Masters of Our Near Shore Seas

By Shawna Serig Kelcsh

Sitting at a waterfront restaurant at the Cove at Port Canaveral, sipping a cold beer, watching boats ferry in and out of the port is sport in Brevard. Hundreds of weekend warriors regularly flock here to watch mega ships and oil tankers glide in and out of the protected waters at the port.
And, though it might be intuitive to think that the ships are manned by their corporate captains, the truth is, that’s not the truth.

“We board the vessels five miles offshore to provide safe transport into these waters,” said Capt. Ben Borgie, who has been a Port Canaveral Harbor Pilot since 2004 and also serves as Co-Chairman of the Canaveral Pilots Association and Treasurer of the Florida Harbor Pilots Association.

Borgie and seven other full-time Harbor Pilots, plus the association’s newest trainee, Sean Morrissey from Merritt Island, form the Canaveral Pilots Association and are independent contractors. The pilots all are experienced Merchant Marine Master Mariners who have completed intense state testing and training. They have served for years on ships at sea, away for months on end (typically 10 months at a stretch), from wives and children, holidays and birthdays.

For Borgie, who knew he wanted to be a ship captain when he was six years old, this is the best of both worlds. He gets to be on the water as much as he wants, and he gets to man a diverse array of watercraft – from Navy nuclear submarines, to commercial space rocket retrieval platforms, to 1200’ mega cruise ships to tankers of all sizes carrying oil, cement and concentrated orange juice. And at the end of the day, he gets to go home to his wife, Leah, and sons Finn, 10, and Luke, 7.

Vessels handled at Port Canaveral include cruise ships, tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, general cargo vessels, refrigerated cargo vessels, special mission government vessels and Navy vessels. The port is the second busiest cruise ship port in the world. The deepest draft handled at the port is 39’ 06″. Any vessels drawing over 36’ are tide restricted and are scheduled to enter port on a rising tide with three assist tugs.

World Travel, Family and Finding Home

After graduating at the top of his class from the California Maritime Academy in San Francisco, Borgie traveled the world as a merchant marine navigating tankers and other large commercial vessels through the waters of the Far East, Panama Canal, Australia and more. Rising through the ranks to a senior officer took almost
a decade and he was set to head out to sea again when the pending birth of his first son redirected his plan.

“I decided a job as a Harbor Pilot would be something worth pursuing, so I did my research and came here to apply [for the state exam].” The 2.5 day exam is broad in scope, covering International Rules of the Road, Inland Rules of the Road, Shiphandling and Seamanship, Aids to Navigation, Federal and State Rules and Regulations, and Local Knowledge. Additionally, the candidate must draw the entire navigational channel, all aids to navigation, and other features from memory. It took Borgie three times before he scored high enough to be considered for the trainee position. “And once you get in, you build from there. You cannot go to another port and assume a lateral position. You start over if you move,” he said.

Pilots, Captains and a Whale or Two

Today, Borgie is ferried around the harbor by Pilot Boat Captain, Mike Rigby, 58, a salty sea master that was “born and raised on these waters,” specifically navigating this port for the past 35 years. The boat is a custom 45’ Metal Shark with a John Deere 650 HP diesel motor that can reach 25 knots that they named Timucua, after an indigenous tribe of Native Americans that once navigated these waters. Specially designed to withstand strong forces, the boat is worth close to $1 million. “The association – which finances all its own equipment – holds a hefty mortgage on it,” said Borgie.

Cruising around the port, fishermen and kayakers are bobbing in the calm waters of a brilliant winter afternoon. Bright blue skies are backdrop to the antics of dolphins and pelicans on this seasalt playground, and up on the jetty there are a half dozen RVs with shades stretched out over picnic tables and chairs.

“We’ve had whales swim into here through the channel a time or two over the years,” Rigby said. “And when that happens, we shut the port down,” added Borgie, noting the protected status of the large, black baleen whale. “Nothing in or out of the port until they move on.”

Rigby assists the harbor pilots in arrivals [and departures] from the five mile mark, pulling up alongside tankers or cruise ships they have to board, and trying to hold steady the Metal Shark while the pilot leans over to take the rope ladder that will lead them to the top of the ship they must bring safely into harbor.

“That’s how we get to work each day, this is our ‘ride’ and that’s ‘the office,’” he said, pointing to a large tanker in the port, one of many that can be boarded and navigated in or out of the port daily.

Safety is the No. 1 Priority

Harbor Pilots are on call 24/7 every day of the year.

They work together in a collaborative association, share expenses and split profits. There are 13 pilot companies in Florida that provide services to the seaports, and all
are tested, licensed and disciplined by the Department of Business & Professional Regulation. The Florida harbor Pilots Association (FHPA) assists with marketing, lobbying and other administrative functions. Pilots are directly contracted by and agent of the ship companies and work independently – meaning they do not answer to the ship owners or ship captains.

“It’s important that we remain independent and that the ship captains who hire us understand that our first responsibility is to the safety of the public and the port. If it is too dangerous, for example, to bring a ship into port due to fog, then we won’t – we can’t – do it.”

So, the next time you’re at the port and see a big ship making its way in or out of the port, sit back and sip your drink knowing that the waters around you, and miles out to sea, are that much safer because of the training and knowledge these men bring to their jobs each day.


Interested candidates can find all the information regarding openings, how to apply, fees required, merchant marine deck officer qualifications and experience required, and exam information at the Board’s website at