Sandy Bendixen’s cool job piloting massive vessels in Puget Sound

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Meet Sandy Bendixen, a marine pilot who boards large ships navigating Puget Sound, directing their captains and moving their massive ships in precise ways to ensure the vessels’ safe passage. At 37, Bendixen is one of the youngest pilots on the job — and the state’s first female pilot.

What do you do? I’m a member of the Puget Sound Pilots. We’re responsible for piloting large ships in and out of Puget Sound safely. When a large ship comes in — like cargo or cruise ships — we climb onboard using a rope ladder, then navigate to dock. It’s our role to protect Puget Sound on behalf of the public. That means we’re experts in ship handling in the Sound specifically and know the intricate details of its waterways, docks and numerous hazards that can impact a vessel’s safe passage.

How did you get started in that job? I grew up on a boat, so I’ve always felt at home on the water. When I was about 4 years old, I watched a ship docking in Alaska with my grandfather, who was a ship captain. He introduced me to pilots and explained that they’re the ones who guide in ships. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a pilot.

Sandy Bendixen pilots a cement ship in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Sandy Bendixen pilots a cement ship in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Sandy Bendixen pilots a cement ship in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Describe what it takes to become a licensed Sound pilot. To qualify to become a pilot, you have to captain a large ship for a number of years first — this could be a ferry or passenger vessel, tug boat or other large ship. Once qualified, you take and pass an extensive written exam. Then you’re put through a simulator exam, ranked and then invited to start training, which can take anywhere from 15 months to three years. I did over 300 trips in the Puget Sound, observing, training and being evaluated, and, once I passed, was licensed by the State of Washington.

What’s a typical day like? When I’m on call and next in rotation, I’ll get notified of an arriving or departing ship and then have a few hours to study up on the vessel and current conditions before heading to the ship, somewhere in Puget Sound. There’s a small pilot boat that takes me to the ship and, once aboard, I’ll pilot it to its final location and also the reverse (for example, from Ferndale to Port Angeles), then transfer back onto the pilot boat. Sometimes I spend eight hours piloting just one ship. After that, I have a mandatory 10-hour rest period, after which I’m put back in rotation to be dispatched. I’m on duty for 15 days, 24/7 and then off duty for 13 days.

Sandy Bendixen aboard a cement ship that she piloted in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Sandy Bendixen aboard a cement ship that she piloted in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Sandy Bendixen aboard a cement ship that she piloted in the Duwamish River. (Courtesy of The Northwest Seaport Alliance)

Any particularly memorable days? Probably the first day I was licensed and was the only pilot on the ship. That’s when I realized that I was the pilot in control. I was done training, and there was no other pilot who was there making sure I didn’t screw up! It’s like the first time you drive after getting your license, except a bigger deal because I’d been working toward this for 32 years and had finally reached the pinnacle of my career.

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What surprises people about what you do? When we transfer from the pilot boat to the ship, we take a calculated, flying leap from the boat onto a 30-foot wooden rope ladder hanging off the side of the ship. There’s no other way to get on! Also, pretty much everything in your home has come here by ship and those ships are moving 24/7, year-round. Out of all the ships that come in and out of Puget Sound, there are only about 50 of us licensed to pilot and move them.

What’s the best part of the job? Getting to move these massive objects in precise ways; we get the ships within 6 inches of accuracy! It’s rewarding, but it’s super challenging. You’re mostly working with a foreign crew so there’s an element of orchestration, like a conductor, and you’re also constantly fine-tuning situational awareness of where you are, where the tug boats are, and where the dock is. It’s art and science all in one.

Do you have a cool job or know someone in the Seattle area who does? Email Michelle Archer with your recommendations for people to feature in Cool Job.

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