A Pilot's Life

Stuart Griffin captures scenes aboard the huge ship he guides on the Delaware River and Bay

Photographs by Stuart Griffin  |  Text by Pam George
From the Holiday 2014 Issue

For frequent beachgoers in Delaware, following the progress of ships lumbering along the horizon is as much a pastime as looking for dolphins, collecting seashells or watching surf fishermen reel in a catch.

A sharp eye can spot the 50-foot pilot boats, called launches, that motor out to meet the hulking behemoths headed up the Delaware Bay. But only those with good binoculars can spot the pilots, who must clamber up ladders to reach the ship's deck and then guide the vessel to its port of call.

That boarding process isn't for the faint of heart. But it's old hat for Stuart Griffin, who's spent two decades working for The Pilots' Association for the Bay & River Delaware, which has a Lewes station.

From the moment Griffin steps onto the first ladder rung, there isn't much time to savor the scenery. Nevertheless, he steals a moment or two on most trips to capture the ordinary and extraordinary life aboard ship with his camera.

Griffin is living a childhood dream. "I was convinced early on that I wanted to be a pilot," says the Lewes resident, who was born in what was then Beebe Hospital. When he was young, his parents had a 25-foot sailboat, and the family sailed to Chincoteague and Cape May with the Delaware Capes Sailing Club, whose membership included river pilots. "I was totally enamored of what they did for a living," he recalls.

A 1998 graduate of Cape Henlopen High School, Griffin studied meteorology and oceanography at the University of New York Maritime College, located at Fort Schuyler in Throggs Neck. Each summer, cadets went to sea. "I tell people all the time what a great deal the school is," he says. “You get a four-year college degree, plus the valuable Merchant Marine license plus leadership training.”

A few days after graduating, Griffin was sailing the deep seas with the Merchant Marines. He worked on research, military and cargo vessels while waiting for a position to open in the three- to four-year pilot apprenticeship program. In 1994, he got his chance.