Guiding ships as big as skyscrapers into one of the world’s most dangerous harbors
At 3 a.m., the pilot boat Golden Gate bounces over the black swells of San Francisco Bay. It is bound for the bay’s mouth, where it will meet a Hanjin cargo ship, arriving from China by way of Los Angeles. Looking out its window is Captain Orrin Favro, who will board the cargo ship and help direct it safely to port. “So this is our ship here,” Favro says. “Dead ahead.” Favro, a 33-year-old former tugboat captain from southeast Alaska, speaks with the soft cadence of a meditation instructor. “This ship came up from Los Angeles and discharged a bunch of cargo there,” he says. “So it’s actually riding a little lighter in the water.” Nothing about the ship looks light. At 1,100 feet, it is longer than the 49ers’ new football stadium, and its keel extends 34 feet below the water. The tiny pilot boat sidles up alongside the massive starboard of the cargo ship, and a rope ladder is lowered. Favro puts on an orange inflatable jacket and begins to scale the ship.
Favro is part of an elite cadre of mariners known as the San Francisco Bar Pilots. Named after the horseshoe-shaped sandbar that lies beyond the Golden Gate strait, this group of approximately 60 captains guides commercial vessels into and out of San Francisco Bay. Maritime pilots can be found in all international ports, but few face conditions as treacherous as those on the bay. Fifty percent of California’s watershed drains into the ocean through the Golden Gate, a half-mile crack in the coastline. This produces tremendous currents, which, combined with heavy fog and unpredictable swells, make the bay’s entrance one of the most difficult places to navigate in the world. For the bar pilots, who transport more than $1 billion of goods per day, some of them toxic, there is little room for error. In 2007, pilot John Cota steered the Cosco Busan into the Delta tower of the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland, busting open the vessel’s port side and releasing 53,569 gallons of bunker oil into the bay. The spill killed thousands of birds and damaged local fisheries. The cleanup cost $70 million.
On December 31, 2015, the largest cargo ship ever to arrive in the United States, the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin, was directed to port by the bar pilots. The Benjamin Franklin is 1,310 feet long and displaces more than 158,000 tons. It is the latest example of an industry-wide trend to increase ship size that dates back to 2010. In response, the bar pilots insisted on including a secondary navigator, known as an “e-pilot.” While bar pilots typically board incoming vessels 12 miles offshore, e-pilots join ships after they’re inside the bay and help them negotiate the difficult turn in the Alameda basin.
Today, Favro is serving as an e-pilot, working alongside fellow bar pilot George Dowdle and his trainee, Drue Kasper, who have been guiding the cargo ship in from the bar. Favro has brought a GPS that operates independently from the ship’s. Once aboard, he sets up the equipment and shows it to Dowdle to make sure he’s comfortable with the display. Then Dowdle directs the ship toward the opening between the Delta and Echo towers of the Bay Bridge. It is an uncommonly warm night, and Favro is able to see the Point Bonita and Point Diablo lighthouses in the distance, an indication that visibility is good. To execute the turn in the basin — spinning the ship 180 degrees — Favro must keep the bow speed and stern speed the same. After this he will help dock the ship along the northern side of the Alameda Tidal Canal.
Before the San Francisco Bar Pilots were established in 1850, ships were guided into the bay by William Richardson, the founder of Sausalito, who often sailed his whaleboat with a crew of Miwok Indians. But with the discovery of gold, hundreds of vessels began sailing for San Francisco’s ports. As a result, the California government created the pilots association. These days, becoming a maritime pilot is the acme of the seafaring profession: In 2014, bar pilots earned an average of $453,766 per year, and they are currently negotiating for a 10 percent increase over three years. Entrance into the organization is extremely selective. Candidates must obtain a license that allows them to captain vessels of 1,600 tons or more on ocean waters and must log at least two years of command time on a tugboat or one year as the master of a ship. They must then pass a battery of notoriously rigorous exams, one section of which involves hand-drawing a detailed map of San Francisco Bay from memory. The bar pilot candidate exam is given only when there is an opening in the organization, forcing hopefuls to wait sometimes years before getting the opportunity to take it.
Critics of the bar pilots have suggested that their fees — which are set by the state but paid for by ship owners — are exorbitant. The pilots, for their part, point to the fast-rising revenues for the shipping industry and the growing size of cargo ships, like the Benjamin Franklin, as justification for their compensation. The work, the bar pilots insist, has become more complex and comes to the public’s attention only when something goes wrong.
This morning, everything has gone right. There was little wind or current in the canal, and Favro negotiated the turn smoothly. By 7 a.m., he, Dowdle, and Kasper have docked the ship, the sun has come up, and longshoremen have begun their shifts. A pilot boat picks up the captains and speeds them back to Pier 9. Favro is due to guide in another cargo ship within the hour.