Take the helm, pilot

As a harbor pilot, Port Washington resident Chris Kincaid commands some of world’s biggest ships

Chris Kincaid was photographed beside a massive container ship he piloted into the Port of Miami.
Ozaukee Press staff

Chris Kincaid has a job where he is in charge for only about two hours at a time.

But in those precious 120 minutes, he is responsible for thousands of lives or millions of dollars worth of cargo.

Kincaid works as a harbor pilot for the Port of Miami, guiding ships to shore and back out to sea.

It’s a little-known job but a vital one. Each port has its own contours and currents that require a range of maneuvers by a variety of ships to safely get in and out without damaging either the port or the vessels.

“It’s the nature of the port, really. Our expertise is the local knowledge. All of us have done it thousands of times,” Kincaid said from his Port Washington condo while on spring break.

Kincaid has worked at the port since 2012. He said he has completed about 5,000 transits by ships.

Kincaid rides a 48-foot pilot boat about six miles out to sea, where the water is about 1,000 feet deep. He climbs aboard the ship on what is called a “Jacob’s ladder” and is instantly in charge.

He knows the currents and the winds, and he gives the quartermaster commands on how and when to power the engines and where to steer.

Kincaid has piloted the world’s largest passenger ship, Symphony of the Seas, several times. It’s 1,184 feet long, 238 feet tall and can carry 6,680 people — more than the population of the Village of Saukville.

“It keeps us on our toes, even after thousands of trips,” Kincaid said. “You’re only moments away from a catastrophe.”

Kincaid calls boarding the ship on the ladder “the spooky part.” He prefers that ships travel at 7 mph, a speed the pilot boat matches as he clambers aboard. Much can go wrong, including ladders not being locked into position. Pilots have been injured or killed getting on or off. Kincaid said there were five deaths in the last five years.

“It’s very dangerous. It’s not to be taken lightly,” he said.

Once aboard, the pilot rules.

Captains are on schedules driven by their companies, and being told to sit offshore due to bad weather doesn’t sit well with them or their bosses.

“They can argue with me but they’re not going to get anywhere,” Kincaid said, adding sometimes he has to be in the captain’s corner to advocate delays due to safety.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re there, to provide independent judgment that’s not driven by profit,” Kincaid said.

Even good weather can bring challenges. Kincaid and his 18 fellow pilots have to be the equivalent of air traffic controllers when multiple ships are scheduled to arrive. Every one of them wants to be first in line.

Kincaid said he tries to keep at least a mile between vessels to prevent their captains from getting nervous.

“They don’t stop on a dime,” he said of the large vessels.

There are no guidebooks or rules to follow.

“All of these things have been figured out the hard way,” Kincaid said.

The dance needs to be well timed. Line handlers are waiting to tie the ship up, stevedores are waiting to unload cargo and U.S. Immigration and Customs officials are ready to do their checks.

While Miami is a hub for Central American trade, vessels come from across the world. The global language of shipping is English, but skill levels vary. Some boats need to have translators aboard.

Indian ships may greet Kincaid with a spicy chai, and those from Greece with a different beverage.

“Greek coffee changes the dynamic,” he said.

Regardless of the type of ship, the controls are usually about the same. Many of the biggest ships, Kincaid said, are made by Hyundai of South Korea, a company known more for its cars.

Passenger ships comprise about 60% of Kincaid’s work. Miami likes to bill itself as the cruise ship capital of the world.

When it comes to cargo, Kincaid has no idea what the contents of the containers is.

Sometimes, he gets an inkling that the ship may be checked for something illegal, but he disembarks as soon as it gets into port and doesn’t see the results.

Some of Kincaid’s favorite ships are the small weathered ones from Haiti. Their equipment often doesn’t work well, and there’s no air conditioning. He takes those to the mouth of the Miami River, where they are towed upstream by tugs to be loaded with a variety of supplies.

Kincaid’s schedule requires two weeks on call and two weeks off. Captains are given two hours notice for ship arrivals. While on call, he lives in Fort Lauderdale, 30 minutes away.

The pandemic has affected his job. He has guided vessels in full protective garb and saw the cruise ships industry come to a near stop. Cargos remain impacted by supply chain shortages, he said.

Before joining the Port of Miami, Kincaid was an officer on fiber optic repair vessels across the globe for 12 years.

Laser lights show the locations of breaks in the cables strung across the oceans that transfer data. A hook is thrown over the stern of the ship and dragged until it catches the garden hose-sized cable, hopefully the right one, Kincaid said.

Cables lay on the ocean floor as deep as 6,000 meters below the surface.

His excursions could last up to 90 days. They would often include “pretty cool” views of whale sharks and turtles, he said.

Before that, Kincaid worked on a variety of vessels, including some that hauled jet fuel.

His career path was determined in high school. He grew up in central Florida, then Houston, which has a huge port. His neighborhood included NASA employees, some of whom earned engineering degrees from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

Kincaid’s mother was a justice department paralegal, his father was a hydrogeologist and his stepfather was a postal inspector.

Kincaid was always interested in seafaring, and he asked his guidance counselor about the career. An old brochure from the Merchant Marine Academy was dusted off from a buried pile of papers.

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison gave Kincaid an appointment, and he was off to the academy in Long Island, N.Y., where he earned a degree in marine transportation. An entire year was spent training at sea.

It was at the academy where he met his future wife, Brigitt, who went on to join the National Guard as a pilot at the refueling wing out of Milwaukee.

Kincaid has worked for 12 years as a Port of Milwaukee pilot. His license, issued by the Coast Guard, authorizes him to be the master of the largest ships at sea.         “By law, I could be captain of any ship,” he said.

When he isn’t on the water for work, he is on or under it for enjoyment. Kincaid said he gets seasick on sailboats, but he enjoys powerboating, and he and his wife and their sons, ages 7 and 5, have a center console fishing boat in Fort Lauderdale. He likes to dive to check out the reefs.

Kincaid enjoys the variety of experiences in his career and recommends that teens look into the Merchant Marine Academy, whose graduates have many career options and are automatically commissioned military officers. Kincaid spent 14 years in the Navy Reserve.




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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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