Puget Sound Pilots honored at ceremony marking 150 years of program

By:  Jeannie McMacken
Source: Peninsula Daily News

Elected officials joined Puget Sound Pilots officials, maritime advocates and educators in celebrating 150 years of the state’s marine pilotage program at the Northwest Maritime Center.

Gathering to comment on the anniversary of the Washington Pilotage Act on Thursday were U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Port Townsend Mayor Deborah Stinson among others.

Stinson said that residents of Port Townsend take pride in living in an historic maritime town that is home to so many maritime tradesmen and women.

“It’s in that context that we welcome the pilots back home for their 150th birthday,” Stinson said. “It was an act of leadership that insured that professional pilots are on duty today to safeguard our state’s maritime economy as well as our waters that are home to so many extraordinary creatures we all value.”

A pilot commission for Puget Sound was created by a territorial act in 1868, according to Peninsula Daily News historian Alice Alexander.

It was repealed later and another act came into being, and in 1935 the Puget Sound Pilots organization was created to answer to the state of Washington’s requirement that all foreign vessels traveling on Puget Sound and adjacent waters, and U.S. ships engaged in foreign trade must have pilot services, Alexander has said.

The Pilotage Act established two pilotage districts, Puget Sound and Grays Harbor, to protect the loss of lives, loss or damage to vessels or property and to protect the marine environment by requiring certain ships to take on a state licensed marine pilot.

Stinson pointed out that the Puget Sound Pilots took a leadership role in creating the Northwest Maritime Center and supporting the Port Townsend school district’s Maritime Discovery School.

Puget Sound Pilots President Capt. Eric Von Brandenfels, who served as master of ceremonies, spoke of the code of the pilots.

“A lot of professions have monuments that they build, but the pilots work extremely hard and take very seriously not leaving any trace of our existence,” he said.

The main headquarters for the Puget Sound Pilots is in Seattle, but the second home for pilots on the Strait of Juan de Fuca has been in Port Angeles since the pilots moved to Ediz Hook from Port Townsend in 1941, Alexander has said.

Cantwell said that in Washington, pilots are required for all large vessels in Puget Sound and Grays Harbor, and that dozens of highly skilled and trained pilots work in Puget Sound to keep this “vitally important waterway working, insuring safety, passenger movement, property and the environment.

“It is a grueling job for weeks,” Cantwell said. “You can encounter any different type of weather condition, type of vessel, types of traffic conditions.

“Puget Sound is one of the busiest, most complex waterways in the world. There are 100 nautical miles between Neah Bay and Cherry Point, oftentimes plagued with driving rain and reduced visibility.

“We rely on these pilots for the safe passage of millions of cargo containers, more than a hundred thousand vehicles and two hundred thousand tons of bulk cargo every years,” Cantwell said.

“It is such a major responsibility. It’s $80 billion worth of goods that travel through Puget Sound and make our pilots indispensable to our region.”

Murray said she was gratified to see Port Townsend High School students in attendance.

“I’m glad to see the students here. This is a highly specific and skilled profession that can take decades to reach the top of the field. I want to applaud the Puget Sound Pilots for stepping up to what is a national issue: recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce.”

She urged greater diversity.

“I look forward to your call to action to increase awareness and diversity in maritime piloting,” Murray said.

Gale Tarleton, from Seattle’s 36th Legislative District, is co-chair of the Governor’s Maritime Blue task force. She spoke of the importance of keeping the Salish Sea safe and clean.

“Puget Sound pilots are the reason Puget Sound waters are still some of the safest waters in the world,” she said.

Some 200,000 people have jobs that either directly or indirectly depend on the fact that ships sail into and from Puget Sound’s ports, Tarleton said.

“That’s a network we cannot break,” she said.

Van De Wege — a Sequim Democrat who represents Legislative District 24, which covers Jefferson and Clallam counties and part of Grays Harbor County — called pilots “economic champions.”

“They are safety champions and environmental champions. Nothing could damage our way of life and our pristine waterways so much as a catastrophic oil spill,” Van de Wege said.

He presented a resolution from the state Legislature honoring the 150th anniversary of the pilotage act to Von Brandenfels.

The Northwest Maritime Center offers a program to become a licensed mariner. To be licensed as a pilot can take up to 20 years, the first 10 working to become a captain and then putting in time to qualify to take the exam. The program itself can take up to four years.

Odin Smith, a ninth-grader at Port Townsend High School, wants to be a pilot and hopes to attend the federal maritime academy to study to become a captain for the Navy or a cargo company.

“Then, after that I’d like to study to become a pilot,” he said. “You have to have a career captaining a plethora of vessels, then apply to become a pilot. That application process lasts a couple years. Then you test and it can take several more years to get in. Then you start off with the smallest ships, then you go up.”

A Port Townsend native, Smith’s dad works in the marine trades at Boat Haven. He plans to be in the wheelhouse on some sort of naval vessel in a few years.