If you live in Pascagoula, chances are good that you’ve heard the term “bar pilot.” And the chances are even better that you have no idea what a bar pilot is. Mississippi bar pilots are a small group of seafarers who have a big impact on our state’s economy, and most of them live right here in Pascagoula. Bobby Baker was a Pascagoula Bar Pilot for twenty-eight years. He recently sat down with me to talk about this relatively unknown and intriguing profession.
“People don’t know what a bar pilot is,” Bobby said, “but they might recognize the term ‘river pilot’ or ‘harbor pilot.’ Bar pilots are the ones who actually go ‘out front’; we go out into the open ocean to board a ship and pilot it from the deep water ‘across the bar’ into a river or lagoon or bay.” (The “bar” is the sandbar that forms from sediment at the mouth of a river). Bar pilots are found in ports throughout the world, and the use of such pilots dates back into antiquity.”
There’s no way a ship captain from some foreign country who is unfamiliar with a port, and may not even speak the language, can maneuver through a strange channel and tie off safely at the docks. So prior to reaching a port, a local bar pilot will be engaged to oversee that last crucial step, to take the ship from international waters safely into port.
“Bar pilots protect the harbor itself,” Bobby said, “and they also protect the other ships that may be in the harbor and its channels. For instance, if an incoming ship unfamiliar with a channel and its markings runs aground, it can block the channel, sometimes for days. They can knock out the channel markers. They may not be aware of hidden or underwater hazards, especially those that have recently occurred. In the case of a port like Pascagoula, there is also the danger of oil or chemical spills. And if an incoming ship causes damage, there’s a better chance to recover monetary loss when there is a local pilot than when the pilot hails from who-knows-where.”
But although the local port has good reason to require the use of local bar pilots, the captain of a ship remains ultimately in charge. The pilot operates with the captain’s permission, and the captain can take the ship away from the pilot any time he wants to. “But a smart captain won’t do that,” Bobby said. “If the bar pilot becomes incapacitated or shows up drunk, yes, the captain can take over. But sea captains operate on open seas and are not accustomed to the close quarters of a channel. A pilot can take a ship within fifty feet of some potential hazard because he knows the channel. A sea captain would not be as comfortable in such tight spaces. Most captains realize this and are happy to let the pilot take the ship in.”
When the bar pilot gets the call to guide a ship into port, he is ferried out to the ship while it is still in international waters. The Pascagoula Bar Pilots have their own boat they use for this purpose, a fast-moving welded aluminum craft that’s 55 feet long. “I would go out to the ship on the pilot boat and meet it somewhere around the farewell buoy. I boarded it by climbing a rope ladder anywhere from thirty to fifty feet long. That’s no easy task, because you basically are pulling yourself up the ladder, and the ladder moves evert time the ship does. On a deep-loaded ship, the ladder may be ten steps, but on a ship in ballast (empty) it might be riding high and takes as many as thirty steps. Not an easy climb.”
Once on board, the bar pilot does not necessarily steer the incoming ship. He will stand at the window and call out directions to a quartermaster behind him by issuing commands such as “right ten” or “left twenty.” The captain is usually “on the bridge” with the pilot, and there’s usually a mate on watch who handles the engines and follows the pilot’s commands such as “full ahead” or “half astern.” The pilot has to be free to move around, to observe what’s happening with the overall performance of the ship, so can’t just sit there and steer. But although the bar pilot will not typically take the wheel himself, in Bobby Baker’s case he could have if he needed to. Bobby spent twenty-eight years as a bar pilot and was a deck officer (captain) in the U.S. merchant marine for twelve years before that. That was after graduating from the Merchant Marine Academy at Kingspoint with a four-year bachelor’s degree in Nautical Science, three years of which were spent in training at sea.
Not all pilots go through such a formalized education. Some go to sea and work their way up through what amounts to an apprenticeship. And Bobby is quick to point out that the pilots who come up that way can be every bit as competent as those who spend more time in a classroom. “If they can pass the tests,” he said, “the Coast Guard doesn’t care how they learned it.” But the Pascagoula Bar Pilots make sure that apprentices can do more than pass a written test.
To become an apprentice pilot, the Pascagoula Pilots accept only experienced working mariners who have already been qualified and licensed by the Federal Government as First-Class Pilots. Despite a potential pilot’s level of expertise and training, he or she must still train under the Pascagoula bar pilots themselves for a full year specifically learning the Pascagoula ports and their approaches.
So Pascagoula is indeed home to a select group of world-class sailors who represent a continuing seafaring legacy stretching back to our community’s earliest days. And don’t you know it would be a delight and a privilege to be able to listen to all the stories they could tell.