New boats provide safe passage for pilots

Two new vessels are plying the waters of the Twin Ports, providing a critical service in a business that links the Northland to ports all around the world.

Two new vessels are plying the waters of the Twin Ports, providing a critical service in a business that links the Northland to ports all around the world.

The "Sea Eagle" and the "Sea Bear," a pair of bright yellow boats, can be seen ferrying Great Lakes pilots to and from the foreign ships that call on the Twin Ports.

These ships come from all over the world, commonly from Russia, India, China, the Philippines and Europe, and in many cases, their captains have never seen the Aerial Lift Bridge or the Superior entry. To ensure the protection of local resources and safe passage for these ships, United States maritime law requires any foreign vessel to have a U.S. or Canadian registered pilot aboard whenever the vessel is under way.

Often, a pilot will bring a ship into the Twin Ports and anchor the vessel as it waits for dock space or cargo to become available. Sea Service L.L.C. provides the boats that bring the pilots to and from these ships.

This summer, Sea Service, owned by Superiorite Capt. Ed Montgomery and his wife Jeanne Montgomery, purchased the two new vessels to improve their ability to serve the pilots and to expand their business operations.


The new boats replace the aging Sea Falcon, (formerly the Arvid Morken) which was sold to a private party.

The "Sea Eagle" is a 40-foot high-speed former Coast Guard patrol and rescue boat. In good weather, the boat can get a pilot out to a ship in about half the time it took the "Sea Falcon" to make the trip. In addition to pilot duties, it will also provide assistance and rescue services for recreational boaters in the Twin Ports.

{IMG2}While the smaller Sea Eagle arrived in the Northland on a truck from the East Coast, Montgomery and his crew navigated the 50-foot Sea Bear from its former port, where it had served the Sandy Hook Pilots in New York Harbor, to Duluth. The crew safely made the 27-day voyage home, but not before encountering a three-day storm on the Atlantic Ocean.

"We had 15-foot waves put her to the test, and the boat handled just fine," Montgomery said. "I don't think you could get any water in this boat unless you opened a window. She is made for high seas and rough weather."

At 30 tons, the vessel is a seaworthy craft that features a heating system to prevent ice from forming on its decks, a dangerous safety hazard for both the boat's crew and the pilots they carry.

"We've never had anything like this up here before," said Capt. Don Willecke, president of the Great Lakes Pilots Association, which contracts with Sea Services for pilot boat services in the Twin Ports and in Chicago. "They're a big improvement, both in speed and safety."

Transferring a pilot on or off a ship is a hazardous operation. In November 1999, Willecke slipped on an icy ladder while coming off a ship and fell into the dangerously cold Lake Superior. Montgomery and Sea Service Capt. Dann Edholm were on the pilot boat and pulled him out of the frigid water. In 2001, the pilot boat Wescott capsized and sank in the Detroit River while attempting to change out pilots. The boat's captain and crew member were killed.

"Pilots and pilot boat crews have the second most dangerous maritime jobs, second only to commercial fishing," Montgomery said.


So Sea Service puts a priority on safety, both to protect the pilots and his own employees, Montgomery said.

"Asking someone to go out onto one of the stormy Great Lakes at 3 a.m. to transfer ship personnel is a tall order for anyone," he said. "They make sacrifices away from their family, in sometimes dangerous situations and are on call 24/7. The duty is not for everyone, and it's not easy to find those with the skill, interest and courage."

Operating on Lake Superior means conditions can change quickly.

"It could be a beautiful day and it is the best job in the world, and then the weather turns," said Edholm. "You have to see things before they happen. You may only have a limited window of opportunity to get someone on and off a ship safely, and you are liable for someone's life."

The Montgomerys see the new boats as an investment in the futuret. "We feel strongly that this is a good business to be in, we're profitable and frankly, we like it," Montgomery said. "If you don't like the water and don't like being challenged, this is not the job for you. Get by with a desk."

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