Harbor pilots' new home will stand up to big storms

Walter Prause, port manager for Charleston Navigation Co., inspects construction of the Charleston Harbor Pilots building on Concord Street. The building is expected to be completed this fall.

Chase Purdy

If the island beneath the new Charleston Harbor Pilots Association building washes away, the structure will hold its own ground, thanks to disaster-scenario engineering.

After eight months of construction, 40,000 pounds of steel, 32 concrete piles and $1.3 million, the new pilot house nears completion, providing a better facility for those handling the ships entering port, and one secure against hurricane-force winds. The old building was moved in December 2007, and since then, the harbor pilot team has worked from a trailer at 6 Concord St.

Walter Prause, port manager for the Charleston Navigation Co., climbed through the construction site, pointing out several new features the pilot team will enjoy: a kitchen, laundry facilities, a conference room, even a bathroom just for hurried dispatchers. Prause expects a fully operational pilot house the day the team moves in.

"You have to walk into a working facility, especially that dispatch center," he said. "I need to be able to say, 'OK guys, let's go to the new building,' flip on a light switch, and go to work."

Tim Olson is the Trident Construction superintendent for the building site. Olson said installation of hurricane strapping is in place along the sides of the building, and the roof is next.

"Actually, right now we should be done with the envelope of the building by the end of next week," he said. "You're probably talking by the beginning of July, we should be pretty well protected from the elements."

About 70 containerships enter the harbor each week, and they arrive at all hours of the day and night. Dispatchers communicate with the ships and keep the harbor pilots busy. Some work 24-hour shifts, because whether the sea is calm or rough, pilots must board the container ships to guide them through the harbor to the dock. Between jobs, they need a place to rest and the new building will provide four bedrooms. That's three more than the previous pilot house.

"(Hurricane) Hugo almost flooded the old building," Prause said. "I'm six feet higher than that now."

Rather than sink money into the old building, they recycled it. Today it's the office for Stevens Towing at Yonges Island, the result of loading it onto a barge and sending it down the Intracoastal Waterway.

Whit Smith, president of the Charleston Harbor Pilots Association, authorized construction of the new, three-story building. It is more than triple the size of the old and boasts a commanding view of the harbor. The location provides fast access to ships at a marginal cost. Moving the entire operation to another location would cost up to $5 million, Smith said.

The team is comprised of eight pilots, five boat operators, two dispatchers, and five administrative positions.

Prause said he and the rest of his team hope to walk in by the end of October — but will definitely be in the new facility by the end of the year.

"If we move in by Christmas, I'll be happy," he said. "I don't want to be a year older, but I'm ready for this to be over."