The River Pilot

Navigating the Hudson is no easy feat for the oceangoing vessels that carry cargo on the river each day. Pilot Paul Capel makes sure that it’s all smooth sailing.

The River Pilot

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Huge oceangoing ships come from around the world carrying cargo to the Valley. But when they enter the mouth of the Hudson, their captains stand aside and a Hudson River pilot takes the helm

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Text and photos by Walter Garschagen


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Standing on the bridge of the Brussel,  Captain Paul Capel has just one goal: to get this 650-foot bulk carrier, loaded with 33,000 tons of coal, safely up the Hudson River to the dock at the Danskammer power plant, just north of Newburgh. That morning, when the 56-year-old Red Hook resident arrived onboard in a blue blazer and a red-and-white striped tie, he resembled a typical Metro-North passenger. But Capel’s commute to work is a bit more perilous: he must climb a 30-foot rope ladder from the deck of a small pilot launch onto the mammoth Brussel — which never stops moving. As the river water roils below, Capel swiftly maneuvers up the rungs to the big ship’s gritty steel deck.


Once aboard, Capel reports directly to the wheelhouse, four stories up. He greets the ship’s captain — Krzysztof  Szwed of Warsaw, Poland — with a handshake and a copy of the New York Times. “Nice to see you again,” he says. Then it’s straight to work.


The view from the ship’s bridge is stunning. A row of windows  provides glimpses of the river far below, the Palisades rising up on the port side, and some 500 feet of deck ahead. At a side table on the bridge, Capel opens his laptop, powers up three separate navigation software programs, and clamps a GPS receiver on the wing deck. Within minutes, he begins calling out instructions in short, clipped tones. “Half ahead, sir.” “Zero-one- four.” The crew repeats each order.


Capel knows every bend and rock in the Hudson. He is a Hudson River pilot, and has traveled the river in hundreds of vessels in all types of weather during the past 28 years. He and seven colleagues (who together form the Hudson River Pilot Association) board more than 200 deep-water ships each year, guiding them through the waters between Yonkers and Albany. (New York State law requires that all foreign ships have a licensed pilot on board while traveling on the river.) River pilots work on oil tankers, heavy-lift ships, and bulk carriers like the 25,000-ton Brussel (which, with its 30-man crew, is approaching the end of a six-day, 2,400-mile journey from Venezuela to Newburgh).


Capel grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where his father ran the Coast Guard lifeboat station. After graduating from the Maine Maritime Academy, he worked on dredgers up and down the East Coast for the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1974, he started manning tugboats in New York Harbor, but already had his sights set on becoming a river pilot. The training is rigorous; newcomers must be graduates of college or a maritime academy, and have a minimum of five years’ experience aboard tugs or deep-water vessels. But Capel persevered: in 1979, he landed a gig as a deputy, and within five years became a full pilot. “It’s like the top of the maritime business. It’s an opportunity to work on the ships and also to be home with the family,” he says, noting that the workday is relatively short: a trip from Yonkers to Albany usually takes about 10 hours, so a pilot can usually be home in time for supper.


Approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge, Capel plots his course, lining the ship up to pass underneath the center of the span. Even with a 139-foot bridge clearance, the Brussel has only 20 feet to spare above her smokestack. But it’s what’s under the ship that has the pilot on his toes. The Brussel is one of the deepest ships to come up the river, extending 33 feet below the water. Five miles ahead lies Haverstraw Bay, where the river is only 32 feet deep at low tide. “This is what we call a tide job,” Capel calmly explains. “It has to be very well thought out. We have to ensure that we cross Haverstraw Bay near high tide, which will add three feet for us.” He points out that in winter, ships of this size and depth don’t sail at night. “Safety first,” he says. “I’ve had my share of engine problems and steering failures, but fortunately I have been very lucky and have not had a major accident on the river. But the other day I was called in to work on a ship that had run aground near Kingston.”


The ship safely crosses Haverstraw Bay by mid-afternoon, keeping slightly to the right of the wide channel. After passing by the Stony Point lighthouse, Capel orders the speed up to full ahead. We are nearing the Highlands, an area fraught with turns and rocks, and there are only two hours of daylight left. “It’s a little unnerving for captains on big,  oceangoing vessels,” Capel says, glancing at Captain Szwed. “All of a sudden they’re looking at these rocks, and they don’t want their ship anywhere near them.”


Capel learns via radio that a barge and tug are approaching.  He gives orders for the helmsman to change course, slowly starting the turn into the Highlands and around the boats. Nothing appears to happen for a good thirty seconds, then the bow begins to swing  towards the Bear Mountain Bridge. “You want it to be a nice, even turn,” he explains.


“You are trying to get the turn going, not too fast, not too slow. It’s the same way with a race car, you’ve got to turn it in at the right time. You’ve got to feel what it’s doing for you.”


The race-car metaphor is apt — Capel enjoys rebuilding and racing Mazda Miatas in his off hours — and the precision needed for his hobby clearly applies to his job as well. The enormous vessel makes its way through the Highlands, reaching the elbow in the river off West Point dubbed World’s End. “It’s so tricky. There’s solid rock on both sides, and you have to make a 90-degree turn to the left and then a 90-degree turn to the right,” says Capel. “You need to hit it at a very precise angle. I want to turn in nicely, sort of like a race car, but I don’t want to run out of room before I get there.”


The ship swings past the rocks with 100 yards to spare and sails through World’s End. “You definitely don’t want to meet anybody here,” Capel points out. There’s no room for another vessel, except perhaps a sailboat. “You bless yourself before getting on some of these ships, because you know it’s going to be tough,” Capel says. “It looks very much like a ballet once you get it right, but if you don’t….”



Although the pilot has done this particular dance a thousand times, he never tires of it. “People ask how I can just go up and down the same stretch of river year after year. But there’s always a new challenge.” He recalls how in the winter of 1996, several major blizzards led to terrible flooding. “There were ice chunks bigger than trucks floating down the river. Lots of places got washed away, there were even pieces of houses going by. It took us 50 hours to get from Yonkers to Albany.” And his varied schedule keeps things interesting. “Sometimes I get on a boat in the evening at the middle station in Hyde Park and go down to Yonkers. Then I’ll sleep for about five or six hours in the bunk room. The next day I’ll hop on Metro-North and go home.”


Even in his downtime, Capel is rarely far from the Hudson. “I have a little runabout. I enjoy fishing, exploring little inlets, going to the old mansions along the river,” he says. “And I try not to take the scenery for granted. It is very, very beautiful here.”


But admiring the view will have to wait. Capel’s current focus is on docking in Newburgh. “It will take a while to slow this ship down,” he says, ordering the speed reduced as we near the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. Two red tugboats wait in the middle of the river. It’s dark, the radar screens glow a soft blue, and the crew on the bridge is very quiet. Capel directs the two tugboats to take up position by the side of the Brussel. “This is the part that takes the longest,” he says. “Every ship has a speed at which it doesn’t respond to the steering anymore. I’m looking for a fine line: how slow can I go and still maintain control of the vessel. It’s like an airplane, you’ve got to get the speed down to land, but you still have to fly the plane.”


    Capel continues to reduce speed until the helmsman reports that he has lost steering. At this point, the ship is just 400 yards from the dock and still cruising forward, towing the tugs alongside. She needs to stop… and soon. A southerly wind suddenly pipes up. This adds a wrinkle to Capel’s perfect landing. “She’s misbehaving,” he chuckles. The ship is not losing speed; Capel yells for some reverse power and for help from the tugs. After half an hour of pushing and tugging, the Brussel finally comes to rest at the dock. “All stop, all finished,” the river pilot calls to Captain Szwed.


On the bridge right after docking, the mood is almost festive. The crew is busy running lines to the shore and readying the conveyor belt system to begin unloading the coal. They will work through the night and into the next day.


 Captain Capel makes his way down the gangway to the dock. As he gets into his wife’s pickup truck, he asks, “How did I do, dear?”


“You did wonderfully,” she answers proudly. 


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