Harbor pilots weather state legislation

BAR HARBOR — If Bay Ferries resumes international ferry service from Bar Harbor, it will be with the daily assistance of a Maine licensed harbor pilot such as Captain Skip Strong.

Strong is a member of the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association. His job as harbor pilot is to board vessels and work with crew to successfully navigate a harbor and find anchorage. Harbor Pilotage is a state program whose goal is to keep boat traffic in harbors as safe as possible.

When regular international ferry service between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia first began with the Bluenose Ferry in 1955, state pilots had not begun operating in Bar Harbor. That started in the late 1980s, according to Strong. At that time, ferries were exempt from state piloting regulations. Then, Strong explained, “over the years we started doing more piloting [with ferries].” Pilots would be present at the first trip of the year, and once each month. “It worked fairly well,” said Strong. “We never had issues.”

In 2009, Bay Ferries halted service out of Bar Harbor. Around this time, Strong said, “cruise ships really started ramping up.” Then in January of 2012, the WV Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy killing 32 people, which, though far away, was used by the Maine Pilotage Commission as an example of a vessel operating in calm seas without a pilot.

In 2012 the Maine Pilotage Commission proposed ending the ferry exemption, holding ferries to the same piloting requirements other boats are subject to. The proposal was passed by unanimous vote of the Transportation Committee of the Maine State Legislature, and signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage.

When Bay Ferries resumed international ferry service from Portland in 2016, it needed a harbor pilot on every trip. In January 2018, the company sought to amend state law to reinstate the ferry exemption. The bill that would have benefited Bay Ferries, L.D. 1752, was proposed by Mark Dion (D).

According to a statement issued by Mark MacDonald, chairman and chief executive officer of Bay Ferries Limited, the request for exemption coincided with a rate increase for mandatory pilot services reinstated by the Portland Harbor Commission in 2017.

L.D. 1752 was opposed by the Maine Pilotage Commission and Bar Harbor State Representative Brian Hubbell. Hubbell wrote, “As you know I would like very much for ferry service to return and find economic viability.” However, Hubbell went on to write about the dangers of navigating a busy port and the need for harbor pilots. “Safety is my overarching concern,” he wrote.

State Senator Brian Langley supported L.D. 1752, saying that its passage would “allow capable sailors to do what they do best — and they have a proven track record showing how safe they are on our seas. Prior to the 2012 changes to pilotage requirements, Maine had not had a ferry-related accident in more than 40 years,” Langley wrote in a statement.

The Portland Pilots Inc. and Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association opposed L.D. 1752 on the grounds that it “would open a loophole in Maine state law” that could weaken piloting requirements, according to their written statement. Strong said, for example, once they make exemptions for ferries, they could be challenged by any boat company that makes regularly scheduled trips through Maine waters, such as a regularly visiting cruise line.

L.D. 1752 was rejected by the transportation commission in January 2018, so current harbor pilot requirements remain unchanged.

Strong said harbor pilots approve of keeping the law intact. For one thing, the amount of cruse ship traffic has doubled since 2009, he said. “We definitely think there should be pilots on board: Kayaks going back and forth, tenders going back and forth. We’re not picking on a particular vessel or particular captains.”

“As pilots we would love to see the ferry come back. If the town wants it, it really would be beneficial.”

Strong said that while Bay Ferries is subject to the harbor pilot requirement, they are welcome to discuss rates with the Maine Pilot Commission. “Pilots don’t set the rate,” he explained, making it clear that pilots themselves have no financial incentive. “Their goal is for safety. What we protect is: commerce, the state, and the environment.”

Mark MacDonald of Bay Ferries could not be reached for comment on this article.

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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