William Stubbs joined an elite crew Wednesday morning, becoming one of only seven people in the whole world qualified to perform his job.
At the same time, St. Simons Island native Gordon “Bug” Strother began charting his own path toward a future with these select mariners.
Stubbs became an official member of the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association, sworn in during a ceremony at the Georgia Ports Authority headquarters beside Mary Ross Park. Afterward, Strother was sworn in as the association’s newest pilot apprentice, beginning the three-year journey that Stubbs just completed. The ceremony took place during a meeting of the Brunswick Pilot Commission, with 99-year-old chairman Bill Brown presiding.
“You are now a pilot of the historic Port of Brunswick, designated as a port of entry to the United States in 1789 by the First Continental Congress,” Brown told Stubbs.
Bar Pilots, or harbor pilots, are responsible for navigating shipping traffic in and out of the Port of Brunswick. Shipping everything from automobiles to grain to wood pellets, huge oceangoing freighters arrive at the local port daily from all over the world.
While these ships’ captains might be capable of traversing the world’s seven seas, it takes local nautical knowledge to navigate the channel leading to the Port of Brunswick. Nautical knowledge possessed only by men like Stubbs and the six other Port of Brunswick harbor pilots whose company he joined Wednesday.
Stubbs, 28, spent the last three years as an apprentice, learning everything there is to know about Brunswick’s port and the 9-mile shipping channel that leads to it. Wednesday marked what is likely his last first day on the job. He begins as a “short branch” pilot, with several years of on-the-job training ahead before attaining his colleagues’ status of “full-branch” pilot.
“It’s been a lot of work,” the Fernandina Beach native said. “I spent three years in the apprenticeship, but it goes back a lot further than that.”
After graduating high school, Stubbs earned a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation from the Maritime Academy at Texas A&M University at Galveston. He worked as an officer on oil tankers before entering the local apprentice program. In his time as an apprentice, Stubbs has served on everything from tugs to tow boats involved in recovery and salvage operations throughout local waters. The experience has earned him detailed knowledge of the Port of Brunswick channel and surrounding waterways from Sapelo Island to Amelia Island, Fla.
“This was my end goal, and I am excited to get started on this new journey,” Stubbs said.
A Glynn Academy graduate, Strother, 28, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Auburn University, where he attended on a golf scholarship. He began his maritime career as a deckhand in the Gulf of Mexico, working his way up to ship’s officer and dynamic positioning officer. Strother was a tugboat mate with Moran Towing in Jacksonville and Brunswick when he was selected as an apprentice.
He was chosen from among 17 very qualified apprentice applicants, said Harbor Pilot Bruce Fendig.
“To have Bug selected from among those we interviewed, that’s a high honor,” Fendig said.
Strother follows in the tradition of the Fendigs, representing a long line of St. Simons Islanders who have become local harbor pilots.
“I just want to thank everyone for giving me your vote of confidence,” Strother said. “It is a great honor, and something I’ve looked forward to for a long time. I look forward to serving my community.”
When the apprenticeship is completed, Strother will have the knowledge to sketch the Brunswick Harbor nautical chart from memory. Intense written and practical exams also are part of the curriculum.
“This is not an employment opportunity, this is a marriage,” said Brunswick Pilot Commission member Martin McCormack.
The Port of Brunswick presently averages between 40 and 45 oceangoing freighters per month. Brunswick’s is among the nation’s leading ports for traffic in Ro-Ro ships, so called for the thousands of automobiles the roll on and off that ships once at port.
None of this commerce can take place without experienced harbor pilots. The pilots are not only required by law, but are necessary for safe and the smooth flow of of the shipping industry.
“No. 1, it’s safety; and, No. 2, it’s efficiency,” Stubbs said.
Folks who gather at the pier have probably seen these Harbor Pilots. The association’s “yellow taxi” boat typically picks the pilots up at the landing attached to end of the pier. From there the harbor pilots are ferried 10 miles into the ocean to meet incoming ships at the entrance to the Brunswick Harbor’s channel. The harbor pilot then boards the ship and takes command of its navigation into the port, whether it be to a berth at Colonel’s Island or on the East River.
“They literally drive the ships in,” Edwin Fendig said.
The nautical term is “conn,” a technical word with a clear meaning: “to conduct or direct the steering of a vessel such as a ship,” according to Merriam-Webster.
Harbor pilots also lead the ships out of port, where one of the association’s five taxi boat captains picks them up 10 miles out and returns them to the pier. Every port in the world has a harbor pilot, Fendig said, but only seven harbor pilots in the world have the knowledge to navigate Brunswick’s. An eighth is now learning the ropes.
“It’s not only a full-time job, it’s a lifetime,” Fendig said. “You don’t float around a lot on this job. It takes about 10 years to get a pilot where he should be.”