, and the pilots know the harbor’s every contour by heart, having been required to draw a series of charts by hand in order to pass the mandatory exam. “We’re the eyes of the port,” says John DeCruz, president of the New York division of the Sandy Hook Pilots. (There’s a New Jersey division, too.) On any given day, the pilots might interact with crews from Russia, the Philippines or South Korea who have circumnavigated the world to deliver salt, sugar or cars, returning home with scrap metal from the U.S.

The pilot station is a 135-foot vessel stationed at the entrance to the harbor, 25 miles offshore. It’s like a home base: pilots come and go from their assignments, chase a few hours’ sleep in one of the ship’s 25 bunks and eat expertly-prepared meals. Smaller aluminum launches ferry pilots to ships entering the harbor, and return others to the pilot station after they’ve safely cleared ships from the harbor.

The rugged launch boats run alongside the ships—which can be up to 1,200 feet long—while underway at around 10 knots to deposit or collect the pilot. On the day of my visit, a Liberian container ship carrying refrigerated produce and fish takes up my entire view from the launch, obliterating the sea and the horizon and leaving only the bright red hull. A rope ladder dangles precariously from the deck 30 feet above us. A mate on our boat holds the end of the ladder as Steve Feminella, a 33-year-old pilot, descends in deft movements. According to many of the pilots I speak with, the descent is significantly more challenging and potentially dangerous than the ascent. One pilot compares it to playing basketball with the basket behind you.

A pilot makes an expert descent.

A pilot makes an expert descent.

Feminella lands safely on our bow and enters the cockpit grinning. He’s wearing a button-down shirt with a yellow tie and a vest, and he looks no worse for wear. I realize my heart is racing, but I’m more jacked up on adrenaline than he is. Staying calm is part of the job. “Whatever your mood is out there is the demeanor of the whole situation,” he says. The discipline and grueling preparation—prospective pilots undergo a 5-year apprentice program that includes shadowing current pilots on 1,000 practice ships—comes in handy when stressful situations arise. Recently, a ship Feminella was piloting lost power and he had to drop an emergency anchor in the harbor.

The work is demanding but rewarding. Most of the pilots graduated from a maritime college before working a stint on tug boats, ferries or commercial ships. Nearly every pilot I meet says this job is his or her life’s calling, often happily commuting as far as an hour and a half to work and preparing to board a ship within minutes of being woken up in the middle of the night. “There’s nowhere to go from here. This was the end goal,” says Feminella, who previously worked on tugs and appreciates how this schedule—four weeks on, two weeks off—gives him more room for family time. “It’s awesome.” DeCruz puts it more bluntly: “It’s either this or nothing.”

Apprentices work in the pilot station command center

Apprentices work in the pilot station command center

Recreational boats often cross the path of commercial ships in the harbor, creating a hazard for both parties. A cargo ship moving 15 knots will take 15 minutes to come to a complete stop. The pilots say recreational boaters should stay out of the way, and if they do get close, to point their stern toward the pilot. “They usually move at the last minute,” DeCruz says.

DeCruz hopes to attract more women and minorities to the profession. He thinks there will always be a demand for pilots, citing the potential dangers of autonomous shipping: lost power, a cyberattack. One pilot says, “You will think, hopefully, better than a computer. Because you’re fluid.”

Returning to the Staten Island headquarters in the early afternoon, my stomach is glad to be on land but I’m a little bummed at the prospect of driving home. It’s like returning from an alternate, salty universe where high-stakes transactions occur so regularly that they become mundane, leaving the rest of us virtually unaware of how the car made it to our driveway or the sugar landed in our coffee.


This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.