Harbor pilot makes last run through Charleston port

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Bill Elliott has been a harbor pilot in Charleston since 1969, guiding ships into the Charleston harbor from around the world.

"It's not just navigation it's also a feel and an art form," Elliot said.

When a ship comes near, the harbor pilot heads out and boards the ship to take it through the harbor. Switching boats is often the most dangerous part.

"You have times where you're wondering whether you're gonna make it or not," Elliot said.

At that point, the harbor pilot takes over. He used charts, radar, navigational lights and his local knowledge to take the ship through the harbor.

"I know there's a dredge up the river if we we're going that way," Elliot said. "Last year we had a shrimp boat sunk on the edge of a channel."

The ships these pilots bring into the port are huge container ships; some are 1,000 feet long and weigh more than 71,000 tons. The containers are filled with everything from cotton and textiles to chemicals.

"You don't know what's in the containers," Elliot said. "It could be anything."

Any accident could be catastrophic and Elliott says the most likely danger is mechanical.

"Radar doesn't work in the rain," Elliot said. "I've had it in thick fog where the radar quit you just have to come up with a plan."

There is also the danger of smaller boats.

"It was too late to make a turn to avoid them. It was a barge load of jet fuel and cut a 20-foot hole in the side of the ship," Elliot said.

The harbor pilot's eyes and ears are on the water, detecting drug runners or terrorist threats as well.

"Ever since 9/11, Homeland Security has asked us to keep an eye out if we see vessels that don't look right to give them a call," Elliot said.

Through the years things have changed, especially the size of the ships.

"Most of the ships when I started you can carry as deck cargo on the ships now," he said.

Even with the changes, Elliott says the love of the job has stayed the same.

"It feeds your ego to be on a 1,000-foot ship that goes where you tell it to go pretty nice," Elliot said.

Elliot celebrated his 70th birthday Friday, which is when the state requires all harbor pilots to retire. So, this is the last voyage for Elliot.

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