No roads lead to Pilottown, but nary a ship passes it by
(Page 3 of 3)
''The responsiblity is mind boggling. You get on ships and face all kinds of weather and language barriers. Just figure the value of the cargoes: If they run aground, the whole port is tied up. Americans would feel the backlogs up into the Great Plains. Freight cars and grain ships would begin stacking up. And if ever two ships collided and blocked the pass, the port would be closed indefinitely.Skip to next paragraph
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''Bar pilots like Ittmann navigate ships to and from Pilottown to the open sea -- boats take them out to incoming ships. But between Pilottown and the port of New Orleans, a ''river pilot'' takes over. The Crescent River Port Pilots Association has about twice as many members as the ABP and a separate dormitory in the town.
''I've piloted most any ship you can name,'' Ittmann continued, spearing a chunk of beef, ''dozens of submarines, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and supertankers. Ships are getting bigger, deeper, and faster. In 1945 when I was first made a pilot, we had 18 ships a day. Now it's about 45. I pilot an average of three ships a day. You're working about nine hours a day with 15 hours in between. Most of your sleep time is broken sleep, 2-3 hours at a time.
''On top of all that, this job doesn't allow for mistakes. On some of those big oil tankers you're sitting 10 stories above the water, and if you don't know how to judge the wind, it will blow you across the pass. I suppose it finally comes down to instinct. You can't always rely on those lights on shore. One night that light might go out and then what will you do?''Going out the Southwest Pass you got to cut a 45-degree turn and take your choice of running aground on one side or hitting the rock jetty on the other. Try taking a 900 -foot-long ship through a channel 700 feet wide with a strong current on the stern.''Weather, however, not terrain, is the pilots' nemesis. ''Fog is our biggest enemy,'' Ittmann said. ''The season's from November to April. Nobody likes to take over and pilot a boat in the fog. If you've got explosives or gasoline on board you take it slow. Sometimes you'll get a captain trying to make a deadline, or beat the tide. He makes the final decision because he 'owns' that ship.''The men here are part of an occupational fraternity knit tight as tweed. They carry an Old World mustiness about them. While at Pilottown they live together 24 hours a day. Many of them work hand in hand with their fathers and sons, uncles and cousins. First-generation pilots do exist, but they are the exceptions.
Ittmann is an exception that proves the rule. ''My father worked for the pilots during high school as an office boy,'' he recalled. ''In fact he had to take a day off from work to graduate from high school. After World War I he worked up to office manager. When I got out of high school in 1939 I went to sea on a Norwegian ship, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $24 a month as a deck boy. When you're about 20 you put in an application for boatman. It helps if you're recommended by a pilot. I got my son on a Swedish ship and he went around the world two times.''
After the preliminary year at sea, a pilot candidate may apply to the ABP for its bar pilots apprentice program. If voted in by the other members, he must then purchase a share of association stock, priced at around $85,000. A share in the Crescent River Port Pilots is said to run about $50,000. The candidate then spends another five years as an apprentice, repairing boats and ferrying pilots back and forth between Pilottown and the ships.
''Some quit, but most of the guys have known what the job is like since they were kids. Their fathers were pilots,'' said Ittmann. He had since finished his lunch and moved back into the television room. ''In the end if the other pilots feel they want to spend the rest of their lives with that apprentice, they vote him in.''
Only after an additional six to nine months of ''cubbing'' (piloting ships under the tutelage of experienced pilots) does the association again vote whether or not to accept the apprentice as a full-fledged pilot. With membership comes the honorary title of ''Captain.'' ''It isn't such a glamorous way to make a living,'' sighed Ittmann, gathering from his locker the gear he would need to spend the night in Southwest Pass and pilot another ocean-bound ship through the channel. ''In 1981 I had to work and miss Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, my birthday, my wedding anniversary, and New Year's Eve.''