In the darkness before dawn, with waves rising 7 feet and a cold drizzle falling, the veteran seaman balances his 48-year-old legs on the bow of the bobbing pilot boat. Through a stiff wind he reaches for a grease-covered rope ladder, which dangles off the starboard side of a 600-foot oil tanker.
The steep climb aboard the Panamanian-flagged Alpha Express doesn't rattle Marty McCabe, who over the years has made hundreds of such ascents, many in storms with seas more than twice the size.
A former tanker captain, McCabe is one of 10 men who make up the Boston Pilot Association, a 223-year-old institution founded and regulated by the state to help bring large vessels -- those with hazardous cargo or weighing 350 gross tons or more -- through the shoals and fast-moving currents of Boston Harbor.
For decades, the pilots, who earn as much as $250,000 a year, have routinely passed control of at least 90 percent of the ships they board at sea to docking masters, specially trained tugboat captains who climb aboard in the inner harbor, take the helm as the ships enter narrow channels, and use a team of tugboats to guide them to port. The custom, never a legal requirement, has been an option for the ship owners, who often pay hundreds of dollars extra for the docking masters' assistance.
But as the area's ports have lost business and security concerns have grown in recent years, the peace has begun to unravel. Late last year lawmakers on Beacon Hill proposed a bill that would require every ship coming into port to have a docking master.
Docking masters argue they're better trained at operating ships in tight spaces. Harbor pilots counter that safety is already best served: they, unlike docking masters, are required by state law to hold an unlimited ocean master's license, the top Coast Guard credential for operating ships.
Over the past year, Boston Towing & Transportation Co., which employs seven of the harbor's eight docking masters and controls about 75 percent of the local tugboat business, has spent more than $150,000 lobbying to pass the law. Company officials point to an incident last month involving a pilot guiding a 600-foot salt carrier with three tugboats from another company. The pilot overshot his dock at the Boston Autoport in Charlestown and came close to striking a pier at the Exxon terminal in Chelsea, next to a liquefied natural gas terminal in Everett.
Some lawmakers used last month's incident to urge colleagues to pass legislation supporting Boston Towing's goals.
''We need to make sure that we have the right people at the right time guiding the ships in and out of the harbor," says Senator Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican who served as cochairman of a harbor piloting panel. ''When a vessel with hazardous cargo is transiting through a sensitive area, my bias would be to require a docking pilot."
Last year, Senator Jarrett T. Barrios proposed a bill requiring docking pilots aboard all ships ferrying hazardous cargo into the harbor. But it failed to gain enough support. Barrios, who backs a plan to revive a version of the bill in coming weeks, called last month's incident a ''red flag" and argues it underscores the need for stringent background checks and licensing requirements for docking masters, whose job now requires no formal license. Boston Harbor is a busy place. With thousands of ships plying the harbor's waters every year, there are scores of incidents resulting in injuries or other damage. Between January 2000 and March 28, 2006 in Boston Harbor, the Coast Guard recorded two deaths and 17 injuries aboard vessels, 12 boat sinkings, 25 accidents when a vessel struck an object, nine collisions between vessels, seven groundings, and 155 incidents that led to environmental damage, such as oil spills.
Still, pilots, port officials, and others in the shipping industry argue that the proposed legislation is unnecessary.
''We've all been ship captains -- no docking master can meet that criteria," says Gregg Farmer, president of the Boston Pilot Association, who argues the pilot aboard the carrier ship that drifted off course last month responded professionally to strong currents. ''We're as qualified as a mariner can be. This whole thing is really a tugboat competition."
Other local tugboat operators -- there are two other companies in the city -- argue the proposed law really serves as a way for Boston Towing to lock up more of the harbor's tugboat business. And others in the shipping industry worry that legislation requiring docking masters would make local ports such as Conley Container Terminal and Black Falcon Cruise Terminal less competitive.
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''If a bill is passed, the marketplace would no longer drive the costs," says Richard Meyer, executive director of the Boston Shipping Association, an advocacy group representing agents and many of the container and cargo shipping companies that use the port. ''The fear is that a new legislated requirement will be an unnecessary increase in costs."
For similar reasons, Michael A. Leone, director of the Port of Boston for Massport, opposes new regulations. ''No one has demonstrated for me that there's a need to change," says Leone. ''Until I see a study documenting a need to regulate it . . . I don't think a statute is necessary."
Coast Guard officials -- who say their investigation into last month's near-hit of the Exxon pier hasn't revealed any negligence -- say laws outlining licensing requirements for a docking master could be useful so long as they don't bar pilots from docking ships. It's now up to tugboat companies as to who qualifies to become a docking master.
Coast Guard officials further insist local politicians are wrong to say existing regulations are insufficient to protect the harbor's safety and security. To obtain a Coast Guard license to operate a tugboat or ship, they say, applicants must pass proficiency tests, be fingerprinted, and have their backgrounds checked by the FBI as well as local and state agencies.
Also, they say drug tests are required for any tugboat captain, docking master, or pilot involved in an incident leading to property damage in excess of $100,000, an injury that requires medical treatment, or a discharge of 10,000 or more gallons of oil.
''It's inaccurate to suggest that we don't adequately examine or check the mariners we license," says Captain James L. McDonald, commander of the Coast Guard in Boston. ''My experience with both docking masters and pilots is that they are very capable and professional. From time to time there will be errors in judgment, but I think anyone with the requisite experience should be able to work as a docking master. There shouldn't be a monopoly."
For Marty McCabe and the pilots, who this year paid local lobbyists $24,000 to press the Legislature to pass an 11 percent raise in their fees, the politics disappear once they arrive on a ship's bridge.
On a recent morning, McCabe boards the pilots' 53-foot twin-diesel engine boat at 4 a.m. and takes a bumpy ride 12 miles to sea to meet the Alpha Express, which turns leeward to reduce the force of the 11-knot winds as he climbs the ship's ladder. He has already checked the tides, the currents, and the winds, and after shaking hands with Korean captain Yh Bag and the Filipino crew aboard the Japanese-made ship, he orders the helmsman to point the vessel southwest, toward the Citgo terminal in Braintree.
In a foggy sunrise that reduces visibility to little more than a mile ahead, he guides the ship and its 190,000 barrels of gasoline through an array of buoys along Nantasket Roads and the 300-foot-wide passage of Hull Gut.
''Each time we go down this, it's a different trip," he says.
An hour before the voyage ends, three tugboats surround the tanker, and Chris Deeley, the harbor's only docking master who doesn't work for Boston Towing, climbs the ladder and shakes hands with McCabe on the bridge.
It's an amicable exchange of the helm, and the 41-year-old former tugboat captain begins barking orders on walkie-talkies to his three tugs. The powerful, smoke-spewing boats cruise alongside the 106-foot-wide ship and nudge it under the Fore River Bridge, which is just 170 feet wide.
''It's like driving a Mayflower van through Beacon Hill without any brakes," says Scott MacNeil, an apprentice pilot aboard the ship.