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As Harbor Pilot, He's the Master of Ships' Fate

CALIFORNIANS: One in an intermittent series.

October 30, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

It's 5:45 a.m. Ward Pearce Jr. is at work on the bridge of the Norwegian tanker Brali, snapping quiet orders that guide the huge ship through the predawn mist in Los Angeles Harbor.

"There's a fishing skiff," he notes, nodding toward a white light. "There's a buoy," he adds, but the untrained eye sees nothing in the night.

Ward Pearce Jr. is a port pilot. It's his job to berth the Brali--and other ships--without running aground, leaving a trail of wreckage or crushing the dock.

All those misfortunes might easily occur, given that the Brali towers seven stories above the harbor, draws 34 feet of water, stretches the length of two football fields, and beneath Pearce's feet she hauls more than 400,000 gallons of gasoline from China and Korea.

Pearce's Destiny

Since childhood, Pearce has been destined for the sea. Now, in his own words, he's at the top.

He grew up in Newport Beach. His parents called him Skip, and they still do. At the California Maritime Academy, his ambition was to be a pilot: "It's as high as you can go in our industry. I feel I am higher than a captain."

In fact, Pearce is a captain. Every workday, he climbs the single flight of stairs in the pilot station beside Los Angeles Harbor's Main Channel and passes the posted licenses of the city's 16 harbor pilots. Pearce's "ticket" attests to his right to command any U.S. steam or motor ship.

Pearce is a meticulous man who adheres to schedules and pays attention to details.

He's up at 4:15 a.m. thanks to two alarm clocks and a clock radio, out of his Rancho Palos Verdes house by 5 o'clock without breakfast ("My sack time's worth more than my breakfast"), into his butterscotch-colored '73 Chevy station wagon to reach work by 5:15, a quarter of an hour early.

First things first: a cup of coffee sipped from a white mug plastered with "Captain W. Pearce Jr." on one side and the City of Los Angeles seal skewered by an anchor on the other.

His Name on the Line

He checks the board where dispatcher Laurie Adley has chalked Brali in neat, block letters. His name is on the same line.

At 5:30, Pearce climbs aboard the 43-foot pilot's launch, Bahia de Angeles. Boat operator Ned Zittel heads into the harbor, trailing wake from bow and stern, a couple of 350 horsepower V-8 diesels shoving his chunky, 14-ton craft along toward the Brali at 13 miles an hour.

Zittel, 49, cuts through the black water and mist with the confidence of 19 years on the job. "Three to go," he says, meaning three more years before retirement.

Moonlight is good as daylight to Zittel, who says he could paint the windows of his launch and do just fine. "Sometimes we can't see 10 feet off the bow," he declares. Then his radar becomes his eyes. "I can spot sea gulls and pelicans on radar."

A dark wall rises from the water. Zittel snaps on a searchlight, swings it right, then left, and picks out a ladder hugging the side of the wall. It's the Brali.

Pearce thanks Zittel, and scampers up the ladder to the ship's deck.

Inside the vessel, he quickly climbs five more decks on red vinyl stairs as clean as an executive's desk.

On the bridge, the ship's captain waits. Kjell Vagtberg, a whaler's son, is a portly man with unruly, prematurely gray hair and an attitude that transcends words. That attitude telegraphs a message more clearly than the four gold stripes on his epaulets: "I am master of this ship."

Mutual Respect

Respect is immediate and obvious between Vagtberg and Pearce, both of whom are 47, both married, both parents and--above all--both professional seamen. Pearce is Pilot. Vagtberg is Captain. The captain commands if he wants, but he knows his fate--and the Brali's--is in the pilot's hands.

Pearce gives the orders. But not until Vagtberg repeats them are they carried out by Frank Kvalheim, the 23-year-old helmsman who looks more like the king of the high school prom than a man controlling a $35-million ship with a wheel the size of the tire from a child's little red wagon. In the dawn light, the Vincent Thomas Bridge appears gossamer, a delicate web of steel traversed by bug-like vehicles. Smooth as a fish, the Brali glides under the bridge.

"Port 20," Pearce orders. Then, "Port 10." Pause. "Midships." Pause. "Port 10." Pause. "Port 20." Pause. "Hard aport." Pause. "Midships." Pause. "Starboard 10."

For all the urgency in his tone, Pearce might as well be commanding, "Pass the butter." Vagtberg repeats each order, Kvalheim executes it, and just beyond the bridge the ship sweeps around in a full left turn.

Far below, single lines secure two sturdy, 105-foot tugboats to the Brali's bows. The tugs, dwarfed by the huge tanker, look remarkably like bathtub toys. They churn the black harbor water to light green, obeying Pearce's radio-transmitted orders as they make delicate adjustments that the ship's powerful, four-cylinder engine can't handle.

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