Ship pilot has safely guided more than 4,000 military vessels
Ship pilot Richard Willette was bringing the USS Seawolf to the Naval Submarine Base one February day. The submarine was just north of Electric Boat in the Thames River, and approaching the railroad bridge. Willette knew that when the electric bar on the bridge slid back, the bridge would open in 60 seconds.
"I see the slide bar go. I pick up speed. Next thing I know, here comes a guy running across the bridge with a sledgehammer," he said.
The lock on the bridge was stuck. Willette gave the order to "all stop." But Seawolf-class submarines, which handle similarly to Virginia-class subs, "don't like to stop," he said. Maybe three submarine lengths from the bridge, he was about to order an "all back full" — submarine speak for backing up — when all of a sudden the guy came running back and the bridge opened.
"That was a valuable lesson. That's where 'never rush toward something you don't want to hit' comes from," Willette said one recent December day, standing in the wheelhouse of the tugboat Paul A. Wronowski as he prepared to bring the USS Providence to the base.
That phrase was one of the many coined by Willette during his 19-year career.
"It's important for any pilot to know what to do to keep himself out of trouble," he said. "It's equally important to know what to do when you inevitably get into trouble."
As a ship pilot, Willette handles all military vessel and submarine traffic coming in and out of the sub base and New London harbor. He's worked the Coast Guard barque Eagle many times; moved the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered sub now serving as a museum, when it went in for maintenance, and has helped out during events such as the Maritime Heritage Festival, which brings Navy and Coast Guard ships to New London.
But more often than not, he's guiding a submarine.
Willette, a 51-year-old Ledyard resident, recently surpassed the 4,000th mark — piloting more than 4,000 military vessels between his time as a ship pilot in the Navy and in his current capacity as a civil service pilot.
From tugboat to sub
In the wheelhouse of the tugboat Paul A. Wronowski, a quacking noise comes from Willette's cellphone. He picks it up.
"Hey captain, how you doing?"
"We just got underway. We're still north of the bridge going out. Winds are picking up," he tells Cmdr. Jason Grizzle, commanding officer of the USS Providence, which is en route to the base.
Before hanging up, Willette tells Grizzle that he has a Santa suit and "big ol' wreath" from his wife to bring on the submarine. (It's tradition for Santa to ride in on the last submarine coming into the base before the Christmas holiday).
By now, Willette and the tug crew have it down to a science. The tug pulls up to the side of the Providence. A steel ramp is extended and Willette makes his way across to the submarine. He descends down the main hatch, and makes his way through the narrow corridors until he reaches the control room, near the bow of the sub. He asks for permission to go to the top of the sail, where he positions himself between the commanding officer and the conning officer who is driving the submarine. With subs, there's no protection from the weather — "you're feeling it all the way," he said.
Much of Willette's job involves training junior officers, who usually are driving the submarine for the first time. As Grizzle, the Providence's commanding officer, put it, "he's one of the most experienced guys up and down this river." Submarine crews rely on him for his expertise and knowledge of the waterway.
Willette uses humor to put the first timers at ease, often using "Richisms" — like "the more times you drive through, the wider it gets."
"When they get through the bridge, I say, 'You see those buoys?' They'll say 'Yeah.' 'You see that lighthouse, Ledge Light?' they'll say 'Yeah.' I'll say, 'You see the ferries?' 'Yeah.' I'll say, 'Don't hit any of that stuff,'" he said. "Just little things like that."
Growing up in Rapid City, S.D., Willette never thought he'd spend his days working on the water, but at age 18 he joined the Navy, serving on surface ships. In the latter part of his career, he was a ship pilot.
Retirement on horizon
The submarine community has spoiled him, he says. After a job, he and the tug crew enjoy a plate of cookies, coffee rolls or breakfast burritos.
Most days don't stick out. But he remembers certain jobs, like the one that almost killed him. He was bringing in a large commercial tanker in Yokosuka, Japan. It was a pretty high climb up the side on the pilot side, and as he started to make his way up the ladder, there was a large swell. The ladder crumpled underneath him, catching his feet and flipping him upside down. He landed in the bow of the boat — luckily missing "all the steel hard stuff."
Homecomings are his favorite. As someone who spent 20 years in the Navy, he knows what it's like to come home after a deployment. The crew gets "channel fever" as they get close to their homeport, and when they see him aboard the submarine, that's a cue.
"All of a sudden I walk in and I always hear them say, 'It's the pilot,' and they know they're close," he said.
The job is rewarding and anything but thankless, but Willette plans to retire in a few years.
"It's going to be tough to give up," he said. "Unless it's February."
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