WBM june 2021
S Pilot II pounds her way through heavy
seas, the Santa Linea rises like an
apparition from the mist, ghost-like
on the horizon seven miles
distant. It’s an eerie sight. Tower-ing
as high as a 10-story building
above the ocean, she’s 1,100 feet long, 150 feet wide,
and can hold approximately 20,000 containers.
The Pilot II, minuscule compared to the massive
container ship, carefully maneuvers alongside. Now
both vessels move in tandem, underway at 11 knots.
An orange and white ladder made of slick nylon rope
and plastic steps unfurls from a tiny hatch amid-ships
in the Santa Linea’s starboard side. Sandwiched
between the two vessels, the ladder swings at random
with each ocean swell. The two vessels heave together,
side by side, Pilot II pitching and falling alongside the
Heu has only one way to board, and that is to climb
the pilot ladder. It’s a feat that requires agility, strength,
and a keen sense of timing. A false move here will be
disastrous. He must time the rising swell so that Pilot II
is positioned at the exact same level as the ladder before
he makes his move.
Pilot II might be in position for only a second, and in
that second Heu must grasp the ladder, often at a leap,
find his footing, and then climb the rungs some 30 feet
up and through the tiny hatch into the ship’s belly and
The wind has increased now and begins to whine
through the Santa Linea’s superstructure as Heu,
intensely vigilant and focused, prepares to board. From
the hatch high above, the faces of two crewmembers
peer anxiously down at the unnerving scene.
Heu times the rise perfectly, but almost at the
second he grasps the ladder Pilot II falls 10 feet as
the swell recedes, leaving the pilot swaying above a
cold and violent sea. A rough rope ladder is all there is
between Heu and eternity. This is no place for the
faint of heart.
Nimble and spider-like, Heu cautiously climbs aloft
rung by rung and disappears finally into the ship and
safety. The hatch closes and disappears like it was never
there. Heu is escorted through a winding passageway
to the ship’s bridge and navigation center where he is
greeted by a happy master and chief mate. All is well as
Heu takes command and heads the Santa Linea toward
Southport and into the mouth of the river.
One might say it’s just another day at the office for a
Cape Fear River pilot. For most mortals, however, the
balance sheet of this office could only be measured in
increments of sheer terror.