The Penobscot Bay & River Pilot Association sees future for Maine in its maritime heritage
By Kathryn Buxton
Every month, the pilots of Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association (PBRPA) guide 15 or so ocean going vessels to dock in Searsport, Bucksport, Bangor and Bar Harbor. And once their cargo is discharged or loaded, the pilots guide the ships back out to sea. They follow a Maine – and U.S. – maritime tradition established in 1789 when the young U.S. Congress gave states the right to regulate the arrival and departure of commercial ships in their ports and created what came to be known as the pilotage profession in the United States.
That connection to history and the founding fathers’ work to promote a safe and efficient freight transportation system is not lost on Captain David Gelinas of PBRPA, a privately owned pilotage business based in Searsport.
“That link to Maine’s maritime heritage is one of the most wonderful parts of the job,” said Gelinas. “One hundred and fifty years ago, it was lumber and barrel staves. Today it is manufactured components from Cianbro bound for the Gulf of Mexico or Canada.”
The need for a network of harbor pilots for safe passage of large commercial vessels is essential in Maine, where the coastal topography is particularly challenging. Kasey Feld described those challenges in her essay, A History of Pilotage in Maine: “The approximate 3,500 miles of jutting rocks, hidden shoals, and jagged reefs create dangerous passage . . .” Feld notes that while pilotage was established by Congress in 1789, it wasn’t officially on the books in Maine until shortly after the region secured statehood in 1820, though because of concerns about added costs for shippers, it was voluntary for many years. Pilotage became compulsory for U.S.- and foreign-registered ships with a draft greater than nine feet entering and exiting Maine waters in 1969.
The opportunity to write a new chapter in Maine’s maritime history has been a strong draw for the five pilots of PBRPA, founded by Gelinas and Captains Robert Spear and Skip Strong 17 years ago. Today, five pilots form the core of the business: Gelinas, Strong, Captain Jeff Cockburn, Captain David Smith and Captain Adam Philbrook (Spear passed away in 2010). All six past and present PBRPA pilots are graduates of Maine Maritime Academy and all found their way back to Maine after “paying their dues” working on merchant marine ships throughout the world.
Today, the pilots of PBRPA are responsible for guiding any vessel required to take a pilot into and out of ports on Penobscot and Frenchman bays, as well as on the Penobscot River. That includes the vessels calling at the ports of Searsport, Bucksport, Bar Harbor and Bangor. The job is a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week one, because international marine commerce operates around the clock.
Gelinas said port traffic on Frenchman and Penobscot has rebounded somewhat from the recession that hit the region and national economy hard in 2008. That has largely been because of increased cruise ship activity in Bar Harbor and shipments of large-scale manufactured components from the Cianbro plant in Bangor. Meanwhile traditional freight has been slower to recover, despite recent investments in port infrastructure, including a $6 million heavy lift mobile harbor crane at Searsport.
As pilots, PBRPA have become vocal advocates for the marine transport industry, frequently speaking out in support of port investments locally and at the state and federal level. Gelinas and PBRPA have worked with MBTA to promote state investments, including several get-out-the-vote efforts for recent transportation bonds supported by the MBTA. Gelinas also is a member of the Maine Pilotage Commission and president of the regional chapter of the U.S. Propeller Club. Gelinas and PBRPA co-founder Strong both frequently lecture at the Maine Maritime Academy, ensuring that future generations are ready to take up careers in the merchant marine.
One transformative element in Maine’s marine history currently unfolding is a revolution in container and break bulk shipping as world markets look for competitively priced, fuel-efficient shipping alternatives.
“There’s tremendous potential here for both inbound and outbound freight. It’s a cost-effective and green way to transport goods,” said Gelinas, adding that if you look at what is happening at other major marine waterways – including problems with water levels and transport costs for ships in the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes – Searsport and Mack Point become even more attractive as ports of call.
Gelinas notes that the existing rail connection gives shippers a competitive alternative with direct, cost-effective and uncongested links to Canada and the Midwest. The key will be coordinating among state officials, port advocates and rail operators to woo shippers with land-sea packages much like the enticements put together for Icelandic shipper Eimskip earlier this year by the state, Pan Am Railway and the city of Portland.
“It can be a complicated relationship between a shipper, a transport company and a port, but if you look at the big picture, we’ve got the deep water and the rail connections, and we offer very competitive transportation compared to other ports. There is so much potential – we just need to market and to get the word out.”
Just how complicated that relationship can become was evidenced during efforts to establish liquid propane gas storage facilities at Mack Point. Gelinas points out that the drawn-out process has discouraged private investment in the port that would have brought jobs and other important benefits to the region, including advanced marine fire fighting capabilities.
He said the shipper would have been required to maintain a firefighting tugboat and emergency response crew, even though the company planned to bring in only six to eight ships a year. That would have meant that the towns and ports of upper Penobscot Bay would have had access to marine firefighting capabilities that don’t currently exist.
“That’s real infrastructure that could have had a positive impact on public safety, and it would have been paid for by the shipper,” said Gelinas.
Changing standards, changing times
Still, with all it has to offer, Gelinas and his fellow pilots are also keenly aware of challenges facing the region’s marine freight industry. Chief among those is the channel in Searsport that hasn’t been maintained since 1962.
“It’s been almost 50 years, and no other port that I know of can say they’ve enjoyed five decades with a navigable channel without any maintenance dredging. That speaks volumes to the value of this project and this waterway,” said Gelinas.
Still, the channel is beginning to silt in, and Maine could lose an important port asset if it does not take heed and perform maintenance dredging on the harbor. While Searsport is one of the region’s three fabled natural deep-water ports, Maine cannot afford to rest on those laurels and allow the channel to silt in any more. Increasing ship sizes and requirements among international shippers and insurers now call for a 10 percent of draft under keel clearance. That means a 39-40 foot ship requires up to 44 feet of depth. The channel was last dredged in 1964. Currently silt has reduced the channel depth to just 32 feet in places.
The federal government typically funds channel maintenance projects, and Maine voters already have approved funding for the state’s contribution toward channel improvements – $3 million. That was part of the most recent transportation bond approved by voters in November 2012. Still, Gelinas is concerned the project could get derailed by political pressure brought by anti-port activists. That would, he said, impact safety and be a loss to the businesses that depend on the port.
“Maintaining the channel is something we have to do,” said Gelinas. “This is for safety, and it will protect our harbor and Maine’s marine heritage.”
Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association
Founded in 1996, Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association is a group of marine pilots who provide pilotage service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to foreign and U.S. vessels calling at ports in Penobscot and Frenchman Bay and on the Penobscot River.