By Jeremy Johnson
This article is part of a series highlighting the vibrant people and industries that make up the working waterfronts of the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area. Dive into more stories from Westport with Brady’s Oysters and Seafood Connection.
Standing on the forward deck of the pilot boat Vega, Port of Grays Harbor Director of Pilotage Bobby D’Angelo times the Vega’s rise and fall against the bulk carrier Bolhol Island and its rope ladder hanging off leeward side, sheltered from the wind. At the top of a swell, D’Angelo swiftly kicks his foot into a ladder rung, grabs onto the twin ropes “like they’re a $20 bill,” and steps off the Vega.
With D’Angelo firmly on the ladder, the Vega pulls away from the Bolhol Island, both vessels miles from shore. D’Angelo then ascends a 20-foot ladder to reach the deck. With D’Angelo safely aboard, the Vega repeats the procedure two more times for pilot candidates Ryan Leo and Colby Grobschmit.
Ship traffic to the Port of Grays Harbor is already bustling and expected to triple in the coming years, shipping one-third of the United States’ soybean meal bound for southeast Asia. Washington State law requires every foreign-flag ship or U.S. vessel engaged in international trade entering or leaving state waters to have a licensed pilot aboard. Pilots use their detailed local knowledge and fine-tuned ship-handling skills, specific to the waterway where they work, to provide safe navigation and passage of the vessel.
Once aboard the ship, the pilot performs a master-pilot exchange with the captain, who briefs the pilot on the characteristics of the ship including its draft and other information specific to the handling of the vessel. With their own navigation equipment, the pilot then takes control, providing direction and speed instructions to the helm.
The vessel’s characteristics, combined with the wind, tide, swell height, and bar conditions, all factor into the timing when a ship can safely transit the Chehalis Bar—a ridge of sediment at the entrance to Grays Harbor. It’s these changing, dynamic forces that require the use of a pilot.
“I’m thinking 30 minutes ahead, 15 moves ahead. What could go wrong? How can I plan for that?” D’Angelo explained. Well before climbing the rope ladder to board the Bolhol Island, D’Angelo called for three tugs to assist in maneuvering the ship down the channel and in the turning basin. As the ship approached Aberdeen, gill-netters could be seen miles ahead, prompting the pilot to request the tugs to help alert the fishermen of the incoming ship. A pilot’s mistake can lead to enormous financial losses, ecological disaster, or loss of life.
The high-stress, high-consequence nature of the work is matched by an incredibly difficult and competitive certification process. Friends Ryan Leo (now a fully certified pilot) and Colby Grobschmit teamed up in 2020 as study partners for the Washington State Pilot exam.
Estimating 700 hours of studying for the test, they began in November of 2020, checking in with each other three days a week to go over notes and study material. By March of 2021, they were studying 80 hours a week and talking 15 times a day leading up to the first of a two-part written test. After completing the written exam, the two then practiced in a pilot simulator at $5,000 a day to prepare for the simulator-based exam. They each spent nearly $15,000 for study materials, exam preparation, and simulator time.
Once they had passed the written and simulator exams, Leo and Grobschmit moved onto the final phase of the certification process: evaluation in the home port. A pilot candidate must demonstrate their knowledge and skills by safely navigating ships in front of an experienced pilot. Three mistakes, and the candidate is out. Leo completed his evaluation process in December 2022, earning his pilot’s certificate. Grobschmit is expected to complete his evaluation process in the spring of 2023.
Despite the intensity of the certification process, the men professed a love for the job.
“When all the other kids were playing with rubber duckies in the bathtub, I was playing with ships,” joked D’Angelo. Grobschmit’s father and grandfather were Puget Sound pilots, and he grew up wanting to be a pilot himself, having watched his own father climb the ladder numerous times. Working for two decades as a professional sailor, the appeal of being a pilot was the ability to work on the water at an elite level while remaining close to home and family, Leo said. “If anyone is interested in piloting, you can go after it. Anyone could do it. I wish I had known that 20 years ago. It’s a lot of hard work, super rewarding, and worth the effort.”
Editor’s Note: as of May 2023, Grobschmit successfully completed his evaluation and is now a licensed pilot!