A Day in the Life of Work: Wave Runner

A former lawyer found her true calling as a harbor pilot, steering 1,000-foot tanker ships through Portland’s waterways.


Susan Clark

Sea Pilot
Portland Pilots
Portland, Maine

Many captains who come into port haven’t been here before, and they’re unfamiliar with the currents and the hazards. My job is to guide them.


I worked on an Exxon oil tanker for four years after college. I was chief mate at 25, but then I went to law school. My firm gave me an office overlooking Portland harbor, and it was the worst mistake they ever made. On the side, I started doing safety inspections on ships, and I would go out with sea pilots on a regular basis. I soon realized the law wasn’t for me.

I began apprenticing with sea pilots (though I also went back to Exxon to pay the bills). There were three in Portland then; they hadn’t brought on anyone new in 25 years. As an apprentice, I did 250 trips in two and a half years.

Now I work for 10 days on 24-hour call, then I get 10 days off. On a typical day, I can have up to six different jobs. For a typical job, I climb from a 70-foot-long pilot boat onto the rope ladder of a 1,000-foot ship. It takes some leaps of faith. Sometimes you just jump for the ladder and hope you end up where you should. It can be dangerous, but I try not to think about it.

Every job is different: The same ship handles differently based on the wind and the currents. My reflexes have to be right on. To be so wrapped up in my work is wonderful. I never experienced such rapture as a lawyer. I love going out at 3 a.m., when the sky is all stars and no one is awake but me. The peace and beauty are incredible.