Like its namesake, the V.I. Port Authority’s new pilot boat Edmund Steele is a workhorse and the first of its kind in the territory, meant to take on the rough U.S. Virgin Islands waters as it guides big ships into the harbor.
The boat has been in the water for a couple weeks now but was officially christened Friday and this week, it will provide an added boost for VIPA’s pilot boat fleet, which is losing two vessels on St. Thomas-St. John with the sale of the Harry Magras and Winston Parris. With the addition of the Edmund Steele, there will be two left within the district, added to two on St. Croix.
Asked whether one additional vessel will be enough for the pilot boat system to function, VIPA officials said yes, as the Edmund Steele packs a punch on the water, with speeds up to 40 knots that will cut down on response time on high-traffic boat days. Built by North River, one of the largest heavy-gauge aluminum boat manufacturers in North America, the Edmund Steele is 33 feet long with a 10-foot beam and a customized Almar Sounder hull. She is propelled by twin Yamaha 300-horse power outboards and has a 200-gallon fuel tank. The boat cost a little more than $300,000.
While Friday’s christening on St. Thomas offered the boat’s namesake, former VIPA Marine Terminal Manager Edmund Steele, and his family the chance to get it out on the water, it also showed the evolution of the pilot boat system, which VIPA Marine Manager Capt. Matthew Berry described as a “lifeline” for a territory in which nearly everything is imported.
The harbor pilots themselves, and VIPA now has six of them, not only guide the big boats in based on their knowledge of what’s in, around and on the bottom of the harbor, but are the beating heart of the marine industry itself, as everything coming in on the boats is crucial to residents’ way of life. Meanwhile, in the event of a major storm or natural disaster, the pilots are responsible for helping to reopen the ports, allowing life to resume once more.
While at VIPA, Steele was in charge of raising and collecting the funds needed to maintain the system, which his family said during the ceremony “is a very important part of his life.”
“If you hear my uncle talk about this particular program, the pilot boat system, you would believe he still works there,” Steele’s niece, Debra Gottlieb said. “It was never just a job, he knew the importance of this program to the economy of the Virgin Islands and the need to encourage more of our young people to continue to be more involved in the marine industry.”
Years later, that is also a goal for Berry, who, prior to being hired as VIPA’s Marine Manager in 2019, was employed at Crowley Maritime Corp as a second mate navigation officer. Berry sailed supertankers for Exxon Mobil for six years between Alaska and California and worked as a second mate navigation officer on the Eagle Bay tanker for SeaRiver Maritime Inc. and onboard the MV Charleston for the U.S. Shipping Corporation in New Jersey.
Spending extensive time in the water is crucial to becoming a pilot, but in speaking to the Source, Berry said so is attending a maritime school and obtaining a second mate’s unlimited license. Then, once that’s complete, the next step is coming back home and putting those skills to use, but Berry said that’s not happening now as much as the authority – and many marine industry employers in the territory – would like.
“We want to get kids out there excited and wanting to do this,” Berry said. “We need to have our own people here, running the waters. I think there are many programs here that fuel the interest and provide the beginning training, but it needs to continue to develop in a way that will be beneficial to our young people and our community.”