Sudden Opportunity
by Bob Webb
Lifted from -

Pilot Boat Captain in Guam

My wife and I designed and self-built a 50-foot ketch named Hunky-Dory. Then we sailed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As you can imagine, cruising life is very different from home-based living. Cruisers sail a while, then work for a while to build up the cruising budget, and move on. Local businesses in the Pacific Islands seek out cruisers because they can hire highly skilled temporaries at low wages. It's beneficial to both parities.

In the early '90s, Joan and I stopped in Guam, a territory of the United States. I wanted to get back in the job market and applied for jobs. I was getting nowhere. I always dressed neatly, which seemed to make the interviewer uncomfortable. They would tell me, "You don't want to work here." I soon learned that some work environments are very abusive, almost like they were in the early 1900s.

I decided to apply for a captain's position at a company that does harbour work. On advice from former employees, I decided to dress down and act like I had a sloppy attitude. I wore a dirty white "T" shirt, dirty blue jeans, wore flip-flops on my feet, messed up my hair, and did not shave that morning. Looking like a bum, I walked in the company office and told the receptionist I was seeking a captain's position. She told me to have a seat. In a few minutes, I was in a job interview and a job was offered. That was shock number one. My appearance was out of character, and I was embarrassed. I always try to look neat. Shock two came when the manager said, "The pay is $9 per hour. I know other companies pay $20, but this is what we pay." Considering my sloppy look, $9 should be a lot of money. I later discovered that low wages attracts sloppy management and sloppy employees. My sloppy appearance was the job qualification for this company.

I asked the manager for time to think it over. I never did harbour work before and it would be opportunity to learn a new skill, even if the wages are low. For companies that pay $20 per hour, there are no openings and no one is leaving.  After talking it over with Joan, we agreed that I should take the job.

The next day I dressed up to make a better impression. I told the manager I would accept the job. Shock three came next. He said, "You start today at noon. You will have an instructor until midnight. Tomorrow you are on your own."

I explained; I never did harbour work before, I never operated twin screws, my experience is on sailboats, I needed more training than twelve hours. I was already screaming at the manager, and I hadn't even started yet.

The manager asked, "Do you want the job or not?"

I said I would take it and stormed out of the office to the job site.

During the next twelve hours, with an instructor, I took crewmembers and supplies to and from ships at anchor. The next day I was on my own when I was told to take a pilot off a ship as it was leaving the harbour. All I knew was, the ship does not stop, and the pilot gets off while everything is on the move.

I was motoring beside the ship when I radioed the pilot and explained, "I never did this before and would like some advice." He did not answer. I asked again and no answer. With the throttles wide open, I decided to go in close and get next to the pilots ladder that was hanging on the side of the ship. I was within five feet of the ship and the ship was moving faster than I could go. Soon my launch hit the stern wake. I knew the stern of ships has a lot of suction, but I didn't realize its strength until then. The stern wake picked up the launch, spun it sideways and slammed it into the stern of the ship. With the throttles still wide open, the launch shot out from under the ship.

At this time, I got the pilots attention. On the radio he screamed instruction, and I was so rattled I did not know what I was doing. The pilot kept screaming more instructions. All I could think of was "How am I going to get the launch by the pilot's ladder?" The ship slowed, and I was beside it when the launch slammed sideways into it. At that time the pilot jumped off the ship onto the cabin top. He came down the stairwell screaming, and I was screaming back. When he saw I was new, he patted me on the back and said, "You did OK."

Back at the dock, the other captains were listening to the drama on their radio. When I came ashore, they looked at me and shook their heads. My shift relief was there, and I went home with tremendous emotional pain. Two days on the job, and I wanted out. Anyhow, I knew I would be fired when my supervisor head about this.

The next day I came to work expecting confrontation and was in a fighting mood. There wasn't one peep about the incident. As the day ended, I decided to be the best captain the company ever had. I am going to conquer the emotional pain by learning to get it right and keep at it until I had complete confidence in my skill. Every day for the next six weeks, I hated going to work. I wanted to tell the manager, "I QUIT!" My fears and emotional pain was tremendous.

Three months later, I was taking a ship's crew ashore. They were standing on the bow in front of the pilothouse. The harbour was jammed with ships and finding a place to let the passengers off was not always easy. There was a narrow gap between two ships, and I decided to dock there. The passengers looked at the gap, looked at me at the helm and back to the gap. From a distance, the gap looked too small. By this time, I knew the launch and what it could do. As we slid between the ships to the dock, the passengers looked up at me an applauded. I never felt so good in my life. Experienced seamen applauding me, was a badge of honour.

That year a Hurricane hit Guam. I was out in the harbour in 100-knot winds supporting tugs that were trying to keep ships from going aground. With the winds over 100 knots, I radioed the other tugs and told them I could not help any longer or I will be on the rocks. I secured the launch, getting ready for the eye of the storm. At that time, other tugboat captains were abandoning the ships to save themselves. When the winds reached 150 knots, twelve commercial fishing boats sank around me and that many more were busted up, but still floating. Our yacht, Hunky-Dory went up on pilings and busted up.

Bob Webb