James Britton ’02: Safe Harbor

by Nina M. Riccio, M.A. ’09

As one of the few harbor pilots of his generation who didn’t graduate from a maritime academy, James Britton ’02, a communication major, could be considered a bit of a fish out of water. “Fortunately, all those classes in interpersonal communication, non-verbal communication, and dealing with different cultures have been really helpful in this job!” he says.

That job entails boarding the large cargo and cruise ships before they enter the mouth of the New York harbor and taking navigational control of the ship from the captain, then guiding that vessel safely into port. It sounds simple enough, but the responsibility is tremendous and the training considerable.

Like his father before him, Britton is a harbor pilot with Sandy Hook Pilots in Staten Island, N.Y., which provides pilotage services for New York and New Jersey and gets approximately 100 applicants every other year. After interviews with the pilots, state commissioners from New York and New Jersey, as well as a psychiatrist, ten applicants are “ranked”, and ultimately between three and eight of those are chosen for training. Those lucky few can then look forward to five years of apprenticeship, and seven as deputy, or junior, pilots. Only after 12 years will they be able to pilot any ship regardless of draft or tonnage. “It’s our job to know every reef, shallow area, and buoy in the entire harbor,” Britton says. No small task, considering that the harbor’s navigational hazards, shoal areas, and conditions are constantly changing.

The job is physically rigorous as well as intellectually challenging. When a big ship signals that it is 20 miles out, the pilot boards a small craft to meet it. Once alongside, the pilot grabs the ship’s rope ladder to climb as high as 30 feet onto the moving vessel – no easy task in a strong wind or blizzard. After that, it can be a climb of another five to seven stories to the ship’s bridge.

“We’re the navigational specialists of New York harbor,” says Britton. “We assume all navigational control from the captains as the ship goes in and out of the harbor, and we’re responsible for operating each vessel as safely as possible. We’re paid to know what to do if anything goes wrong.”

“Once, I had absolutely no visibility,” Britton says by way of example. “I was using the radar to navigate, when it suddenly malfunctioned. I had to get out of the way of traffic and keep the vessel in safe waters until the radar was fixed.” Each ship handles differently and presents various challenges given its characteristics, age, and weight. And then there are the captains, some of whom can be “challenging.”

Britton says he understands. “You’ve got a captain who’s got 30-40 years out at sea, and then I come on board to take over. It’s a job interview every time I climb that ladder,” he says. Most captains and crews speak enough English to communicate the basics, but it’s the personalities that are the greatest challenge. Britton observes how the crew interacts with one another and with the captain, and whether or not they seem stressed or anxious — all factors that will give him insight as to how the transit will go.

“Some captains are difficult and have an attitude,” Britton laughs. And Britton did have the dubious distinction of once conning a vessel for Francesco Schettino, the now infamous captain of the Costa Concordia which sank off the Island of Giglio last January. “He was exactly as the newspapers described him,” Britton says.

Back in his days at Fairfield, Britton was co-leader of the Eucharistic Ministers. “Jim was a strong leader,” recalls Carolyn Rusiackas, associate director of Campus Ministry. “He was well-organized, creative, and focused, with a natural ability to motivate the students in his care.”

In those days, Britton had his sights set on a job in media. Graduating magna cum laude with a record seven magazine internships under his belt, you might think he would have his pick of publishing positions. “But after 9/11, most of my contacts left New York,” he said. He ended up doing public relations work for a pharmaceutical company — interesting enough for a while, but not as soul-satisfying as what he’s doing now. “Seeing my father and the work he did, I guess the option of becoming a harbor pilot was always in the back of my mind,” says Britton of the career about-face.

“It’s a great job, very tense, and I love it to death. I work more at night than during the day, but sailing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to enter the harbor while the sun rises over the New York skyline is a breathtaking experience. My office certainly has a nice view.”

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