Captain Steve Sottak prepares to disembark from the Abundance/Harvest after guiding the barge from Port Sutton on June 10, 2024, in Tampa, Florida.

Captain Steve Sottak prepares to disembark from the Abundance/Harvest after guiding the barge from Port Sutton on June 10, 2024, in Tampa, Florida. (CHRIS URSO/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — The 21 harbor pilots who work in Port Tampa Bay are tasked with using their knowledge of local waterways to navigate the area’s narrow channels to dock more than 2,000 massive ships each year.

When a ship nears port, the pilots clamber aboard ships that often stretch over 1,000 feet — longer than the height of any skyscraper in Tampa. They take control from captains from around the world to bring in needed goods: fuel, groceries, fertilizer, furniture, construction materials and hazardous chemicals. They also pilot cruise ships holding thousands of people.

The association representing those pilots said it’s received pressure recently from the port to change policies in ways that the pilots say would be less safe. Officials at the port are pushing back, saying the changes they want are needed to stay competitive for business with shipping companies and are comparable to rules at similar-sized ports.

The complaints from the association come as the port and the pilots are at odds over a pay rate increase for the pilots that was approved by a state board that governs the pilots in 2023.

Port leadership has asked pilots to cede control over deciding when to use one or two pilots to help bring a ship into port, said Terry Fluke, executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, and to navigate vessels loaded with more cargo that get closer to the channel bottom. Doing so could increase the risk of hitting hard limestone and making slowing, stopping and steering ships more difficult, the association said. The pilots have also raised concerns about the safety of the port’s docking conditions and issues with lighting at docks.

”If they keep pressuring us to reduce these guidelines, there’s a real potential for tragedy,” Fluke said.

Capt. Jack Timmel, manager for the pilots association, said Port Secretary and Treasurer Patrick Allman approached him this month and said that the legal fight before an administrative judge over the pay raises could go away if the port gets more power over deciding safety guidelines.

“We’re not going to be bullied into that,” Timmel said.

Allman did not respond to phone calls, texts and emailed requests for comment sent over several days.

Lisa Wolf-Chason, director of communications for Port Tampa Bay, said no one told pilots that the port would drop the pay issue if they agreed to the rule changes. Wolf-Chason said the port and its tenants want to be involved in the pilots’ discussions about the safety rules and said the pilots ultimately have to approve any safety guideline changes.

Wolf-Chason said the port has experts on staff who are qualified to evaluate any risks and works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers, among others, to ensure safety.

Compared to similar-sized ports, some of the Tampa harbor pilot’s safety rules are more conservative, Wolf-Chason said, pointing to Port Canaveral and Port Miami, which have guidelines allowing ships to get as close as three feet from the channel bottom, compared with the 3.21-feet minimum requirement at Port Tampa Bay.

But Fluke said the characteristics of every port and its channels are unique, and that comparing one port to another is like “comparing apples to oranges.”

Fluke said the pilots are willing to work with port leadership and recently allowed their ships closer to the channel bottom at the port’s request. But leadership has continued to ask them to get closer to the bottom. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a $1 billion dredging project that would deepen Tampa Bay’s channel.

In 2020, the year after the port welcomed its largest ship ever, Patrick Blair, director of engineering for the port, asked the pilots in a letter to reduce their “under keel clearance,” which refers to how close a ship gets to the channel bottom. Blair said that failing to reduce the clearance could lead to a “competitive disadvantage” with other ports. That change reduced the clearance by nearly a foot, to just over three feet from the bottom — roughly the height of a traffic cone.

The ask was prompted by a letter from Tim Haas, then-senior vice president of international shipping company CMA CGM. Haas told Paul Anderson, president and CEO of Port Tampa Bay, in a letter that he had concerns about the future of the company’s “profitability” in continuing to use the port. Haas asked for “immediate assistance” from port leadership.

A year ago, the port asked for the clearance to be reduced again. The pilots say the port has asked the pilots to allow as little as two feet of under-keel clearance.

Port officials have acknowledged that the channel has areas of hard limestone unlike the softer bottoms of some other channels. But Blair told the pilots in a 2020 letter that a historical survey showed that the boats would hit at least two feet of soft material at the channel bottom before reaching limestone.

Fluke said that a ship could end up “grounded,” or stuck, regardless of whether the ship hits soft material or hard limestone. Being grounded is against U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations.

The pilots association also shared emails detailing issues with lighting at docks when pilots are approaching the port at night, including a 2022 incident that Fluke reported and called “a really unsafe condition.”

Wolf-Chason said Port Tampa Bay is a “landlord port” and that tenants are responsible for having the lights on. She said the 2022 lighting issue was addressed with the tenant.

Timmel said dock safety issues, including lighting, are ongoing and sent emails showing issues at two docks in April.

Fluke said the port should be responsible for its tenants and that it’s his job to point out issues to avoid catastrophe. If something goes wrong with the ships, harmful chemicals or fuel could be spilled, and in a worst-case scenario, lives could be lost.

“There are major environmental and human risks we have to think about,” Fluke said.

©2024 Tampa Bay Times.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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