Gladding-Hearn delivers pilot boat to Cape Fear

Gladding-Hearn has delivered scores of pilot boats, but this one marks a milestone in the company’s history. It’s the 400th boat Gladding-Hearn has built since the boatyard opened in 1955 — 77 of those have been pilot boats. 

The company’s first pilot boat was a steel 48 footer. “It was a 10-knot launch for the Delaware pilots,” said Gladding-Hearn’s Peter Duclos. “Building small steel boats in 1955 was kind of a novel thing. Most of them were wood, including the launches.”

The problem with wood launches was that most didn’t last long after coming up hard a few times against the side of a steel ship. But a steel launch wasn’t without its problems — sparks. When a steel pilot boat went up against the steel hull of a gasoline tanker “they were scared to death it would ignite the whole thing,” said Duclos. 

Rubber made it possible to use steel pilot boats, specifically “the large rubber fendering sections in the 1950s,” said Duclos. Equipped with rubber fendering, the early steel pilot boats worked well for a while, but by the late 1970s, the Delaware pilots said 10-knot boats would no longer do the job. So Gladding-Hearn took a look at the designs of C. Raymond Hunt Associates and decided to adopt the company’s high-deadrise, deep-V hull. 

“Since 1977, we’ve built very few boats that weren’t Hunt deep-V boats,” said Duclos. The first Hunt-designed pilot boats were still built out of steel but they made 18 knots. It didn’t take long before 18 knots was considered slow. That was the driver for the next step: building pilot boats out of aluminum.

“Then not much changed,” said Duclos. “We were building aluminum versions of the steel boat.” That lasted until the late ’90s. “That’s when we said, ‘we’ve been doing this for a long time. We have a lot of ideas to make things better. If we can’t do it, we’ve got to give it up.’ ” 

The search for something different resulted in the first St. John’s-class pilot boat built for the Cape Fear pilots in 1998. That design morphed into Gladding-Hearn’s Chesapeake-class pilot boats. “So, today, we have two classes in the 50-foot range,” said Duclos. Both are designed by C. Raymond Hunt.  

The Cape Fear Pilot III is the newest St. John’s-class pilot boat. With a pair of 479-hp Caterpillar C-18 main engines bolted to Twin Disc MG- 5114A, EC300 QuickShift gear boxes that spin 33″, 5-bladed wheels, the boat hits 23 knots loaded.

The boat has wide side decks, heated exterior handrails to prevent ice formation in the winter, and a boarding platform on the roof. Inside the wheelhouse are three Llebroc pilot seats and a helm seat. The fo’c’sle has a settee, galley, two bunks and an enclosed head. If a pilot goes into the water, there’s a recessed platform at the stern with a winch operated davit to pull him out.   

The next design change at Gladding-Hearn is currently being built. It’s a 53-foot pilot boat for the Tampa Bay Pilots Association with a Volvo-Penta IPS drive system. Positioning the drives on the bottom of the hull means it’s 20% to 30% more efficient than a standard inboard, the superstructure can be moved aft and there’s a large foredeck. “The pilots will go faster, burn less fuel and be more comfortable,” Duclos said.  — Michael Crowley


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