Hakai Magazine

Captain John DeCruz stands against the backdrop of New York Harbor
Captain John DeCruz stands against the backdrop of New York Harbor. Photo by Jonathan Atkin ©2016

Coastal Job: Maritime Pilot

A captain oversees the safe passage of ships into and out of the US East Coast’s busiest port.

Authored by

As told to Brendan Crowley

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Captain John DeCruz is a member of the Sandy Hook Pilots, an elite crew of mariners who board vessels entering and leaving the Port of New York and New Jersey on the US East Coast to ensure their safe passage. DeCruz was the first African American accepted into the Sandy Hook Pilots’ apprenticeship program; after 18 years as an active pilot, he now serves as the organization’s New York president.

I’m from Jersey City, right on the Upper Bay of New York behind the Statue of Liberty. My father, like his father, worked on the water, and would sneak me onto his tugboat. I fell in love with their lifestyle—seeing how they talked on the radio, the chatter among the crew as tugboats, ships, and small excursion boats came in.

I graduated from maritime college in New York and started working on cargo ships all over the world. I always admired the pilots that would come aboard the vessel and guide it in and out of port. A pilot creates a safe haven for a ship, issuing navigational directives and sharing overall command with the captain as the vessel sails through challenging local waters. One incident, like an oil spill, can affect an entire area, so pilots act as protectors of the environment. I always said that being a pilot was something that I wanted to do.

The Sandy Hook Pilots have been around since 1694. When I joined as an apprentice in 1997, they didn’t have a person of color; I came in there not just as some token, but as someone who was just as good as everyone else. The five-year apprenticeship is long, hard, and low-paying. I had to ride 1,000 ships and draw nautical charts from memory. I had to earn my right to be there.

After completing the apprenticeship, I became a deputy pilot, then moved up to full branch seven years later; at that point, I could bring in any ship, no matter how big it was. As a pilot, I would board ships entering or exiting the harbor from a motorboat. The ship would deploy a ladder, and I’d climb up to the bridge to meet the captain. I’d get familiar with the ship by asking questions: is everything functioning correctly? Any issues I should know about? Then I’d advise the captain and direct the navigation of the ship into the harbor.

I’ve been the New York president since 2015. I don’t ride ships anymore because I’m dealing with the business side of things. The New Jersey president and I, we’re in charge of keeping over 70 pilots safe.

We recently had two pilot fatalities in less than a year. That’s something we never experienced before. Guaranteeing the safety of pilot ladders has been a focus in the industry for the longest time. That’s a war that we’re fighting, trying to get outdated ladders brought up to higher standards, so that they are safe to climb.

I want nice, normal, boring days. No excitement. No drama. We have so much going on around here: up to 10,000 ships a year, plus sailboats, kayaks, jet skis, fishing boats. You could be backing out a cruise ship up in the North River in Manhattan and see a couple of paddleboarders go by. There’s constant movement. Our motto is “Always on station.” If a ship shows up, we’re there to board it.