IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE MOST TREACHEROUS
HARBOR ENTRANCES ON THE EAST COAST.
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. It is also one of the most treach-erous
harbor entrances on the East Coast. Powerful river currents
and the mighty Atlantic Ocean come together to form a gumbo of
sloughs, bars and shoals.
Beginning in the colonial period, the Cape Fear River was an
essential element in developing early shipping commerce. Due to its
location on the river, Wilmington became the center of trade, poli-tics
and culture for the region. Shipping was active with a constant
flow of imported goods and exported naval stores — turpentine,
rosin, tar and pitch.
Maritime business was good and commerce brisk but getting a
ship from the sea past the constantly shifting entrance bar and into
the river was just the beginning of the journey. Since 1784, safe
passage from Southport to Wilmington through the vast network
of inlets, sounds and shoals has required the expertise of river pilots.
Cape Fear River pilots have a view like no other from the bridge of a
container ship. Pilot Bill Heu climbs the ladder to board a ship bound
for the port. Pilots work in all conditions to guide shipping vessels
safely to and from the Port of Wilmington.
Pilots guide ships at every major harbor around the world, and
have for centuries, but due to the unusual and treacherous length
from the ocean to the various docks along the river and at Wilmington,
confidence, knowledge and expertise are all special prerequisites
of every Cape Fear River pilot. They know it takes time to turn a
ship and miles to stop it so they must anticipate and avoid peril that
could come at any moment from shoals, wind, oncoming vessels or a
maelstrom of currents pulling in opposing directions.
North Carolina requires all U.S. and foreign registered vessels over
60 tons to utilize a state-licensed pilot both incoming and outgoing
into the Cape Fear River and its docks. Pilots are required to hold a
U.S. Coast Guard First Class License of unlimited tonnage.
Cape Fear pilots come from a variety of nautical backgrounds that
reflect the diversity of the maritime industry. Some might have started
as deckhands, others as U.S. Navy veterans or tugboat captains. All
North Carolina licensed pilots are highly trained with substantial expe-rience,
and all must go through an extensive apprenticeship program.
COURTESY OF WILMINGTON CAPE FEAR PILOTS ASSOCIATION