A day in the life of a Federal Cape Fear River Pilot

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WILMINGTON — Although it lies just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean, to reach the Port of Wilmington commercial ships must journey some 26 miles up the Cape Fear River to offload their goods.

The journey can be treacherous, especially for captains without local knowledge of the waterway. That’s where Anthony McNeill comes in.

For the past ten years, McNeill has been operating as an independent Federal Pilot for the Port of Wilmington, guiding ships safely to port and then back out to sea. McNeill helps transport millions of dollars of cargo on any given day.

Located some 26 miles up the Cape Fear River, the Port of Wilmington provides berthing to ships over 1000 feet long. The river itself is treacherous, and that's where the Pilots come in. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
Located some 26 miles up the Cape Fear River, the Port of Wilmington provides berthing to ships over 1000 feet long. The river itself is treacherous, and that’s where the pilots come in. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)

The job seems simple, and if you ask McNeill, he’ll say it is. But ships seeking a berth in the Port are often between 700 and 1,000 feet long, making them slow to stop and cumbersome to maneuver. The knowledge required to navigate the shifting shoals of the Cape Fear is extensive. Still, no schooling is required for the job, just a wealth of experience and a lifetime spent on the water, McNeill said.

“I still get nervous sometimes, but, if you pass the tests then that means you’re qualified to do it…but that doesn’t mean your ever really qualified,” McNeill said laughing. “If you come out here cocky, you can get messed up. I never get in a hurry, that’s probably the big thing, that’s when people mess up, when they get in a hurry.”

Then there are the unexpected challenges. Last year, McNeill had his first run-in with a pair of whale. He had to dodge a mother and calf along the sandbar at the entrance to the channel in the mouth of the Cape Fear.

“That was something else,” he said.

All in a days work

According to McNeill, one of the most challenging aspects of the job is dealing with the environmental conditions. Pilots often operate at night, through fog, rain, and everything in between.

The pilots operate through channels, called "reaches," that require a bit of planning to tackle...especially when it comes to passing other, bigger ships. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
The pilots operate through channels, called ‘reaches,’ that require a bit of planning to tackle — especially when it comes to passing other, bigger ships. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)

“A lot of people don’t think the wind in the currents don’t have an effect on these things, they think that because they’re so big, it’s nothing to them,” he said. “It definitely does, if you get sideways in it, it can really start pushing you around.”

A few weeks ago, McNeill had to turn around – for the first time in his career – after wind and sea conditions in the mouth of the river caused massive standing waves to block their passage.

“That was the first time I’d ever asked if they wanted to turn around,” he said with a laugh. “There is a line, and we’d definitely crossed it that night.”

Despite the challenges, the job has its rewards, McNeill said. The best part of job? The view from the cockpit.

“That’s one thing you just can’t beat,” he said. “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait, but it’s just a completely different view of the river.”

Click the images below to view larger photos.

Federal Cape Fear River Pilot Anthony McNeill at the controls of a 700' tug and barge. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
Federal Cape Fear River Pilot Anthony McNeill at the controls of a 700-foot tug and barge. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
"That's one thing you just can't beat," he said. "It's a lot of hurry up and wait, but it's just a completely different view of the river." (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
‘That’s one thing you just can’t beat,’ Anthony McNeill said. ‘It’s a lot of hurry up and wait, but it’s just a completely different view of the river.’ (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
A Southport river pilot comes to pick McNeill up at the end of the journey. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
A Southport river pilot comes to pick McNeill up at the end of the journey. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
McNeill begins to disembark the vessel. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
McNeill begins to disembark the vessel. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
In rough seas, this could be a perilous descent, luckily, the waters were calm. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
In rough seas, this could be a perilous descent; luckily, the waters were calm. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
Climbing down the ships ladder. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)
Climbing down the ship’s ladder. (Port City Daily photo/CORY MANNION)

Get in touch with Reporter Cory Mannion: follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or send an email at cory@localvoicemedia.com.