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Volume 4, Number 2
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Pioneering Bay Pilots

By Michael W. Fincham

Avis Bailey - by Michael W. Fincham Alison Ross Schulte - by Michael W. Fincham

Back in high school in the late 1960s, Avis Bailey never thought he'd become a Chesapeake Bay pilot. He was going to be an astronaut, a reach for an urban black kid coming out of Cardozo High School, then and now one of the rougher schools in Washington, D.C. What he became in 1979 was a maritime pilot — the first African American state-licensed pilot in the country.

Alison Ross Schulte knew from early on that she was going to sea. The daughter of a ship's captain she went to sea with her father and her sisters whenever she could. "I was the only daughter that didn't get seasick," she says. "That sealed my fate." In 1993 she became the first state-licensed female pilot in the Chesapeake and the second in the country.

Bailey and Ross Schulte are part of the new breed: pilots who come in with no family connections, but lots of professional training. For a hundred years or more many of Maryland's Bay pilots were the sons or grandsons or nephews of older pilots, often admit-ted as apprentices while still in their teens. Though the traditional "family apprentice system" worked well for training pilots, it led to public accusations of nepotism, according to Mike Watson, president of the American Pilots Association, especially whenever the state Association was lobbying for higher pilotage fees.

Since the early 1980s, most Maryland pilots have earned a four-year degree from a maritime college, then worked their way up the ladder from third mate to second mate to first mate to unlimited license.

Avis Bailey came out of Cardozo with several college scholarship offers — and an appointment to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. His plan was to do well, then switch to the Air Force Academy. When he heard more about the salaries a ship's officer could expect, he learned to love the sea.

After graduation, Bailey became the first African American ship's officer for Sun Oil company. He was on track to become the first black skipper of a Sun Oil tanker when he applied to the Association of Maryland Pilots, a pioneering group that began in 1852 as the first state-chartered pilots organization in the country.

For Bailey, being first has an ironic twist. In the late 18th and early 19th century, a number of well-known Bay pilots were African American slaves. Piloting, however, began to close down as a career path for blacks — either free or enslaved — when state governments began regulating freelance pilots more closely. Pilots were required to train apprentices who were "free, white citizens."

Like her father before her, Alison Ross Schulte graduated from a maritime college, then went to sea for 10 years working on oil tankers trading all around the globe. She made chief sailing officer before she ever applied to become a Bay pilot.

So what's the attraction of piloting over sea-going work? "Being in control," says Bailey. "Coming on board, meeting the captain and saying, �I have you, Captain, I've got it.' And then taking control of the ship."

Shiphandling is the draw, says Ross Schulte. "You get to maneuver ships in any sort of situation. It's work that many people at sea would like to do." A pilot working her way through the channels of the Chesapeake may make more shiphandling moves than a captain on a trans-Atlantic crossing.

According to Ross Schulte, changing the status quo can challenge both crew and pioneer. "Either the captain is screaming that there is a woman climbing up the side of his ship, or everyone is sitting there with his mouth open." Or they run and take a shower, she says, and when they come back, they've often overloaded with aftershave. "I usually have to leave a bridge door open because my eyes start to burn."

Both Ross Schulte and Bailey are still minorities in the world of piloting. Out of 1200 maritime pilots around the country, only 8 are blacks, according to Bailey, and some 25 are women. "I'm proud of the fact I can and did have others follow," says Bailey. "I wish there were more."

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