‘Safety first’: Meet a P.E.I. marine pilot who guides cruise ships into Charlottetown

Source: CBC.ca

Kirk Taylor is one of P.E.I.’s three licensed marine pilots who assist large ships that enter or leave Charlottetown Harbour or go under the Confederation Bridge. (Pat Martel/CBC)

It’s 6:30 on a calm summer morning. Kirk Taylor, from Rice Point, P.E.I., is about to do something most people wouldn’t — jump from a small pilot boat onto a huge moving cruise ship.

Taylor is a licensed marine pilot with knowledge of local tides, currents, winds and underwater hazards. 

He’ll use that knowledge to safely guide the cruise ship under the Confederation Bridge and then into Charlottetown Harbour, the two areas of Prince Edward Island that require pilots.

“In Canadian waters under compulsory pilotage areas, all ships are required to have a licensed pilot to assist in the manoeuvre of the ship,” Taylor said. 

But first, Taylor — who boarded the pilot boat at Port Border at sunrise — has to catch up with the Aida Vita in the Northumberland Strait, and then board it. 

A small pilot boat takes marine pilot Taylor out to meet the Aida Vita before it can pass under the Confederation Bridge, which is one of two pilotage zones on the Island. (Pat Martel/CBC)

The 42,289 tonne ship reduces its speed by half, to eight knots, as the pilot boat edges closer to the ship’s hull alongside an open doorway.

 A member of the ship’s crew reaches out to help Taylor get on board.

The pilot boat carrying Taylor edges toward the cruise ship, and a small doorway in the hull of the huge vessel. (Pat Martel/CBC)

But the seas are not always this calm, and often some of the vessels — such as oil tankers or cargo ships — don’t have a doorway in their hulls. 

Instead, the ship’s crew must throw a long rope ladder from the deck, forcing Taylor to make the risky climb up the side of the vessel.

‘It’s a timing issue’

“The bigger issue is the size of the waves,” Taylor said. “If you’ve got two to three metre seas, it’s rising and lowering that distance so you have to time your jump onto the pilot ladder so that the boat’s going down and not coming up. It’s a timing issue.”

Capt. Blair Fraser of the pilot boat The Bridge Lady edges up to the Aida Vita as a crew member prepares to help Taylor board. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Once Taylor is safely inside the doorway, and ship security has cleared him, he’s escorted up to the vessel’s bridge area to meet the captain of the Aida Vita.

Even though Capt. Detlef Harms has previously sailed under the Confederation Bridge, and into Charlottetown, he willingly hands over navigational duties to Taylor. 

‘He’s the expert’

“This is our third or fourth call this year,” Harms said. “I believe we could manage it ourselves to pass through the bridge and to enter the Port of Charlottetown,” said Harms.

“But this is normal procedure around the world that we always have to take pilots to enter ports,” he said.

Aida Vita Capt. Detlef Harms steps aside so Taylor can guide the ship. ‘He’s the expert for some special current and wind situations,’ said Harms. (Pat Martel/CBC)

“He’s the expert for some special current and wind situations,” said Harms. “Safety first.”

As the ship enters the Confederation Bridge pilotage zone, Taylor begins calling out readings, safely guiding the ship under the bridge’s 60-metre navigation span and into open water. 

Taylor then steps aside for a few hours as the ship heads to the next pilotage zone, just outside the mouth of Charlottetown Harbour. 

The Confederation Bridge is one of two zones on P.E.I. that require ships to have a marine pilot on board. (Pat Martel/CBC)

With time on his hands, Taylor tells me he knew from an early age he wanted to be on the water. He was six when he first started helping on his dad’s fishing boat. 

‘I liked on the water’ 

“My father was a lobster fisherman so I fished lobsters with him,” said Taylor. At 14, he started working full time with his dad. “I liked on the water and thought that was a good career,” he said.

Taylor was 18 when he joined the coast guard. He then got his third-mate’s certificate and became a deck officer on Irving and Shell oil tankers. 

As he enters Charlottetown Harbour, Taylor alters course a few times because of the tide. (Pat Martel/CBC)

These days, aside from his duties as one of three marine pilots on P.E.I., Taylor also fills in as a captain with Northumberland Ferries.

But back to the task at hand. The Aida Vita is about to enter the Charlottetown pilotage zone and once again Taylor steps in to guide the ship into port. 

‘Contend with the tide’

He will have to change course a number of times to get though the channel. He also has to contend with the rising and falling tide.  

“Depending at which way it’s setting the ship and how the wind affects the ship as you’re making the various course alterations.”

Cruise ship passengers get their first look at the city of Charlottetown, as pilot Taylor assists the vessel into the harbour. (Pat Martel/CBC)

There’s an extra challenge facing Taylor this morning. Another cruise ship has already tied up at the city’s only cruise ship dock — a second berth is expected to be ready for the 2020 season.

The work is not over

For now, the Aida Vita inches past the other cruise ship, turns around 180 degrees and then drops anchor.

Taylor, along with hundreds of passengers are taken ashore in a small fleet of boats. But Taylor’s work is not over. 

Another cruise ship has already taken Charlottetown’s only berth, so Taylor must help get the Aida Vita turned completely around so the tides won’t affect the vessel while anchored. (Pat Martel/CBC)

In late afternoon, as the Aida Vita prepares to leave port, Taylor returns to the ship to guide it out of the harbour. 

Once that’s done, Taylor will have to transfer from the cruise ship to a pilot boat that will take him back to shore.

A marine pilot from Halifax climbs aboard a ship’s rope ladder, something Kirk Taylor has done many times on tankers visiting P.E.I. (Land and Sea/CBC)

This year, Taylor expects to assist 35 ships in all kinds of weather — from winter storms to calm seas, but he loves every moment of it.

“You just kind of get taken to the sea and enjoy being on the water.”