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Volume 4, Number 2
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Bad Dreams for Bay Pilots

By Michael W. Fincham

Big boat approaching the Bay Bridge - Association of Maryland Pilots

When terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the world suddenly changed for the men and women who pilot planes — and ships. "Security right now is the main concern as you're climbing up the side of a ship," says Captain Eric Nielsen, President of the Association of Maryland Pilots. "The question in the back of your mind is: What are you going to meet with?"

Before 9/11, a Bay pilot boarding a strange ship knew he might encounter bad weather, equipment breakdowns and incompetent crews — any of which could cost lives or cause environmental calamity on the Bay. One incident like the Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska could unleash enough oil to ruin the oyster bars and fish-spawning grounds and bird-feeding wetlands in most of the Chesapeake. Such were the old nightmares for Bay pilots.

When terrorists took over airplanes, killed their pilots and turned their planes into flying bombs, Bay pilots suddenly had something new to worry about. What could terrorists do with a ship? Crash it into a bridge? Run it into the liquid gas docks at Cove Point? Crash into another tanker? Or simply run it hard aground on the edge of a key shipping channel? The next Exxon Valdez incident may be no accident. These are the new nightmares.

It's part of Nielsen's job to worry about these scenarios. He heads up a 153-year-old association that numbers 61 Bay pilots and 50 support staff, including dispatchers, drivers, deckhands, mechanics and office personnel. As president, he's the one who hears all the scare stories about possible terrorist plots. He sits at the table with the Coast Guard, the Navy, the F.B.I., Homeland Security, and Maryland state agencies as they plan out anti-terrorist strategies for the new world order.

For Bay ports, the first line of defense, according to Nielsen, is profiling. Before a ship enters the Chesapeake, it now has to give 96-hour notice, time for the Coast Guard to run a computer analysis of its cargo, officer list, crew list and recent ports of call. Included in these profiles are reports from intelligence agencies in the U.S. and other countries, especially information on ports with sloppy security procedures. The result: any high-profile ship gets an offshore visit. "If there is a high-interest vessel we try to board it as far out as we possibly can," says Petty Officer Donnie Brzuska, a spokesman with the Coast Guard's Atlantic Area Fifth District Command. "How far out depends on the vessel and where it sits on that targeting matrix."

A Coast Guard cutter intercepts the ship, a newly trained team climbs the Jacob's ladder and everybody goes to work: safety inspections, cargo list checks, crew reviews. The higher the ship's profile, the more intense the offshore inspection. The officer in charge may take a face-to-face with each crew member, checking his face against his ID, checking his ID against the crew list. He may even haul up bomb-sniffing dogs. Coast Guard captains have the authority — and they have used it — to turn boats away from the Bay. The Guard calls these tactics "pushing the borders out."

A second strategy is another, surprise boarding later in the ship's Bay passage. For certain Baltimore-bound ships, the Coast Guard station at Annapolis sends out an armed, eight-man boarding team. They climb the ladder, then split up to cover key stations throughout the ship: the bridge, the helmsman's station, the engine room, the emergency steering area, the anchors, the stern. For the rest of the trip — under the Bay Bridge, through the entrance channels, under Key Bridge, sliding up to the dock — Coast Guard personnel stand their posts. From their stations, they witness all the pilot's orders and all the crew responses, an approach they call "positive control." If a helmsman turns the rudder the wrong way, if an engineer steps up the RPM in a crowded harbor, a Coast Guardsman can step in.

Most incoming ships are not inspected, however, making the Bay pilot the third line of defense. It's a solitary line. The pilot is usually the only American aboard a ship where the crew speaks foreign languages — where the officers, in fact, may be European while the seamen may be Indonesian or Filipino. What Nielsen worries about is a terrorist takeover of a wheelhouse or an engine room — an easy enough trick on today's lightly manned ships. It would not take much of a takeover: just long enough for a wrong rudder move approaching a bridge or a harbor or another ship in a narrow channel.

So Nielsen warns his Bay pilots to be on watch for suspicious behavior. Perhaps a lot of extra crew in the wheelhouse. Perhaps extra questions about the course, the channels, or the arrival times at key locations like the Bay Bridge near Annapolis or Key Bridge near Baltimore. Perhaps a crew member taking a lot of pictures. The pilots now have a secret signal they can send that will bring an armed team from the Coast Guard or the Navy. They have, on occasion, sent the signal.

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