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Smooth Sailing Into Port


PORT HUENEME — Capt. Carl Dingler knows this port like he drew the map. He knows its depth, its docks--he even knows each lamppost.

One of only two port pilots at the Port of Hueneme, Dingler is a valet of the deep--except that the "vehicles" in his care are the size of skyscrapers, can cost about $100 million and have no brakes.

At 57, Dingler is an institution at the port. As he walks across the wharf, it's not uncommon to hear yells of "Hey, Capt. D!" He and his partner of six years, Andrew Harvey, help guide 350 large ships a year through this deep-water port, one at a time.

It's a small operation, compared with those at larger ports, such as the Port of Long Beach, which has 15 port pilots and often moves three ships at a time.

If a deal to transfer use of the Navy's Wharf 3 to the port is completed, Dingler may have to hire a third port pilot.

Ferried by tugboat to the Norwegian ship Skaubryn early Wednesday morning, Dingler hoists himself up a rope ladder that clings to the ship like a vine. He takes over the controls from the captain, chanting arcane orders into a walkie-talkie like a slow mantra: "Port 10, midship, Port 10 . . . "

He has to watch the current and keep track of the ship's speed by turning the engine on and off. He knows this ship well enough to gauge its reaction time. It took five years, he said, to get to know the port.

"It's stressful, and it's my job to make it look easy," he said. "It's similar to the life of an airplane pilot: 90% routine, 10% extreme concentration."

Dingler can't see his progress from the ship's bridge, so he has to trust that his tugboats are where they should be. When the auto carrier docks an hour later, it seems natural and smooth, as if the ship had just drifted into place.

Now it's time to unload the Mazdas.

A port pilot doesn't keep regular hours but must adjust to the the schedules of the ships in port. On Wednesday, for example, Dingler worked half a day in the morning, including finishing paperwork for the auto carrier, and would return later to do more piloting.

He was set to guide a second ship Wednesday evening and then pilot the Skaubryn back out to sea, returning by tugboat to the wharf after midnight.

"He's outstanding," said Karl Britt, who as wharfinger acts as a sea traffic control chief and helps guide the port pilots to dock. "When you'd be going, 'Oh, God, that seems too close,' he's got this calm voice."

To be fair, parking a cargo ship--which nets the self-employed port pilots about $900 apiece, each way--isn't a one-man operation. The ships are so huge that the port pilots need eyes on several sides and a couple of tugboats to slow the ship and help jerk it slowly into place once it's near dock.

A ruddy, compact man with a sober, thoughtful demeanor, Dingler started his port pilot career at the Panama Canal 28 years ago, after working several years as a merchant marine. He piloted ships three times a week for eight to 12 hours at a time, during a time when pilots were largely trained on the job.

But even with that kind of experience, the delicate task can occasionally go awry. Dingler once slammed a ship into a dock at the Port of Hueneme when its engine gave out.

"All you could do is drop the anchor and brace yourself," he said. "The people on the dock don't know that your engine's not working. They just think you're nuts. It was not my finest hour."

A port pilot's biggest challenge is usually weather, which can disrupt the arrival of a ship into port--or leave a pilot stranded, unable to return to dock.

"I had one time I couldn't get off the ship. I rode it all the way to Long Beach," he said. "It's not unheard of to have a pilot end up taking a trip to Japan."

Dingler admits that someday technology could overtake his industry and the job of port pilots could become automated. Though economically unfeasible now, Dingler's way of life won't likely last forever, he said.

"Things change," he said. "I'm not naive enough to believe they won't continue to change. In seven or eight years, when I retire, who knows what will have happened?"

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