Most people who walk into the doors of GulfQuest tend to comment on what a great view there is at the museum. If they are lucky during their visit, they may even see one of the many large vessels sailing past GulfQuest coming in and out of port. But, many probably have never questioned who was behind getting those ships safely into the Port of Mobile and ensuring they leave in the same manner.
“It is mandatory, by state law, that ships have a licensed pilot to guide them into and out of port,” Berault explained, “and each state is different because each port is different.”
There is an entire group of individuals whose life work is to navigate vessels from the wide open Gulf of Mexico into the Port of Mobile as safely as possible, the Mobile Bar Pilots. This organization, made of 14 individuals, is called the “Bar Pilots” because of the sand bar located east of the Mobile ship channel. Captain Dave Berault shared his story of his journey to becoming a maritime pilot and the important role that pilots play not only to the Port of Mobile but to all ports.
Berault, a native of the Gulf Coast, having been born in New Orleans, LA, and raised in Slidell, LA, has been a part of the Mobile Bar Pilots since 2009.
Before taking this position, Berault had spent the previous few years working his way up the ranks to captain of a small supply vessel. But, his journey into the maritime industry started over 20 year ago when he enrolled into the United States Merchant Marines Academy in King’s Point, NY.
As a student at the Academy, Berault was also considered a deck cadet, something he described as an apprenticeship that allowed him to truly learn the ins and outs of the merchant marine trade industry.
After graduating from the Academy, he then worked for the International Shipholding Corporation based out of New Orleans, but realized quickly that office life was not for him; and in 2003, he sailed for the first time as a 3rd mate on a ship headed for Kuwait in support of the Iraqi freedom efforts. For the next 3 years, Berault would spend large spans of time out at sea as part of his ship’s crew before moving to Mobile.
“That is part of the reason I love what I do now,” Berault explained, “When I was part of the ship’s crew I spent months away from home. With my schedule now, I see my family almost every day.”
With his current schedule Berault works one week on and one week off, allowing there to always be seven Mobile Bar Pilots working while the other seven are resting. This is important because maritime pilots do not have a typical 9-5 work schedule.
“One thing to note is that the pilot is not part of the ship’s crew,” Berault mentioned.
Bar Pilots will receive notification at their station, located at the East End of Dauphin Island, Alabama, of when a ship will be arriving in the Gulf of Mexico outside of Mobile Bay. And, notifications can happen as any time during the day. When a notification is received, whether it is 2 am or 2 pm, the job of the Bar Pilot begins.
A pilot will sail out on one of their pilot boats to the awaiting ship in the Gulf of Mexico and literally land alongside the ship. The awaiting vessel will then lower down a wooden ladder for the pilot to use to board the vessel. The Bar Pilot will then be directed to the navigation area, similar to the “Take the Helm” exhibit here at GulfQuest.
The final step before the bar pilot is given control of the vessel is a required “Master-Pilot Exchange”. This conversation will happen between the Bar Pilot and the ship master to relay key information about the Port of Mobile and the ship to one another.
Once in control the Bar Pilot will navigate by helm command, in other words voice command, as the professional helmsman physically steers the vessel. This is so the Bar Pilot can multi-task to the best of his ability.
The entire transition into or out of the Port of Mobile can take upwards of 3 to 5 hours. Berault stated he typically has about 9-10 of these transitions during one of his work weeks. And the best part, it is usually never the same ship twice so he meets a variety of people.
“I love meeting people from all over the world,” Berault said, “I enjoy having conversations about what life is like for them in whatever country they happen to be from.”
In asked how he would summarize the uniqueness of his job as a Bar Pilot, Berault explained,
“It’s like if you had a very expensive car that you were trying to park into a tight space, but you had never been to that area before. You would want to hire a valet with specialized knowledge to park your car for you. Every port has its own thing that makes that port special and unique.”
The Mobile Bar Pilots have been around since 1865, but pilots have been piloting vessels into Mobile Bay since 1711. So, remember, the next time you see a large vessel coming into, or departing the Port of Mobile, there is more than likely a Mobile Bar Pilot behind the scenes.
Check out the YouTube video below for more information about the Mobile Bar Pilots.
HAND OVER FIST
Sailors pulling on a rope during heavy labor plant their feet, pull with one hand, then hold the rope in their fist while reaching out with their other hand, thereby pulling "hand over fist." Today this means rapid progress.