B.C. pilot boat navigates rocky waters and narrow passages during cruise season

Sep 23, 2010 12:00 AM

On the West Coast, summer is Alaska cruise time with ships leaving from southern bases in both Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Most schedules out of Vancouver depart on the weekend and do a one- or two-week round trip. Vancouver-based and some Seattle-based cruises travel up the sheltered waters inside Vancouver Island. This route takes them up the first 225 miles of the 500 miles north to Alaskan waters.

Deck hand Gary Nicholson helps B.C. Coast Pilots Capt. J.P. Farley make the transfer from a cruise ship to the pilot boat R.D. Riley. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)
The scheduling is determined by the tides of the infamous Seymour Narrows. About halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island, Discovery Passage narrows to about 2,500 feet causing extreme tides of up to 15 knots. All of this is made more challenging by a bend in the channel with rocky outcroppings setting up dramatic and conflicting whirlpools and currents. While the speed of tide at which the British Columbia Coast Pilots will transit the narrows is dependent on conditions and the individual pilot's discretion, cruise ships will try to make the passage as near to slack water as possible.

The B.C. Coast Pilots have one of the largest pilotage areas in the world. Stretching nearly 600 miles northwest from the southern tip of Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border as the crow flies, the coast has over 15,000 miles of actual coastline. While much of the pilots' work centers on the Port of Vancouver, year round there is regular pilotage work taking ships to secondary ports such as Prince Rupert and Kitimat, B.C. In the summer, the demand for pilots to service the Alaska cruise industry adds considerably to the coast-wise voyages.

Some of these cruises go all the way to Alaska via British Columbia's Inside Passage and so require pilots for the full 500 to 600 miles to the Alaskan border. However, a significant number opt for going "outside" for the approximately 300 miles from northern Vancouver Island to Alaska. As a result, they require B.C. pilots for only about 225 miles of the waters inside Vancouver Island between Vancouver and Pine Island, a storm-wracked lighthouse station near the northern end of Vancouver Island.

The 65-foot pilot boat heading out. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)
From that point, the cruise ships will be far enough offshore that they can navigate without a pilot. This takes them on a northwesterly course across Queen Charlotte Sound and through Hecate Strait, which, even at its narrowest, is nearly 40 miles wide. They then pick up their Alaskan pilot after crossing Dixon Entrance.

Although the outside route denies their passengers the sights of much of the spectacular Inside Passage, it contributes to significant savings on pilotage fees. However it also requires that a pilot boat service be available to take northbound pilots off and put southbound pilots on at Pine Island. This service is the responsibility of Lloyd McGill and the 65-foot pilot boat R.D. Riley. McGill purchased the boat from the Riley family, who operated a pilot boat service for three generations, first from Port Alberni on the west coast of Vancouver Island and then, starting about 1995, out of Port Hardy. McGill bought the business and the boat 10 years ago. Riley was one of four or five sister ships built by John Manly Shipyard in Vancouver in 1976 to a crew boat hull design by Breaux's Bay Craft of Loreauville, La.

In winter months it is only the occasional deep-sea ship that requires a pilot transfer. This is typically seven or eight ships per month. In the 2009 six-month cruise season, there were 324 transfers, of which all but 50 were cruise ships. This number will be down a bit for 2010, as more cruise ships are based in Seattle and go first to Victoria, to satisfy Jones Act requirements, and then many go up the west coast of Vancouver Island.

A former fisherman and logger whose family has generations of life on the coast, McGill is as comfortable handling Riley as most commuters are taking their car out of their driveway. On May 30, the pilot boat was scheduled to pick up a pair of pilots from the northbound 965-by-106-foot, 1,970-passenger Coral Princess.

Riley left the dock just before 0800 for a scheduled 0915 rendezvous with the cruise ship. Once clear of the harbor with its extensive fish unloading docks, McGill pushed up the throttles on the twin 600-hp diesels to bring the boat up to a planing speed. The GPS indicated 20 knots. That would bring the boat up on Coral Princess, which, according to the AIS, was making 14 knots and was already showing well off to starboard.

Capt. Lloyd McGill, who is also the owner of the pilot boat, steers through a narrow passage as Nicholson looks on. The area is notable for its extreme tides and powerful currents. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)
As the pilot boat came abeam of Point Duval, just three miles from the pilot boat's dock, the ship disappeared behind a line of islets. McGill pointed out that Pine Island could be seen 18 miles away through a very narrow pass between little Hurst Island and still smaller Bell Island, which are part of a forested string of islands separating these more sheltered waters from Queen Charlotte Sound. It hardly looked like there was enough room for a rowboat.

"We always use this little pass so Victoria Traffic Control has named it Legend Pass because it never had a name before," explained McGill, as he put the boat through a slalom course between seaweed-covered rocks revealed by the low tide and a few others whose location he knows from years on these rock-strewn waters. "But even at low water we have 17 feet of water under the keel," added deck hand Gary Nicholson.

Once the pilot boat was through the pass, Coral Princess showed again off the starboard bow. Another 10 or 15 minutes and Riley was abeam of the port side of the ship. McGill slowed and turned the pilot boat so that it followed in the 100-foot-wide wake coming off the ship's broad aft waterline. While the seas were relatively calm on this day, following a ship for the short distance until it is abeam of Pine Island can be a lot more comfortable than pitching alongside the ship with the often stormy conditions that exist here.

"We have transferred pilots in 60-knot winds," said McGill, "The ship turned to make a lee, but it was then moving at 4 knots sideways!"

As the ship drew abeam of Pine Island Light, it slowed to 10 knots and the pilot boat came up on the starboard side, where a door had been opened about 15 feet above the waterline. A short ladder extended down to match the height of Riley's deck. The boat crew had donned inflatable life jackets and rescue harnesses for the transfer and, as requested, passed three life jackets over to the pilots on the ship. The pilots transferred from the ship to the pilot boat quickly and safely. The pilot boat then turned away from the ship, as passengers snapped pictures from the upper decks.

Coral Princess had sailed from Vancouver at 1630 on the previous evening and the Pine Island transfer was done just after 0900 the next morning. The 16.5-hour voyage requires two pilots, Captains J.A. Demosten and J.P. Farley.

In this case, they were accompanied by Capt. Ken Wright, who, although a licensed B.C. Coast Pilot for five years, was only now permitted to make the qualifying trips that would earn him his unlimited license and allow him to pilot cruise ships.

The pilots retired to Riley's saloon set low midships in the hull. There they exchanged accounts of challenging jobs. Farley told of a man overboard on a cruise ship about to enter Seymour Narrows some years ago.

"We were just north of Separation Head on the Star Princess when a crewman jumped overboard," he recalled, "I asked the captain if he wanted to turn or go though the narrows. He opted to turn the ship. I couldn't believe the actions of that crew. There was no panic, no yelling. Someone was on the searchlight, the rescue boat went over and they pulled the crewman, who was swimming, out of the water. It was an excellent rescue, and fortunately it was near slack water."

Asked on how much tide he would take a cruise ship through Seymour Narrows, Farley said, "It would depend on visibility and other traffic, but I wouldn't go through over 5 knots. It is all about scheduling. Sometimes there are several ships wanting to get through on that tide, so someone has to go first when there is still some current."

After the short run back to the dock, the two pilots would await another pair of pilots coming up from Seattle on Norwegian Star and then all four would ride a chartered flight back to Vancouver. Wright would board the southbound Island Princess with two pilots flown up from Vancouver to complete another of his qualifying voyages. McGill and his crew would go home for a few hours before doing it all over again.

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