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As the cargo ship Dali made its way out of its berth and into the tight quarters of the Port of Baltimore in the early morning of March 26, the ship pilots advising the captain and crew were there to help them move the ship carefully away from the pier, under the Francis Scott Key Bridge and into the Patapsco River. Its ultimate destination: Colombo, Sri Lanka.

But something catastrophic happened: Instead of going under the bridge span, the ship apparently lost power and thus the ability to be steered. It rammed into a bridge support, collapsing the span.

I interviewed veteran ship’s officer Allan Post, deputy superintendent of the Texas A&M Maritime Academy, about the role that ship pilots play in the often difficult and even treacherous ship travel into and out of ports.

Pilots are “well-practiced in close-quarters maneuvering” and navigating specific bodies of water, he said. They spend years under the tutelage of senior pilots who teach them about the local waterways, navigation, currents and tides. In fact, when would-be pilots take their professional exam, “they have to draw the charts that they would be using in the pilotage waters – from memory.”

Whatever caused the disaster, it was “absolutely” every captain, pilot and crew member’s nightmare, says Post.

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Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Democracy

The ship Dali amid the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

I’ve captained ships into tight ports like Baltimore, and this is how captains like me work with harbor pilots to avoid deadly collisions

Allan Post, Texas A&M University

Two ship pilots were on board the large cargo vessel that hit Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. A veteran ship captain describes the role these pilots play in close-quarter maneuvering.

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