There is a certain look about spaces perpetually occupied by men on jobs needing someone's constant presence. They're functional in the extreme, furnished with no more than the few essentials needed to make employes on duty self-sufficient throughout their shifts: a refrigerator for soft drinks and snacks, a coffee pot, some spoons, a shelf for condensed milk and sugar. Whatever chairs there are have a battered, second-hand appearance. The reading matter lying about tends to be either job-connected or something light enough to be read in snatches. A washroom can always be found close by.
The commodious, gray-painted, windowed room in a narrow wooden structure near the head of the North Pier in Ras Tanura is that kind of room—except that much of the time it is unoccupied. The men assigned there are usually off somewhere else whenever they are actually working. For they've got quite a job: directing the arrival and departure of every oil tanker calling at Ras Tanura, the busiest oil port in the Arabian Gulf, and one of the most active anywhere.
In 1969 the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) exported through this Gulf coast outlet a total of more than 900 million barrels of crude oil and manufactured products—a daily average of nearly 2.5 million barrels—and under special circumstances has loaded more than five million barrels in a single day.
To move such vast quantities of petroleum obviously requires not only a large number of tankers—2,873 of them in 1969—but also piers to accommodate them. Ras Tanura, at its North and South T-head Piers and at its Sea Island a mile off the shore, has that space. The terminal can berth 16 tankers at a time, plenty of room, you'd think, for all comers. The situation, however, is not that simple. Six berths can deliver crude oil only; the rest either crude or products. Thus berths must be allotted in accordance with the most efficient use of mooring space to meet demands for delivery of the type of petroleum each tanker has been ordered to lift. Length of dock space and depth of water limit some berths to tankers of certain sizes and drafts. It would be very bad business to assign, say, a 50,000-deadweight-ton ship to a berth perfectly able to handle one in the 210,000-DWT class, and make the larger ship wait. Then, too, it occasionally happens that one or two berths are down for maintenance, alterations or repair.
The overall responsibility for such situations rests with a desk called Port Control in the company's headquarters building in nearby Dhahran. This post, in round-the-clock touch by radio, telephone and computerized "Synchronous Communications Adapter" with New York and Ras Tanura, does the actual assigning of tankers to berths. Once that's done, however, sea-trained Aramco personnel at Ras Tanura take over. It is their job to see that all tankers putting into the company's Arabian Gulf oil port are berthed and unberthed with safety and dispatch, and on their judgment, exercised under almost every condition a sailor can encounter, rests a large portion of the success of the entire Aramco enterprise.
The working combination which brings the procession of tankers from the anchorage area off Ras Tanura Port into assigned berths for loading and guides them out into the stream again consists of Aramco's four diesel-powered docking tugs manned by all-Saudi crews and its 11 harbor pilots— currently five Americans, four Britishers and two Saudi Arabs. The jobs of the pilots, who have their counterparts in every port and inland waterway of consequence in the world, are justified on the sensible premise that a man totally familiar with such local conditions as tides, currents, shoals, prevailing winds and weather is much better qualified to conn a vessel through the area than is the ship's own captain or navigator, no matter how able. Their function has an ancient and honorable tradition, going all the way back into the 16th century, when Spain appointed the Italian explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci Chief Pilot in 1508, and England four decades later officially designated Sebastian Cabot Grand Pilot of the Kingdom.
Atually, the area where Aramco's harbor pilots carry out their duties is no harbor at all. It's an open roadstead located on navigational charts at 26°37'25" North latitude and 50°09'50" East longitude, where the coastline offers no shelter from unpredictable north, northwest winds and heavy weather that can start building momentum on the other end of the Gulf. During certain seasons of the year, more-over, these strong northerly winds often carry sand, causing disturbances known (and dreaded) locally as shamals, and sometimes fine dust held in suspension in the atmosphere cuts visibility to a dangerous point. Ordinary fog can blanket the port in the early morning, currents and propeller backwash sometimes alter the depth of the water by the loading piers, and there always exists the possibility that currents and winds will shift the position of a crucial offshore channel marker.
As every sailor knows, conditions at sea and along the waterfront never remain the same for long. The individual in Ras Tanura perhaps most acutely conscious of this is a calm and experienced man of the sea named Paul E. Cole. As captain of the port he is in charge of all piloting and technical services at the terminal, an assignment which affects the security of millions of dollars worth of property afloat and ashore, and the welfare of everyone who tends it.
Captain Paul Cole climbed the ladder to his present eminence as marine operations chief of one of the world's major oil ports rung by rung—or as he puts it more saltily, "through the hawse pipe"—and in many ways his career is a prototype of every mariner's who has followed the sea lanes to a position of high responsibility. He grew up near the sights, sounds and smells of a great seaport—San Francisco—went to sea right after high school graduation and spent years on tankers, dry-cargo freighters and aboard ships of the American President Lines. During these years Cole advanced steadily along the prescribed route: deck boy, ordinary seaman, able-bodied seaman and, with requisite time spent in each rating and rank and having successfully passed Coast Guard-administered examinations, boatswain, quartermaster, third mate, second mate, chief mate (the second in command aboard merchant ships), and captain. By early 1948 Cole had command of the President Wilson, flagship of the American President Lines, sailing with the fleet commodore.
No ship's officer can work aboard a merchant marine vessel without holding a valid license for the rank he sails under. Such licenses come up for renewal by the U.S. Coast Guard every five years. Though no longer active as skipper afloat, Captain Cole keeps his papers up to date, and now proudly points out that he is on the sixth issue of his Master's license, entitling him still to assume command of "a ship of any gross tonnage on any ocean" in the world.
For the past 20 years Captain Cole has been intimately associated with oil ports in the Middle East. Early in this phase of his career he was mooring master, chief mooring master, assistant and then relief superintendent at the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line
Company's Mediterranean Sea terminal at Sidon, Lebanon. He came to Ras Tanura nearly nine years ago to be a harbor pilot, and chief harbor pilot before assuming his present position as captain of the port.
Cole and his wife of 30 years, Norah, a trim, dark-eyed U.C.L.A. graduate from Southern California, live in a comfortable, rambling one-story house, that has regulation-size red and green running lights secured to either side of the new addition and a mast rising out of the center of the structure bearing a vertical set of red and white pilot lights ("Red Over White/ Fishing Tonight; White Over Red/Pilot Ahead"). From there he makes occasional sorties to Ras Tanura's Surf Side Golf Course, goes fishing in the Gulf (aboard an Arab dhow) and, when he can, in such favorite deep-water fishing holes as the Bay of Islands of northern New Zealand, where the marlin run very strong. Like most professional mariners on or off duty, Cole is in his natural element only when afloat.
On working days, Captain Cole spends his time in a port-area office furnished with the usual appurtenances associated with his trade—a chart table, barometer, and ship's clock which strikes off the time in bells, and radios set to the three local marine frequencies for direct voice contact with pilots and tugs on duty, berthing stations on the piers, and the bridge of every ship in the port. On his office wall are the tugboat dry-dock schedule currently in force and a large, lined, glass-enclosed traffic board by which the port captain keeps track of "Ships Now In," "Ships At Anchor," "Ships Due."
Coming to work each day at 0700 Cole makes his first stop the Pilots' Office on the North Pier. Here he inspects the night log, consults harbor pilots, and visits the loading piers, occasionally going aboard a tanker when the berthing or unberthing maneuver promises in some way to interest him. Then he proceeds to his own office and the everyday operations of the job.
One of the port captain's key responsibilities is determining utilization of the Ras Tanura Marine Terminal during severe storms. Weather is rarely so unfavorable that all loading spaces are knocked out completely, but depending on the direction and force of the wind, certain spaces are safer to use than others. In deciding which, Captain Cole must keep in mind the safety of the tankers, yet never forget that each tanker captain is anxious to load and get away in as fast a turnaround time as possible and that Aramco, with limited storage capacity, must keep the oil flowing. A lot of money rides on the captain's ability to balance mandatory marine safeguards against full, uninterrupted operations.
The part of Paul Cole's job which seems to consume the biggest chunk of his day and hold the greatest portion of his personal interest, however, is piloting. With its direct application to every element of seamanship and use of human skill frequently employed under almost unbearable tension, the work of a harbor pilot would be challenging enough, but the calling requires much more than technical know-how and nerves of steel. The successful sea-going pilot should also have the diplomatic finesse of a State Department careerist and the constitution of a marathon runner. Cole explained to me the need for the first subsidiary qualification and I discovered first-hand during several tours with the pilot the necessity for the second.
The modern oil tanker is world-girdling, designed and built to make round-trip voyages between supply and consuming points half way around the world—nonstop. After a vessel arrives off Ras Tanura from Europe or the Orient the first human contact ship's personnel have with the outside is an Aramco pilot. The manner with which that pilot conducts himself from the moment he climbs aboard strongly flavors initial impressions not only of Aramco but of Saudi Arabia and by extension the entire Middle East. The role of a harbor pilot is an especially sensitive one because all the while he is on the bridge of a ship he acts as advisor to the captain who is normally the supreme authority on board. On the job he gives orders to men who ordinarily take orders only from the ship's master. It is evident that a successful pilot should not only know his business, but always show, by demeanor and voice, that he knows what he is doing. A pilot who did not have the confidence of the ship's captain and officers would not be a pilot for long.
Many tankers call at Ras Tanura on a regular basis and after several visits the relationship between captain and Aramco pilot becomes that of old friends, customarily nourished by relaxing sessions of chitchat and coffee in the master's quarters after the vessel has been berthed. Several households in Ras Tanura save magazines and paperbacks which pilots distribute to tankers in the port. A visitor carrying fresh reading matter is especially welcome aboard a vessel just in from a long sea voyage.
The best way to appreciate the physical aspects of a harbor pilot's job is to stand up with him on the foredeck of a pilot boat rising and falling on rolling swells as it approaches the side of a tanker in the dead of night—then look straight up. Several times during a typical shift an Aramco pilot has to make a well-timed jump from a yawing pilot boat to the bottom of a rope ladder and climb the height of a tanker's freeboard, which on an empty tanker today can be as high as a six-story building. Nowadays tankers with more than 30 feet of freeboard are supposed to provide a winch-powered ladder, which hauls the pilot up the side of the ship.
On deck an officer escorts the pilot to the bridge, where he and the ship's captain and the Aramco pilot carefully address each other as "Captain," and sign forms before turning to the task of berthing the ship.
Time, of course, is of the essence, so the pilot customarily inquires immediately about the ship's readiness to weigh anchor ("Is the steam on the deck?"), then, as the anchors break water, issues his initial orders to the engine room ("Dead slow ahead,") and helm ("S-t-e-a-d-y!"). As the tanker begins to move slowly in the direction of the shore, the conn orders changes in her speed and direction as he sees the need: "Hard aport" .... "Slow astern" . . . "Midships" . . . "Stop the engine" . . . "Starboard easy" . . . Simultaneously he begins to issue orders to tugs that have come alongside and tied up to tanker's hull. Except from way out on the wing, they can't be seen from the bridge, but with a walkie-talkie, he can tell them what he wants: "Five ahead twelve" "Four astern eight." Each unseen tug acknowledges her order with a brief, staccato toot on her whistle. The reaction time on these whistles is almost instantaneous. In this business seconds are vital.
All the time the pilot is giving orders to the bridge and the tugs the main part of his thinking is focused on the empty berth ahead, planning how to bring the tanker in safely but with the utmost economy of movement and time. In one neat series of maneuvers I witnessed from the bridge, Captain E.G. Brown, veteran of 20 years on Esso tankers and an Aramco pilot for the past seven, brought a tanker almost parallel to an inside berth of North Pier, then let the wind blowing square on her port beam push her, bow slightly ahead of stern, squarely into her allotted space. The initial contact between the side of the ship and the pier's tendering was so gentle I never felt it.
The spring and breast lines go out first, the tanker's manifold lined up evenly with the Chiksan loading arms and the ship is secured by bow and stern lines. The pilot notifies the captain that the helmsman is no longer required, tells him "Finished with engines," and it's time for Aramco's loading crews to take over. All part of a day's—or night's—work.
Certainly, Captain Paul Cole could not agree more. To him the job may be challenging, but there is nothing in the least extraordinary or heroic to piloting as an occupation. True, mistakes could turn out to be unusually costly and conspicuous.. It is an important part of Cole's job, however, to see that piloting errors are not made, and the obvious method he employs to accomplish this is seeing that every pilot on his roster is exceptionally well qualified.
Each expatriate Aramco harbor pilot engaged for Ras Tanura duty has behind him, like Captain Cole himself, many years at sea, is in possession of a valid Master's license and typically lists among his credentials considerable piloting experience elsewhere—in U.S. coastal waters, Aden, or Port Sudan, for instance—before coming to Saudi Arabia. The backgrounds of Saudi pilots Ahmad Kudaisi and Sa'ad Mubarak are the exception. One had been an Aramco refinery employe and the other was selected for his new career out of Aramco's fleet of workboats. Both have been trained for piloting from scratch, in local waters and in U.S. ports, where they worked with the marine departments of other oil companies. It took eight years of intensive on-the-job and theoretical training for Kudaisi to become a pilot. Mubarak, who has been in training a shorter time, is still aiming towards this status.
Though technical competence comes in time to any pilot who works to attain it long enough, according to Captain Cole there is one characteristic, presumably inborn, which every man must possess if he wants a place in the top drawer of his profession. Basic principles of seamanship, tested and proven by generations of marine pilots, can carry today's performers a long way, but situations do arise which have never been described in the rule books. The very best pilots are able not only to improvise on the spot but can admit to themselves when a carefully-devised approach or departure plan goes sour, and change it—literally in midstream.
They say that every harbor pilot has his own personal style of conning a ship, as distinctive from all others as a fingerprint. Captain Cole is one who can attest to this truism of the trade. He claims he can tell which one of his pilots is on the bridge, without referring to his shift schedule, merely by observing a tanker's approach to the piers. If there were such a thing as a post-doctorate in ship handling, Ras Tanura's port captain would have one.
Brainerd S. Bates, a writer for 15 years, is a specialist in petroleum reporting.