The company that guides large ships into Portland Harbor has been given an emergency fee hike to so it can hire sufficient crew members to man pilot boats safely.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners for the Port of Portland on Tuesday approved a 50 percent increase in the minimum fee Portland Pilots Inc. charges to steer big cargo and passenger vessels into port.

Portland Pilots says it has been losing money for years and now can afford to have only two pilots on staff, not enough to continue operating safely.

“By only having two full-time pilots and no deckhands, they are in danger of fatigue,” said Twain Braden, an attorney from the Thompson, Bowie and Hatch firm in Portland who represents the company. “The last thing in the world the harbor commission wants is a fatigued pilot.”

Portland Pilots is a private company, but the rates it charges to steer ships into port are regulated by the board. Harbor pilots charge a “pilot unit” based on a vessel’s dimensions. Portland currently charges $7.18 per pilot unit.

Some ships, such as the international ferry that used to dock in Portland and some container vessels that call at the International Marine Terminal, pay a minimum fee, equivalent to 100 pilot units, or about $718 per trip. Under the emergency fee increase, that rate would go up to 150 pilot units, or $1,077 per trip.

Before 2016, that minimum fee wasn’t as important to Portland Pilots’ bottom line, because the company regularly serviced huge tankers delivering oil to the Portland-Montreal Pipeline, Braden said. When pipeline operations were suspended in 2016, that traffic stopped.

“Previously they had 20 to 24 ships a month calling on the pipeline alone,” Braden said.

Now there are fewer ships overall, and a third of them pay the minimum fee, which has not increased in years, he said.

Without the bigger ships, the pilots are lose money every time they are called to bring a vessel into port for a minimum fee, Braden said. The rate increase will allow the pilots to hire deckhands, he added.

Deckhands make sure that pilots are safe when they get off the pilot boat, sometimes in rough seas, to clamber up an external ladder to the deck of the larger ship.

“That is the most dangerous part of piloting, until they get on the deck,” he said. “That whole exchange is incredibly dangerous for a pilot.”

The emergency rate is almost as much as Portland Pilots asked for, and the board approved, in 2017. Bay Ferries, the company that operated the international ferry between Portland and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, until last year, sued over that decision, arguing that the board did not have enough information to approve a rate and fee increase. A superior court agreed and an appeal of that decision was denied in February.

This time, Portland Pilots provided financial documents to prove the fee increase was justified. According to a profit-and-loss statement from 2018, the company had a budget shortfall of $386,000.

Board Chairman Tom Dobbins said the documents showed the serious financial straits the company was in, and the increasing risk of an accident.

“Once we got that paperwork, it was a real eye-opener for us,” he said.

“They are taking their life in their hands,” Dobbins added. “When we get to public safety, this port only has two pilots. If we lose a pilot the other can’t do all the ships, so what do we do then? Do we stack ships outside?”

The board unanimously approved the emergency increase. It should go into effect after a public hearing next week and stay in place for 60 days.

A request to increase pilot rates to $8.04 and make the new minimum rate permanent is pending at the board.