image1For years, we have been amazed by the steady stream of huge cargo ships coming in and out of the Port of Brunswick, passing close by the St. Simons Island pier through the deep water channel between St. Simons and Jekyll Island.  These giant transport boats, flying the flags of far-flung places and staffed by sailors from exotic places, are invariably followed by a much smaller yellow pilot boat. Standing on the pier or watching from the beach, we never dreamed we would have a chance to experience any part of their maritime routine.

Turns out we were wrong. Thanks to some friends in the right places, we just took the most eye-opening boat ride we have ever experienced. After signing some official looking releases, we were welcomed aboard a yellow pilot boat for the roughly 26-mile round trip out the channel to the open sea, and back.

“The Brunswick” is a 28-foot Zodiac operated by Captain Drew. His company, Sea Tow  (, is primarily a towing and rescue service, but also provides the Brunswick Port Authority with pilot boats who transport harbor captains back from the commercial ships after they safely guide them through the ship channel to or from the Port of Brunswick, Georgia. The pilot boat we boarded is bright yellow and has a steel structure with a thick rubber inflated tire wrapping the outside that works like a bumper on a giant bumper car. It has an electronic array to rival that on The Star Ship Enterprise, and two wet turbines that work like jet-skis: no propellers, but engines that suck the seawater in at the front and push it out in the back. There is a deck in the back and an air conditioned cabin that includes a captain’s seat, two co-pilot seats, a bench and a bed (the reason for the bed will be explained later).

We left the Golden Isles Marina when the target ship came into view in the channel after crossing under the Sidney Lanier Bridge. The enormous “Bahama Spirit” currently plies the waters between Brunswick and the Bahamas. It is a fully automated transport ship that has conveyor belts throughout designed to move raw material into storage bays that make up most of the interior of its structure. This raw material is dredged from the ocean floor off the Bahamas and then transported to Brunswick, where it is taken off of the ship and ultimately turned into gypsum at an area factory. This particular ship weighs roughly 46,000 tons before loading and is 615 feet long. It is medium sized compared to some of the really giant transports that we routinely see heading out to sea, but seen up close, it is a monster. One teenage member of our group, courtesy of iGoogle, informed us midway through our adventure that the ship was owned by a subsidiary of the Algoma Corporation out of Ontario, Canada, but that this subsidiary is registered in Bridgetown, Barbados and that the ship itself is registered in Port Vila, Vanatu. None of our group remembered that there was a country named Vanatu, much less where it was located. Certainly no one could recognize the Vanatu flag flying off the back of the boat. With the 14-year-old mining Google for more information from his phone, we learned that Vanatu is a group of islands in Melanesia in the South Pacific, in the same general neighborhood as Tahiti and Fiji (eg within 2000 miles or so). To add to the diversity of places the ship has ties with, the 6-man crew on the “Bahama Spirit” is from Mumbai, India. Despite regular landfalls in places like Brunswick, the crew for visa reasons is only allowed to go ashore every 6 months, when they arrive at home in Bombay for a 4-month shore leave. Despite the hardship of staying on the boat for 6 months at a time, there is reportedly a waiting list for this job.

image2For the first hour, we followed the “Bahama Spirit” in the channel delineated by red and green buoys — (“red right return” may be the most fundamental rule in modern navigation). We were able to observe the “Bahama Spirit” from fore to aft as “The Brunswick” caught up with her and cruised alongside. While we wiled away the time it took to reach the sea buoy that marks the end of the 13-mile channel, we asked endless questions of our captain, which he patiently answered. Some of them were fact questions (“how does a knot compare to a mile?”), some were more about lifestyle (“do you do this every day?”) and some were random things that we have all wondered about (“do you ever see whales in the channel?”). He had good answers for all of them. As we were catching up with the ship, we saw shrimp boats just outside of the channel, with dolphins and seagulls following in their wake enjoying the seafood bonanza caused by the huge propellers of the departing ship. When we finally caught up with the “Bahama Spirit,” we could see the working sailors on deck getting everything in place for the several day voyage to the Bahamas, and we could also see the massive rudder and wake being churned up from the back of the ship.

When the sea buoy marking the end of the channel and the beginning of the open sea appeared, Captain Drew immediately navigated the Zodiac toward the immense ship. About 50 feet above us, we saw several crew members in orange jumpsuits and hardhats conferring in the bow of the boat.  Two other crew members came to check out the rope ladder that hung off of the edge of the boat mid-ship and whose bottom rung dangled 10 feet above the open sea. The “Bahama Spirit” doesn’t stop after it leaves port, so the exchange has to occur with the large and small boat matching speed.

image3Captain Drew pulled our boat next to the ship, which was moving at about 18 miles per hour, and perfectly aligned the bow of our relatively tiny boat with the rope ladder hanging from the giant cargo ship. While we were still processing the sudden shock of bumping directly into this behemoth that could have easily crushed us, a white haired man in a blue jacket hurried out to the rail on the main deck 40 plus feet above us. We shrewdly guessed that this must be the harbor pilot because he had on a wind breaker that said PILOT.  Without any particular fanfare, he strapped on a safety harness and in less than 20 seconds efficiently climbed down the ladder that was dangling above us and dropped safely onto the bow of our boat.

After removing his climbing rig and waving it back up to the waiting sailors, he joined us in the cabin and we immediately turned back toward St. Simons Island. The pilot told us that he had used a safety harness because this particular boat was laid out in a way that made the climb down unsafe, in his opinion. Normally, he would not have bothered. Although it was in no way part of his job description, Captain Lawrence Gray, a fit, compact 67-year-old veteran harbor pilot, immediately began enchanting us with his sea=faring tales.

Captain Gray started his career as a harbor pilot when he was 20 years old and currently has 47 years experience in his job — a rare longevity and focus in today’s world. He raised his family on College Street on St. Simons Island. He remembers unpaved sandy streets and a drawbridge, and only moved his permanent residence off of the island after he was refused reentry to evacuate his family during a hurricane scare in 1999. He claims that the curry on the “Bahama Spirit” is better than any he knows of because the sailors bring their unique ingredients with them from India. Because they routinely travel back and forth between the Bahamas and Brunswick, he has been their pilot on many image4occasions. He also told us that this particular ship is highly automated and that 6 people is an ample crew size. Doing the math, this ship has the volume of a 55-story, 600,000-SF office building which would typically provide a workplace for 2000 people.

Sometimes, when he is plucked off of a ship after safely getting it out to sea, or put on a ship to bring it into port, it is the third changeover in a 24-hour period for Captain Gray. At that point he has been on duty for over 18 hours. By the end of this long shift, he has climbed down or up a rope ladder that is the equivalent of several four to ten-story buildings after an hour or more of intense piloting, taking the ship through a tricky channel and often doing this after many hours of standby time. If we had not been around pestering him with questions, Captain Gray could possibly have taken a nap on that bed before he made landfall. Or maybe not. Somewhere between the drop off point and our return to port, his wife called his cell phone to give him a list of things to pick up at the Winn-Dixie on the way home. All in a day’s work.

Hamp Skelton, James Skelton, Will Skelton and John Skelton contributed to this article.