Collision Course

For decades, two forces have clashed over who should guide large ships into Boston Harbor. Now, with business down and security fears up, they're trying to rewrite the law in their favor (Click here for a slideshow.)

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/07/2006

In the darkness before dawn, with waves rising 7 feet and a cold drizzle falling, the veteran seaman balances his 48-year-old legs on the bow of the bobbing pilot boat. Through a stiff wind, he reaches into the fog for a grease-covered rope ladder, which dangles off the starboard side of a 600-foot oil tanker.

The steep climb aboard the Panamanian-flagged Alpha Express doesn't rattle Marty McCabe, who over the years has made hundreds of such ascents, many in storms with seas more than twice the size.

"When you step on that ladder, you trust everything is prepared properly," says McCabe, noting ship crews often lower the ladder only minutes before he boards, to keep the typical 25 feet of rungs from icing up. "No boarding is routine. As soon as you consider it routine, that's when something happens."

A former tanker captain who has guided ships from the Mississippi River to the South China Sea, McCabe is one of 10 men who make up the Boston Pilot Association, a 223-year-old institution founded and regulated by the state to help bring large vessels -- those with hazardous cargo or weighing 350 gross tons or more -- through the shoals and fast-moving currents of Boston Harbor.

For decades, the pilots, who earn as much as $250,000 a year, have routinely passed control of at least 90 percent of the ships they board at sea to docking masters, specially trained tugboat captains who climb aboard in the inner harbor, take the helm as the ships enter narrow channels, and use a team of tugboats to guide them to port. The custom, never a legal requirement, has been an option for the ship owners, who often pay hundreds of dollars extra for the docking masters' assistance.

But as the area's ports have lost business and security concerns have grown in recent years, the peace has begun to unravel. Late last year, lawmakers on Beacon Hill proposed a bill that would require every ship coming in to port to have a docking master on board.

Docking masters argue it's a safety issue: They're better trained than pilots at operating ships in tight spaces and more skilled, they say, at orchestrating the minuet of tugboats, three to five of which surround most large vessels entering the harbor.

Harbor pilots counter that safety is already best served: It's misleading for docking masters to suggest they're more qualified, say the pilots, who, unlike docking masters, are required by state law to hold an unlimited ocean master's license, the top Coast Guard credential for operating ships. Mandating docking masters, they worry, could lead to lawmakers deeming their jobs redundant and put lesser-qualified seamen guiding ships into the harbor.

Over the past year, Boston Towing & Transportation Co., which employs seven of the harbor's eight docking masters and controls about 75 percent of the local tugboat business, has spent more than $150,000 lobbying to pass the law. The company already requires all ships using its tugboats to hire its docking masters, meaning few tankers today are taken to port by pilots. Company officials point to an incident last month involving a pilot guiding a 600-foot salt carrier with three tugboats from another company. The pilot overshot his dock at the Boston Autoport in Charlestown and came close to striking a pier at the Exxon terminal in Chelsea. The pier, about a half-mile away and on the opposite side of the Mystic River, abuts the liquefied natural gas terminal in Everett.

"I've never seen anything like that before," says Jake Tibbetts, president of Boston Towing, which helped publicize the incident by providing pictures and a video to the Coast Guard and local media. "You need someone who knows what a tugboat can do, and what it can't do. We're the experts at handling ships in close quarters. All it is is a safety issue. How can you be against a safety issue?"

Some lawmakers, including those who have accepted campaign contributions from lobbyists representing Boston Towing, used last month's incident to urge colleagues to pass legislation supporting Boston Towing's goals.
"We need to make sure that we have the right people at the right time guiding the ships in and out of the harbor," says Senator Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who served as cochairman of a harbor piloting panel. "When a vessel with hazardous cargo is transiting through a sensitive area, my bias would be to require a docking pilot."

Last year, Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, who like Tarr has accepted contributions from former state Senator Robert Durand, currently Boston Towing's lobbyist, proposed a bill requiring docking pilots aboard all ships ferrying hazardous cargo into the harbor. But it failed to gain enough support. Barrios, who backs a plan to revive a version of the bill in coming weeks, called last month's incident a "red flag" and argues it underscores the need for stringent background checks and licensing requirements for docking masters, whose job now requires no formal license.

"Just like airline pilots got additional scrutiny after 9/11, individuals who can guide a ship using hazardous materials as an object of terror should be regulated in the same way," says Barrios, a Democrat who represents communities along the Mystic River and chairs the Joint Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. "We have to know we've done our best to minimize accidental collisions or some nefarious scheme to injure or terrorize."

Grand Central harborBoston Harbor can be a busy place, with local ports each year receiving more than 1.3 million tons of cargo such as automobiles, 12.8 million tons of fuel, and 210,000 cruise ship passengers, according to the Massachusetts Port Authority.
With thousands of ships plying the harbor's waters every year, there are scores of incidents, or what the Coast Guard calls "marine casualties," that have resulted in injuries or other damage. Between January 2000 and March 28, 2006 in Boston Harbor, the Coast Guard recorded two deaths and 17 injuries aboard vessels, 12 boat sinkings, 25 accidents when a vessel struck an object such as a bridge or buoy, nine collisions between vessels, seven groundings, and 155 incidents that led to environmental damage, such as oil spills.
Still, pilots, port officials, and others in the shipping industry argue that the proposed legislation is unnecessary. The existing regulations have worked for decades, they say, and there's no safety or security reason to require docking masters aboard ships already controlled by pilots.
"We've all been ship captains -- no docking master can meet that criteria," says Gregg Farmer, president of the Boston Pilot Association, who argues the pilot aboard the carrier ship that drifted off course last month responded professionally to strong currents. "We're as qualified as a mariner can be. This whole thing is really a tugboat competition."
Other local tugboat operators -- there are two other companies in the city -- argue the proposed law really serves as a way for Boston Towing to lock up more of the harbor's tugboat business. One of the companies, Constellation Tug Corp., employs a docking master, but both often rely on the pilots to coordinate their tugs to guide ships to port.
"Are we docking tugboats or are we docking ships?" says Marc Villa, president of Constellation, which owns five tugs compared to Boston Towing's 11. "The real issue has to do with whether or not the harbor pilots are to be considered docking masters. They should be considered docking masters, as they are from Fall River to Newport. The pilots are the most professional individuals in the harbor, and we're confident enough to use them."
More safe, or less competitive?
Others in the shipping industry worry that legislation requiring docking masters would make local ports such as Conley Container Terminal and Black Falcon Cruise Terminal less competitive.

They cite examples such as Volkswagen, which four years ago shifted shipping 82,000 cars a year from Boston to Rhode Island because of a local harbor tax, and Maersk-Sealand, which in 2000 dropped Boston as a trans-Atlantic port-of-call, at the time cutting 25 percent of the port's container cargo.
"If a bill is passed, the marketplace would no longer drive the costs," says Richard Meyer, executive director of the Boston Shipping Association, an advocacy group representing agents and many of the container and cargo shipping companies that use the port. "The fear is that a new legislated requirement will be an unnecessary increase in costs."
For similar reasons, Michael A. Leone, director of the Port of Boston for Massport, opposes new regulations. "No one has demonstrated for me that there's a need to change," says Leone, calling the port's safety record "very good." "Until I see a study documenting a need to regulate it, or I have customers calling us and asking for legislation, I don't think a statute is necessary."
Coast Guard officials -- who say their investigation into last month's near-hit of the Exxon pier hasn't revealed any negligence -- say laws outlining licensing requirements for a docking master could be useful, so long as they don't bar pilots from docking ships. It's now up to tugboat companies as to who qualifies to become a docking master.
Coast Guard officials further insist local politicians are wrong to say existing regulations are insufficient to protect the harbor's safety and security. To obtain a Coast Guard license to operate a tugboat or ship, they say, applicants must pass proficiency tests, be fingerprinted, and have their backgrounds checked by the FBI as well as local and state agencies.
Also, they say drug tests are required for any tugboat captain, docking master, or pilot involved in an incident leading to property damage in excess of $100,000, an injury that requires medical treatment, or a discharge of 10,000 or more gallons of oil.
"It's inaccurate to suggest that we don't adequately examine or check the mariners we license," says Captain James L. McDonald, commander of the Coast Guard in Boston. "My experience with both docking masters and pilots is that they are very capable and professional. From time to time, there will be errors in judgment, but I think anyone with the requisite experience should be able to work as a docking master. There shouldn't be a monopoly."

For Marty McCabe and the pilots, who this year paid local lobbyists $24,000 to press the Legislature to approve an 11 percent raise in their fees, the politics disappear once they arrive on the bridge of a ship.

On a recent morning, McCabe boards the pilots' 53-foot twin-diesel engine boat at 4 a.m. and takes a bumpy ride 12 miles to sea to meet the Alpha Express, which turns leeward to reduce the force of the 11-knot winds as he climbs the ship's ladder.

He has already checked the tides, the currents, and the winds, and after shaking hands with Korean captain Yh Bag and Filipino crew aboard the Japanese-made ship, he orders the helmsman to point the vessel southwest, toward the Citgo terminal in Braintree.

In a foggy sunrise that reduces visibility to little more than a mile ahead, he guides the ship and its 190,000 barrels of gasoline through an array of buoys along Nantasket Roads and the 300-foot-wide passage of Hull Gut.

"Each time we go down this, it's a different trip," he says.

An hour before the voyage ends, three Constellation tugboats surround the tanker, and Chris Deeley, the harbor's only docking master who doesn't work for Boston Towing, climbs the ladder and shakes hands with McCabe on the bridge.
It's an amicable exchange of the helm, and the 41-year-old former tugboat captain begins barking orders on walkie-talkies to his three tugs. The powerful, smoke-spewing boats cruise alongside the 106-foot-wide ship and nudge it through the Fore River Bridge, which is just 170 feet wide.
"It's like driving a Mayflower van through Beacon Hill without any brakes," says Scott MacNeil, an apprentice pilot aboard the ship.
When the tanker finally slows to a halt, the smell of gas pervading every crevice of the ship, the crew lugs the mooring lines in place, and the captains make the steep ascent off the ship and onto dry land.
The next day, they'll do it all over again.
E-mail David Abel at
Copyright, The Boston Globe

By David Abel
Globe Staff
From a video of the incident, it appears a 600-foot salt carrier came only a few feet from crashing into the Exxon pier in Chelsea on a sunny Monday last month, in potentially disastrous proximity to the nearby liquefied natural gas terminal in Everett.
No one disputes that the pilot-guided Hato had drifted off course, to the opposite side of the Mystic River, about a half-mile away from its intended dock at the Boston Autoport in Charlestown.
But that's about all that's not disputed by the harbor's vying factions of mariners.
"He was totally out of control," says Jake Tibbetts, president of Boston Towing & Transportation Co., which used video taken by one of its tugboat operators to portray harbor pilots as inferior to their docking masters. "This wouldn't have happened in a million years if it was one of our guys."
Tibbets and his men insist the incident reflects why the Legislature should pass a proposed bill requiring docking masters aboard large ships entering the harbor.
"This is all about setting standards," says George Lee, Boston Towing's head docking pilot. "When you put your child on a bus, who do you want driving that bus -- an experienced professional, or someone else?"
Frank Morton, the pilot guiding the Hato, calls the video "propaganda" and part of Boston Towing's "goal of taking total control over the harbor."
"If they thought we were in trouble, why didn't they offer to help us, instead of taking pictures," he says. "How professional is that?"
Morton, 50, who has worked as a pilot for the last 15 years and has guided hundreds of ships through the Mystic River, acknowledges that he should have made a sharper turn as he crossed under the Mystic River Bridge.
But he says the large ship never came closer than 200 feet to the Exxon pier. The problem, he says, was that the ship got caught in the outgoing tide.
A strong current from the Mystic River caught the bow of the Hato, he says, while another current from the Chelsea River caught the stern, pushing the ship toward Chelsea.
Morton says he tried to steer the ship in the opposite direction, with the help of tugboats operated by Constellation Tug Corp.
But as the starboard-side tug pushed the ship from a right angle, he says, it came close to hitting a buoy and had to break off.
"That changed the whole nature of the job," Morton says.
So the pilot says he decided to take the Hato upriver -- away from the Autoport -- to come around for another try, which he did.
With the tugboats in place, he eventually guided the ship to port.
"It wasn't a pretty docking; it was a missed approach, in what we call the bailout area," says Marc Villa, Constellation's president. "Captain Morton acted prudently. If there wasn't such intense competition and proposed legislation, there wouldn't be someone standing around taking pictures. I think Captain Morton has been unjustly criticized."
Coast Guard officials investigating the incident say there's no evidence the Hato or any of the tugboats hit a buoy or the Exxon pier, as Tibbetts and others at Boston Towing have charged.
"Nothing happened," says Lieutenant Edward Munoz, senior investigating officer of the Coast Guard in Boston. "From a legal perspective, it's a non-incident."
Munoz also says his investigation has revealed "no evidence of negligence."
"It wasn't an ideal landing, and it's definitely not normal for a ship to drift that far off course," he says. "But I don't think the vessel was out of control, and just because the vessel might not have been doing what he wanted, it wasn't negligence."
David Abel can be reached at

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