A hard-working vessel in a busy waterway
Swift, spare and robust, the pilot boat Galveston does her one job very well.
For centuries, the particular requirements of the job have kept the pilot boat at the forefront of maritime design. The 1851 schooner-yacht America, for example, which astounded the British yachting world and inspired the more than 160 years of America’s Cup competition, grew out of her Yankee designer’s many years of innovative work with pilot schooners for Northeastern U.S. ports.
Pilot boats present an intriguing problem to naval architects: Design a boat that will deliver a harbor pilot to a ship approaching from sea, who will then guide the ship safely through traffic and local hazards to dock or anchorage. The pilot boat also must pick up the pilot of a departing ship after it has safely made an offing into the Gulf and take him back to base.
The boat doesn’t have to carry cargo, or fishing gear, or more than a few passengers — usually just one or two — but she must perform her function as quickly as possible, and in almost any weather and sea condition. She’ll make the trip to sea and back several times a day, every day, unless a hurricane wind has closed the port or an impenetrable fog has socked in vessels.
“Galveston is a good boat,” said Capt. Jon Halvorsen, who is a director of the Galveston-Texas City Pilots Association. Halvorsen, an active pilot, makes one or two trips a day aboard the Galveston or her sister, the Texas, during his monthly 14-day rotations.
“She is a comfortable ride, has good speed and is very dependable,” he said of the Galveston.
Galveston and her sister can be seen heading out into the Gulf to meet a ship near the sea buoy at the entrance to the Galveston Channel, or speeding through the Bolivar Roads on her way back to the Galveston-Texas City Pilots base on Pelican Island. They are easy to identify during the day, with “Pilot” painted in large letters on the sides of the house, and at night by the white-over-red running lights at the masthead, which is the international signal for pilot boats. They are usually the fastest-moving vessels in the channel.
Delivered in 2010 from her builder, Gladding-Hearn Duclos Corp., Galveston is just under 70 feet in length overall. She is entirely aluminum, with a deep-V hull design that provides stability in Galveston’s choppy seas at speeds of up to 30 knots.
She is powered by twin Cummins diesel engines of 1,300 horsepower each, which send powerful jets of water from two Hamilton impellers — like super-sized Jacuzzis — through pivoting nozzles at the stern.
The result is a high rate of speed and the fine maneuverability required to bring the boat alongside a ship underway in the open sea, so that the pilot can reach the ladder dropped down her side and make his way aboard.
The boat has a single operator, and no deckhand. She does not tie up to the ship, but is so maneuverable that her operator can hold her in place alongside in the sometimes tumultuous sea long enough for the pilot to make the transfer.
Pilotage is an ancient and absolutely essential part of the operation of seaports such as Galveston and Texas City.
“There have been pilots, and pilot boats, since Phoenician times,” Halvorsen said.
No ship captain can be intimately familiar with every port he may be called upon to enter. He must rely on local, up-to-date, knowledge of conditions there, and the pilot provides it.
Like air-traffic controllers, harbor pilots have a daunting responsibility — not only for the safe passage of the ship, her cargo and passengers — but for the safety of the entire port, including its infrastructure and ecosystem, and other vessels using it. A single mistake could have enormous consequences.
The Galveston Channel is one of the busiest waterways in America. Each month, between 1,500 and 1,600 vessels transit the jetties, outbound, or inbound for the Houston Ship Channel, which has its own pilots association, or to the Ports of Galveston and Texas City, or to anchor in Bolivar Roads to await lighterage or fueling.
Halvorsen loves his job. A veteran of 17 years at sea in big ships, he now lives in Texas City with his family, and commutes to the pilot station on Pelican Island for his rotations on duty.
“Every trip is a little different,” he said.