Shipping & Receiving

FEATURE-September 2010
By Chelsea Holden Baker
Photographs by Mark Marchesi

Every year Portland is visited by roughly 200 tanker ships from around the world. These monoliths are part of the Portland landscape, and yet they are as anonymous as the maritime ambassadors who receive them—the people who quietly operate on the open stage of Portland Harbor, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


Imagine scaling several stories by rope ladder as a wild sea roils below. Imagine commanding a steel box the size of a city block through water while looking out for kayakers. Imagine bailing Russians you don’t know out of jail. Imagine Casco Bay at 3 a.m.—in February. Is it a dream or a nightmare?

For the following five people working in the international world of shipping in Portland’s front yard, this life is their daily reality. They are part of a seaport machine that never stops, a community that shares the joys and sacrifices of bringing big ships into dock and sending them out again, a community that carries on the legacy that gave Portland its name.

Shipping agents Tony and Monika Youells have dealt with dead bodies, stowaways, and men overboard. They’ve been asked for porn and parts for lawnmowers and Harleys. From ship to shore, they are, as Tony puts it, “really fancy secretaries”—the people who coordinate everything and everyone that interacts with a tanker ship coming into port. The married couple rarely see each other, working schedules that are up to 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Tony is the port manager, which means he spends much of his time in the office while Monika, who works in operations, boards vessels at the terminals.

For every ship there are as many as twenty different parties that have to be contacted, set up, and scheduled. “From beginning to end, it’s all men,” says Monika, whose father started Portland Steamship in 1991. “He told me he’d never hire me because I’m a girl, and I don’t belong in the industry.” He eventually brought her on after selling the company in 2005 to Inchcape Shipping Services, an international agency, for which Tony, Monika, and Monika’s cousin, Roman Jozefiak, now work.

“We follow a ship as if it’s our baby,” says Monika. If a vessel is coming from Norway, an 11-day transatlantic crossing, the ship first sends an ETA to Portland before it is even loaded, and communications follow multiple times a day until arrival. The folders that Tony and Monika keep on a single vessel’s trip contain the entire correspondence—about two inches of communiqués when things go well. A problem ship can spit out 300 pages a day.


“We have checklists for checklists,” Tony says. Five or six days before arrival, the agents start making local notifications to the pilots and terminals and preparing paperwork for the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “Customs here is known as the Republic of Portland,” Monika says. “Every port is different, but here people learned from the old-timers, so it’s very old school and very strict.”

The “tell-tale” sheet stapled to the top of the ship’s folder has information Monika can read at a glance: someone on board needs a dentist or a yellow-fever vaccination; the ship needs “bunkers” (fuel), an electrician, or more cash, which will require an armored car delivery. Sometimes people need to be picked up at the airport, whether it’s a new crew or a technician from Japan.

The agents also let the ships know what’s happening in the harbor. The majority of tankers—Suezmaxes and Panamaxes (named for their dimensions in proportion to the famous canals)—are scheduled around high tide. The agents send out a harbor pilot and then a docking pilot with tugboats to guide the ship to the terminal.

As soon as the gangway is down at the dock, the crew queues up; Monika then boards with Customs to check off the crew list, and hands over paperwork to make the official entry to the United States. She calls the dock and is joined by surveyors, who start calculating the quantities on board, and expediters, who oversee the discharge for the company that has purchased the cargo. Inspectors measure the oil tanks. In the meantime, the agents might be meeting a captain for the first time or catching up with someone they’ve seen advance from third mate to captain over the years. Whoever is at the helm, they nearly always hail from somewhere outside of the United States.

“You learn that all stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason,” Monika says. She knows she can expect lots of yelling, great coffee, and best-friend treatment from the Greek captains, even if they’ve never met. “The Turkish have the best tea,” Monika says, “and the Filipino crews love karaoke.” And the Indians tend to think it’s always cold in Portland. “I’ve seen Indians here at the end of May, in the middle of the day—it’s 70 degrees—and they’re wearing parkas and gloves,” Tony says. “They have the heat on in summer.”

“When I tell people that I’m a ship agent they always say, ‘A what?’” says Monika. “And then they realize, ‘Wow, I live right here in Portland or South Portland and I know nothing about what’s going on.” Most of the action is in ships carrying oil, with a small amount of road salt and slurry traffic. Spring Point in South Portland is the head of the Portland pipeline, which has pumped crude oil to Canadian refineries since 1941. The port receives five-and-half billion gallons of fuel from tankers every year. Inchcape is just one of several shipping agencies—from Moran to Chase Leavitt to Fred E. Gignoux to occasional interlopers from out of state—that manage the process. But rather than compete, the agents respect one another and socialize from time to time at Propeller Club meetings or baseball games at Hadlock Field. “Because we’re all involved in an industry that nobody else understands, that has bonded us,” Monika says. “It’s this big factory, and everybody has a part to do.”

Sea pilot Captain Susan Clark can draw the chart of Portland Harbor from memory—the contour lines, the pipeline crossings, shoulder areas, and the buoys and landmarks. So can her four other fellow Portland pilots. It’s part of their Federal Regulation exam. It’s their job to guide a tanker’s captain through the unique terrain and ever-changing conditions of Casco Bay.

Clark is known for being an experienced pilot and one of a minority of women to have pursued the profession. She takes one of two Portland pilot vessels out to meet cruise ships and tankers at the “PAPA” buoy, which is located nine miles from the harbor. To board a towering tanker from the pilot boat, she grapples a 2- to-32-foot rope ladder that can be slick with sleet or tossing in the wind. When she reaches the top, her shoulder-length blonde hair takes some captains by surprise. “They ask, ‘You’re the pilot!?’” Clark says, “And I’m like, ‘No, I just caught a ride and climbed up the ladder!” One captain responded to her confirmation with “Only in America! Only in America!” which was followed by a hushed question in an I’ll-keep-your-secret tone: “And you get paid the same as the men?”

The surprise gets old, but the job does not. Clark attended the Maine Maritime Academy and shipped out with Exxon for 12 years, taking a detour to law school and jobs at two firms in the middle. “A lot of us that have gone to sea are task-oriented people,” Clark says. “For mind-sets such as mine, this is much more fulfilling than practicing law.” Instead of a five-day work week with weekends off, Clark spends “ten days on and ten days off,” a schedule where “on” means on call 24 hours a day.
“We’re all so used to video games that sometimes people imagine this is like remote control,” Clark says. “But even with all the technology we have today, it’s still very visual.” Her job is a constant interpretation of ever-changing variables. “One thing you cannot realize until you step onto the bridge is how immense these vessels are,” Clark says, “and the effect that wind has on structures like that. Even if you have a ship all the time, you have to think: the draft today is 24 feet, I’ve got a southwesterly wind, the wind is going to be more of a factor than draft.”

And when issuing commands for ships that are longer than football fields, you still have to drive defensively. A state of hyper- alertness is essential. Recently a boat was in the channel and showing no signs of distress, but Clark’s gut told her to check it out. It turned out that the boat had broken down, and the pilot boat had to tow it out of the way. “It’s a great job when things are going well,” Clark says. “But in the back of your head, every single time you’re on a ship, you think of all the things that could go wrong.”

When gathering her things on Union Wharf before heading out to meet an oil tanker, Clark pulls out monogrammed Portland Harbor hats from a cupboard to pass on to captains. She sees her role as an ambassador and wants to make sure the port’s customers feel appreciated. “The downturn in traffic is disconcerting,” she says. “Where the cruise ships come in, it’s all old pilings where there were once thriving docks. How do we get that back in a new, global economy? We can’t wait for an industry to come in and build a factory. We need to maintain. We need to promote and market what we already have here.”

Pulling on her slim red life vest, she says, “The port is so crucial to this city. In some ways, I feel like the city has lost its compass in that regard. We have something that sets us apart from so many other small cities in the United States. We have this beautiful, accessible waterfront—a deepwater port.” The captain of Explorer of the Seas, one of the fourth-largest type of cruise ship in the world, told Clark that the outdated facilities here are a challenge, but one that he’s willing to accept. “He told me he continues to come because of the people he comes in contact with,” Clark says. “You want to make sure the next captain feels the same way.”


Docking pilot Captain Brian Fournier says someone once described running tugboats as “99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror.” Fournier was born into the business; whether boredom or terror, it’s what he knows. He steered his first tugboat standing on a paint can so he could see out the window. When he was young, he lost his older brother Billy, who was only 15 at the time, on the job. Billy went in to an oxygen-deficient hold of a barge after a friend who had passed out while investigating a problem. Billy lost consciousness and drowned in just a few inches of water.

Fournier says, however, “it was never a question—nor a choice—that I would do this. Some people play golf to relax, I pilot ships.” Rather than go to maritime school, as “anchor crankers” do, Fournier worked his way up through the ranks, making him a “hawsepiper” (a metaphorical term for someone who has climbed up the “hawse pipe,” the opening through which a ship’s anchor passes through the bow). Fournier is now the president of Portland Tugboat, LLC, and the director of Northeast operations for McAllister Towing. McAllister is one of only two tugboat companies remaining in Portland, and the only outfit dedicated to docking. Its six tugs rule the harbor.

Even though the company is privately owned, as one of the three state-licensed docking pilots, Fournier sees himself as a “servant to the state.” In the harbor, the tugboats pull alongside the tankers, and Fournier climbs the ladder to meet the captains, confirm information, and take over for the sea pilot. “As a docking pilot, I become a conductor of a band,” Fournier says. “I’m conducting three tugboats and a tanker to do whatever I say.” Tugboats take the bow and the stern, lash ropes to the ship, and push and pull at the docking pilot’s command. In the event of rudder or propulsion failure, the tugs will propel a tanker all the way to the dock.

In September of 1996, before Fournier had become a docking pilot, he was driving a tug behind the Liberian tanker the Julie N. The 85-foot-wide boat was approaching the 96-foot-wide opening of the old Million Dollar Bridge—askew. The bridge technician blew the alarm, Fournier looked up, and the tanker hit the bridge piers with disastrous impact—horrific noise, splinters of wood flying, a huge cloud of dust, and the sound of rushing water mixing with oil in a thirty-foot-long gash in the hull. The captain of the tanker had given a “port” command to his crew when he meant to say “starboard,” sending the ship to the wrong side. “That poor bastard,” Fournier says of the captain, “called me saying, ‘Do you see anything?’ and all I could say was, ‘It’s a mess.’ The bow immediately went down and she went all the way upriver with her anchors to the water.” The Julie N. spilled nearly 200,000 gallons of oil that day. The tugboats docked the ship as she spewed.

The new Casco Bay Bridge was under construction at the time of the Julie N. accident. It has nearly a hundred additional feet of horizontal clearance, among other advantages. Soon after it opened in 1997, Fournier was training as a docking pilot aboard an even larger tanker when a repeat of the same accident occurred. Standing on the tugboat Andrew McAllister today, Fournier points to the bridge and says, “That right there is an engineering marvel for the blow it took that day. We hit the left side of that bridge almost head on and bounced right off. That bridge absorbed it like it was supposed to.” The more than 11 million gallons of oil the ship was carrying stayed inside the hold. There was no damage.

As Fournier pops bubble gum in his mouth, a tug preparing to haul a barge of refrigerated containers to New York calls over the radio to say that crew has finished dinner. “Now we’re fully prepared to make our offering to Neptune,” the speaker cackles. They’re heading offshore, where it’s likely they’ll become seasick in the chop. Fournier’s tug is there to assist in backing the barge off the dock, and he’s more than happy to stay in the harbor.
Nowadays, it’s rare to see many container ships, and most of the containers moving through the harbor are empty. “There’s not a lot of export in the state of Maine anymore, which is a shame,” Fournier says. “We’re so intermodal—close to the highway, close the railroad, a deep port. Shipping is more efficient than trains, and both are more efficient than trucks. Now that there’s more interest in carbon footprints, we’re hoping we can do something with companies like Poland Spring and L.L. Bean.” The other tug begins to move, pulling the barge using a huge steel wire coming off its aft deck—one of the most dangerous parts of the job. Fournier looks at the tug from the starboard side of the Andrew McAllister and says, “That steel wire has killed a lot of people.” Including one of his own.

Yoda, the Jedi master who said, “Do or do not—there is no try,” is one of the patron saints of the Andrew McAllister. A small Yoda figurine looks out of a porthole above the dining table. From Fournier’s office, he looks back, down onto the tug fleet. Fournier is the only person remaining in the Portland Ocean Terminal, a long blue waterfront building with a Wyland whale mural on the side that faces the Maine State Pier. When the city closed the doors on the building, Fournier asked to stay. He wanted to be with his fleet. The restrooms on his floor are closed, and in the winter he turns on space heaters for warmth. “The city wanted to downsize,” Fournier says, “They did away with the whole department that oversaw waterfront activity and promoted the port.” When cruise ships come in, a thousand people disembark on the dock amid the smell of creosote and the remains of a ferry terminal built for the CAT ferry, which has since pulled out of the port. When cruise ships are absent, the only people in sight are the 16 who work for Portland Tugboat.

“There is a romantic allure to tugboats,” Fournier says. “You read about them as a kid, they’re scruffy. People’s first reaction is always that it’s a neat job, and it is—in July. In January it’s a pretty lonely place.”

Reverend Dr. Nash Garabedian Jr. carries a yellow mountaineering pack. The gangway he climbs to board tankers at the terminals is steep enough to be considered a hike. In his pack are magazines, Bibles in several languages, puzzles, telephone cards, ditty bags, and clothing and cookies donated by local churches.
Garabedian is the chaplain coordinator at the Portland Branch of Seafarer’s Friend, a maritime ministry founded in Boston in 1827 in response to concerns about how sailors spent their time in port. The mission is dedicated to people who live aboard ships, often eight or nine months at a time—people who miss children’s birthdays or a parent’s funeral in order to provide for families far away.

Garabedian lends an ear to the twenty or so crewmembers on board who have become inured to one another’s stories. English is the language of the sea, but when someone’s English is rusty, they communicate through gestures and pointing at Garabedian’s atlas as he is shown around their steel home. A visit could take the chaplain into the cargo control room or to a meal in the mess hall. “Whether or not they speak English, cooks are always excited to see Bon Appetit or Food & Wine, he says.

Garabedian’s office at the Portland Fish Pier is full of photos, including a smiling crew wearing a psychedelic smattering of bright hats and scarves handmade in Maine. “They always use the word ‘remember,’” Garabedian says. “They’ll say, ‘It’s so good of you to remember us.’ It can be a very invisible life.”

The standard 18- to 24-hour turnaround in port is the busiest time for a crew as a ship discharges and undergoes inspections. “It’s not unusual to hear that crew members haven’t been ashore in two, three, or four months,” Garabedian says. When they do get a leave, Garabedian is there to provide rides to stores like the oft-requested Wal-Mart or Best Buy, but the shopping time can be as short as half an hour. Some crew members are barred from disembarking for lack of visas or security concerns, and that’s when contact from land can be especially soothing. “To look at the shore and not be able to touch the ground, take a walk—there’s a real sadness in that,” Garabedian says.

And to be part of a ministry that touches so many countries without traveling is a unique profession. “The world comes to us and we become immersed in a culture,” Garabedian says. “We listen to stories and learn about villages. We see Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, a variety of Christians. Seafarers, and the maritime community in general, are the people that teach me about what it means to love thy neighbor, how to be hospitable, and how to welcome a stranger.”

Share The Inspiration