THE UNION OF THE CAPE FEAR AND THE ATLANTIC FORMS THE PRINCIPAL SHIPPING CHANNEL
TO WILMINGTON — HISTORICALLY ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT HARBORS IN THE WORLD.
COURTESY OF WILMINGTON CAPE FEAR PILOTS ASSOCIATION june 2021 32
IT’S no wonder that a place so beautiful and so terrible has a
name that has haunted ships and sailors for four centuries: the
Graveyard of the Atlantic. In the Cape Fear area alone, there
are 411 documented shipwrecks.
Running so close to the shoals in this sea of dread, where
the bordering channel is about 50 feet deep, might result in
terror for some, panic for others. But not for Cape Fear River pilot
Bill Heu onboard the Pilot II.
This is just his morning commute.
Regardless of the risk, vessels must navigate between the open ocean
and the Port of Wilmington. Expert pilots like Heu take to the sea
almost daily to board these ships and steer them to safety. In 2020,
Cape Fear River pilots risked disaster in the form of weather, wind,
tide and current to make 1,330 trips inbound and outbound.
This morning, Heu is meeting the Santa Linea, a Hamburg-regis-tered
container ship 10 miles off the coast. Her decks are stacked with
thousands of containers and millions of dollars in goods destined
for retailers and manufacturers.
Ship captains like the master of the Santa Linea aren’t authorized
to pilot ships in U.S. harbors because they are unfamiliar with
channels that can change in a matter of days, making even the most
recent charts obsolete. Local knowledge always prevails, so the
responsibility of river navigation goes to the pilots who are charged
with the heavy responsibility of bringing the vessel, cargo and crew
safely to their destination and to where the harbor tugs take over.
Pilot II left her Southport berth at dawn with captain Bryan
Wessell at the helm. Wessell will deliver Heu to the Santa Linea.
Once onboard, Heu will pilot the Santa Linea from the sea buoy
through the famous tidal strait bracketed by Bald Head Island
and Fort Caswell and then some 20 miles up a winding and perilous
course to the docks.
Heu, like his fellow Cape Fear River pilots, is certified to guide
ships between the sea buoy and Wilmington. He has to know every
shoal, bend and channel of the river and how each may change
depending on wind, current and tide.