By Brian Dunn

When you are raised in Caraquet, N.B., there are only two career paths to choose between: you either become a fisherman or a sailor.

“I decided to become a sailor because my grandfather was a captain on a U.S. tanker that transported fuel to Europe during the war and that influenced me,” explained Captain Réjean Lanteigne, CEO of the Laurentian Pilotage Authority in Montreal, which is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year.

The Authority was created on February 1, 1972, along with Atlantic Pilotage Authority, Great Lakes Pil­otage Authority and Pacific Pilotage Authority. Before then, pilots were assigned by Transport Canada, which didn’t make sense in such a large country, said Mr. Lanteigne, who has spent his entire career in shipping-related jobs.

Between 1981 and 1995, Lanteigne worked for the Canadian Coast Guard and Department of Transport in various capacities, becoming Director General, Ship Safety Directorate, in 1993, overseeing 500 employees in 35 centres across Canada with an operating budget of $35 million.

In 1995, Lanteigne was appointed Vice-President of Canadian Shipowners Association before taking on his current role at Laurentian Pilotage in June, 2005.

Mr. Lanteigne, who plans to retire on October 30, has a diploma in Nautical Sciences from Institut maritime du Québec of Rimouski, a Master Mariner, Foreign Going, Certificate with STCW Endorsement, a degree in Financial Administration from University of Ottawa and a master’s degree in Public Administration.

The four pilotage Authorities, Crown Corporations, were established under the Pilotage Act to operate an efficient pilotage service. Their Boards of Directors comprise a Chairman and six other members, including two pilots, two shipping industry members and two members of the general public.

Under the Pilotage Act, the Authorities must be financially self-sufficient. If they run up a deficit, they may borrow under a line of credit or a bank loan, subject to limits imposed by the Governor in Council.

The 191 pilots on the St. Lawrence River operate one of three districts, namely the port of Montreal, Montreal to Quebec City, and Quebec City to Les Escoumins, including the Saguenay River.

Since pilots must be given 12 hours notice when their services will be required, the three sections are monitored in a dispatch room in Montreal on screens that show every ship on the river, plus those coming in from the Gulf and the Seaway.

Laurentian owns the pilot station in Les Escoumins where one winter and one summer pilot boat are based. The Quebec City-Montreal corridor is contracted out to Ocean Group Inc. With the exception of a few staff pilots, all pilots are contract pilots. “We prefer it that way, because it reduces our financial risk if there is no work,” said Lanteigne. In 2010, the latest year for which data were available, pilot fees, salaries and benefits amounted to $283,600 per pilot. This amounted to pilot income of $2,820 per average assignment.

Between January and the end of March, about 50 per cent of the pilots are off due to a lack of work, but all are working when the cruise ships begin to arrive.

While there is no standard qualification across the country, the basic qualifications to become an apprentice pilot on the St. Lawrence are a diploma from Institut maritime du Québec in Rimouski, 24 months of sea time as Watch Officer and Captain near coastal waters. Only those with the best qualifications are chosen. Then, the candidate has to do a minimum of 24 months of apprenticeship and pass the examination to become a licensed pilot.

Assuming students are 18 years old when they start their program, by the time they complete their training, including serving as a ship’s cadet and junior officer for 7 or 8 years and a two-year apprenticeship on a pilot ship, they will be 35 to 40 by the time they become a full-fledged  pilot.

“And for the first five years, they’re not allowed on a ship greater than 25,000 tonnes, and the next five years after that on a ship no greater than 60,000 tonnes,”  Lanteigne pointed out. The average class starts out with about 60 candidates, but is whittled down to some 15 graduates through attrition.

Although there is no compulsory re-training required during a pilot’s career, the lower St. Lawrence pilots built their own training simulator in Quebec City about five years ago.

Asked to name the most dangerous stretches of the St. Lawrence,  Lanteigne lists the mouth of the Saguenay due to the strong currents, the port of Montreal due to the large amount of water coming in from the Great Lakes and sediment from the Ottawa River, and between Sorel and Trois-Rivières, because it is so narrow.

And the most dangerous time is during the winter, because some foreign ships are not designed or properly crewed for winter navigation.

“About 20 per cent of the fleet is not designed for winter navigation and we only have three icebreakers that have to cover all the way up to the Gulf,” noted Lanteigne.

There was a time a few years ago when there was a shortage of pilots, due to retirements that Laurentian Pilotage Authority was not prepared for.

“Every 10 years since 1972, we would lose between 5 and 10 per cent of pilots to retirement. In 2005, we were about 38 pilots short, because we had not recruited new candidates,” explained Lanteigne. “However, since then, we have been recruiting about ten candidates a year and end up with three or four graduates. We have five female pilots, which we didn’t have six or seven years ago.”

According to Lanteigne, despite the advent of GPS and modern radar, pilots are as important today as they were 40 or more years ago.

“Pilots are still necessary. Some captains have no idea where they’re going and I’ve never met a captain who said he would go on the river without a pilot. And a captain arriving in Montreal from the Seaway doesn’t want to navigate to Quebec City. He’s going to bed.”

What GPS has enabled pilots to do is take more risks during winter storms. Ten years ago, for example, 3,000 hours of ship movements were lost every year to stormy weather. Last year, that number was down to 23 hours.

Laurentian Pilotage Authority has been solidly profitable during each of the past five years: on average annual revenues of $66.4 million, it produced net income of $4 million.

Too bad Lanteigne is retiring in less than six months. Does he have any plans?

“I plan to play a lot of tennis,” he said.