He’s been handling some of the biggest machines on the planet for the last 40 years, and they keep getting bigger.
Coleman Summersett, 73, is a docking pilot. He maneuvers those mammoth cargo ships in and out of the Charleston port, a job that requires concentration and a delicate touch. There’s no room for error. Once these behemoths start moving, it takes a while to change direction.
The job also requires some physical strength and agility. Summersett hops onto a tugboat to meet a ship coming into harbor, then climbs a ladder three stories above the water onto the deck.
Once on deck, the bridge is another eight stories up in the air. Some ships have elevators to get there. Others require another climb.
Summersett has been working tugboats and ships since he was 15 years old, 58 years ago. He loves it, but he’s starting to feel his age. He is retiring at the end of the month.
“The ships are getting higher and higher,” he said. “I keep telling myself I’m as good as I ever was, but … I know I’m not. You hate to admit defeat, you know. Everybody gets old, I guess.”
It’s hard to tell it from looking at him. He jumps on and off a tugboat like a cat.
There’s no mandatory retirement age for a docking pilot. It was up to Summersett to hang up his hat at McAllister Towing, according to Vice President and General Manager Steve Kicklighter.
“Coleman is an amazing specimen,” Kicklighter said. “To be able to do what he does and go up the sides of the ships like he does on those ladders at (almost) 74 years old is amazing. I mean, you shake his hand, there’s still a lot of strength left there, you know what I mean?”
McAllister is one of two companies that provide tugboats and docking pilots for ships coming in and out of Charleston (Moran is the other one). The docking pilots work with the tugboats to get the ships docked or pointed out to sea.
Ships come into and leave the Charleston ports 24 hours a day. Summersett works 24-hour shifts, a day on and a day off. Eventually, the water becomes your life — the hum of the engines, the smell of the salt air mixed with diesel fuel, the rocking of the waves.
“When you got a job that you like to do, that’s wonderful,” Summersett said. “I’ve always liked being out in the open, out there in the hot sun and the wind and the thunder and the lightning. Every job is different. You have different crews and you have different boats, so there’s always a little challenge there.”
On the other hand, you’ve got to be willing to forgo a normal schedule.
“I tell all the young people that come in looking for a job all the time that it’s not really a job; it’s a lifestyle,” said Kicklighter, who has been working the water for 34 years.
“Honestly, there’s a lot of things you don’t get to do with this job. At 3 in the morning ships are coming and you got to get up and do it,” he said. “You miss a lot of stuff. You miss soccer games. You miss the ballet. Having said that, it gets to the point where that stuff starts to get irrelevant to you. You know you got to go do your job. It’s what you do.”
On the average, 11 ships come into or leave the harbor every day, S.C. Ports Authority spokesman Byron Miller said.
In the 1950s, when Summersett started working on a tugboat, ships would be in port days at a time. Now, a ship can unload, reload and leave in a day.
Ships didn’t start packing their loads into containers for quick transport until the mid-1960s.
Now, a single ship can hold enough containers to keep a fleet of trucks busy hauling them off. For instance, Maersk’s 958-foot-long Missouri, one of the ships that Summerset guided out to sea last week, can carry 4,824 containers.
“These guys have seen so much change, and the technology has changed dramatically,” Miller said. “The ships are getting larger and larger, because we want it cheaper and faster.”
Despite the demands of his job, Summersett has been married to the same woman, Nancy, for 47 years. They have a daughter, Samantha, who lives with them in Awendaw on a farm that includes horses and cows.
He plans to stay outside after he retires.
“I’m going to fish and hunt, a whole lot of it,” he said.