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Hudson River pilots know every hazard, as they escort big ships through the harbor

John DeCruz Photos by Max Ryazansky

Captain John DeCruz greets me on the dock wearing a suit, his tie whipping in the wind. Nearby, crew members are readying a boat in their windbreakers and jeans. DeCruz is a Full Branch Pilot for the New York Sandy Hook Pilots Association. He is also on the executive committee as the New Jersey president of the organization, which means that it’s his job to ensure that visiting ships are steered safely into the harbor. Pilots, who have been doing their important work since the 1600s, always maintain a strict dress code.
“You’re getting on this ship, representing the state of New York and the state of New Jersey, you figure you want to give a good impression to this captain and crew that are coming from across the ocean to visit our port,” DeCruz says. Pilots board foreign ships or ships carrying foreign cargo via rope ladder to navigate them to their final destination using their expert knowledge of the harbor.
Home port is in Staten Island, with panoramic views of Downtown Manhattan and the Verrazano Bridge. Beyond that, 30 miles east, is the New York, a ship known as pilot station, which serves as a sort of break room at sea for pilots who are between calls. Here at the dock is the New Jersey, another pilot station that replaces the New York when it refuels and serves as the pilots’ summer vessel. Also at the dock are smaller vessels, called pier launch boats, that take pilots out to visiting ships when duty calls.
DeCruz’s job description changed two years ago when he was elected president. He no longer actively pilots. Now he manages daily operations, but he describes what his typical day once was. Jobs are assigned in order to a list of pilots who are on duty. A team of 73 active pilots—four of whom are women—works on a rotating schedule of four weeks on followed by two weeks off. DeCruz recalls that even though pilots know what number they are on the list, they don’t know exactly when that call is going to come. “If I’m in the top 10, I’m not going to go out to dinner or to a ballgame,” DeCruz says, “but it can be 2 a.m. when the phone rings.”
When pilots are called out, they board a pier launch. If they’re already on the pilot station, they’ll board the launch there for a ride to the incoming ship, while it’s still out at sea. Then it’s time for the long climb up the rope ladder.

Landlubber Sets Sail

For me, it’s a challenge to take the long step from the dock to a waiting launch. DeCruz steps onto the bobbing boat with the ease that comes with years of experience. He tells me that he joined the Sandy Hook Pilots Association as an apprentice in 1997. During the five-year program, apprentices serve as pilot station crew while they learn the trade. They study and draw charts called Federal Pilot Extensions that are intricate maps of the harbor.
“You have to know the channels, the depths, the bridge heights, the buoy characteristics, the landmarks, the shoals,” DeCruz says. “You have to draw a total of about 20 charts, and when you’re done with those, you have to ride a thousand ships, and then you take your state exam.”
The job doesn’t pay well during the apprenticeship.
“We have something that’s called sweat equity,” DeCruz says. “You struggle first, but it pays off in the end when it’s over. Once you become a pilot, then you see the rewards. You pay your dues. It makes you a stronger person, it makes you appreciate this place more. You put your time in, and you’re a partner here.” Once an apprentice becomes a pilot, it takes seven more years to become a full branch pilot, who can escort the largest ships to port.
After about 10 minutes the launch has taken us out near Jersey City, where DeCruz grew up, and his experience on the harbor began.
“I was lucky enough to have a grandfather and father who worked on the water here,” he says. “They worked on tugboats and barges. I would sit down on the Morris Canal and watch the ships come in.” Because of this background, he knew about the role that pilots play in the harbor. “The average kid sees a big ship come in, like say a cruise ship, and they think it’s just some captain with a big hat on steering the ship in. They don’t have any idea that it could be them one day.”
DeCruz completed his maritime education at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx and worked on ships all over the world before applying to become a pilot. These days he speaks at schools in urban areas to teach young people about the opportunities in his industry.

Safe Harbor

The launch pulls into the enormous shadow of a container ship. DeCruz describes it as 900 TEUs, or 20-foot Equivalent Units, based on the number of 20-foot-long containers. Once the Bayonne Bridge is raised, even larger ships will be able to come through. It’s hard to imagine boarding a ship like this by way of a rope ladder even on a clear and unseasonably warm day like today. The dangers of a pilot’s job are very real.
“We had two pilots fall last year,” DeCruz says. “We got them up quick. They’re recovering now.” Pilots use safety precautions like keeping an attentive crew and using flotation devices known as float coats. It’s not just personal safety that concerns pilots. DeCruz describes harrowing moments like mechanical failures. “You have a giant piece of steel, just drifting, that can’t just stop dead in the water, where you have to drop the anchor to slow you down,” DeCruz says. Luckily pilots undergo extensive and continuous training in simulators.
The launch heads back to the dock. A new association headquarters is being built nearby. The previous one was destroyed during Superstorm Sandy. Once completed, it will house dispatchers and executive offices.
Onboard the New Jersey the smell of bacon wafts up from the mess area. Below decks are two mess halls, one for pilots, the other for apprentices and other crew members. There’s also a lounge and a TV room. Deeper into the ship is a bunk area with a pilot section, where they can rest between calls. The bunks are four to a room and far from spacious. “A big guy like me, it can be tough, but if you’re really tired you pass out,” DeCruz says.
Since the Port of New York and New Jersey is the busiest on the East Coast, a pilot’s workday can be tiring, but the volume of ships coming in is another reason that their expertise is so important. Pilots keep us safe. Looking out of the porthole of the New Jersey, I see ferries carrying commuters, and pleasure boats whizzing through the harbor.
DeCruz says, “A pilot’s role is not only to guide the ship, but to protect the harbor as well.”—JCM

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