Scott MacDonald navigates the Front Century through the Strait of Canso.

By: Marjorie Simmins

STRAIT AREA: As a feat of coordination, skill, and strength, it’s hard to beat a harbour pilot boarding an immense cargo ship – one step at a time, via a 40-foot rope ladder that dips up and down with every ocean wave. Even in good weather.

“It’s a part of our training to watch the wave movements and try to grab the right rung on the ladder,” explains Scott MacDonald, one of nine Cape Breton marine pilots working for the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, a federal Crown Corporation responsible for providing marine pilotage service in Atlantic Canada. The Cape Breton region includes the Strait of Canso, Sydney Harbor, and the Bras d’Or Lake.

Photos by Jack Ronalds
Boarding ships by scrambling up a ladder is the reason a lot of ships captains do not apply for the job.

Harbor pilots expertly guide vessels through dangerous or congested waters such as harbours or river mouths. Ships of over 1,500 Gross Registered Tonnage, both Canadian and foreign, require pilotage. That includes tankers, bulk carriers, general cargo ships, tugs and barges, and cruise ships.

Work for the pilots is year-round, with the busiest season from mid-August to the end of October, due to the cruise ship traffic. In 2017, approximately 80 cruise ships came to Sydney Harbour.

For 16 years, MacDonald, 47, has been driving vessels – small, mid-size, large and gargantuan – from open waters to harbour waters. There’s no other career he’d rather have.

Born and raised in Creignish, where he now resides with his wife Melinda MacDonald and their three sons, Seamus (20), Braden (16), and Callum (14), MacDonald has been on the water one way or another since he was a boy.

“My father was a fisherman so most of my early years involved helping out on the boat,” he says.

He was fishing full-time in the summer by age 14, bought a lobster license by 18, and fished his way through to a BA in Economics in 1992, from Acadia University. He continued on with maritime studies and accreditation at the Nova Scotia Nautical Institute.

By 1998, MacDonald had worked on a BC ferry, and on tugs and off-shore supply boats. He’d also gathered up a Mate’s License, a Tug Master’s License, and an Unlimited Tonnage Ship Master’s License (ON1). He could now serve as captain of a commercial vessel of any size, of any type, operating anywhere in the world.

But he needed more training yet, to become a harbour pilot.

“I started work as an apprentice pilot in the fall of 2001,” says MacDonald. “It took me about two years of intense on-the-job training and many ship-handling courses around the world to obtain an unlimited Marine Pilot’s license. The training is progressive, allowing you to pilot larger and larger vessels as your skills and experience increase.”

Scott MacDonald is pictured on the deck of the pilot boat Strait Eagle while approaching the tanker Front Century.

The Strait of Canso has two pilot boats, the Strait Eagle and Strait Falcon. The pilot station, where the pilot boat meets the incoming ship, is off Canso, in Chedabucto Bay. The ships’ captains adjust their speed to arrive at the pilot station when the pilot has also arrived.

“The ships are underway, travelling at seven to eight knots when we meet them at the pilot station,” says MacDonald.

The 65-foot pilot boat is also travelling at seven to eight knots.

Then for the tricky bit.

“The rudders are put hard over towards the ship,” says MacDonald. “The engine power and flow of the water then pushes the pilot boat against the ship.”

Is it easy to scramble up that ladder?

“Horrible, actually,” laughs MacDonald.

Boarding vessels in this way is also the reason why a lot of Ships Captains do not apply for the job, he says.

Pilots also need nerves that do not quit.

“The first ship I took through the Canso Lock alone was called Magdalena Green,” MacDonald says. “It was brand-new and heading to Pictou to load paper. About a half-mile from the lock’s entrance the ship’s main engine suddenly went full ahead.” MacDonald did not immediately recognize what was happening. To his dismay, the ship’s speed rapidly increased.

It was time for action.

“I did manage to abort entering the lock,” he says. “I turned the ship hard to port and dropped anchor very close to the jetty at Martin Marietta. The ship’s crew fixed the problem and about three hours later, we successfully transited the lock.” The experience, he says, made him wonder about his career choice.

“Thankfully I got over it,” he smiles. “I chose this profession because I love handling large ships. It’s challenging, but I enjoy that aspect of it. No two pilotage assignments are ever the same.”

For MacDonald, it’s much more than the intellectual and physical aspects of the job that keep him reaching for the ladder.

“I have been able to meet people from almost every maritime nation, which I have really enjoyed. When you are exposed to different perspectives it really influences the way you see the world yourself. Being able to talk to working people from all over has been a great learning experience for me.”

Pictured are the marine terminals at NuStar Energy in Point Tupper.