The map on the laptop screen is peppered with tiny triangular specks, flickering, dodging each other as they veer in and out of the channels. But today all eyes are on four of the triangles, as they move around each other in an excruciatingly slow dance. Slow is good, slow is precise, and precision is needed when you are guiding four massive hulks of steel into the Port of Oakland.
The specks indicate the positions of four container ships, each weighing thousands of tons, and carrying cargo from around the world. Here in the narrow stretches of water, the captains have relinquished control of their gargantuan vessels to the San Francisco Bar Pilots — state-regulated officials in charge of navigating the ships through the bar, the small area of shallow water near the mouth of the San Francisco Bay. The pilots meet the ships twelve miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in smaller boats, climb aboard, and assume command, helping to safely dock the ships at one of the world’s busiest ports. Once their business is done, the pilots take them back out to the ocean.
As one of the ships exits the shipping channel of the Oakland Estuary, Drew Aune, a bar pilot aboard an incoming ship, whips out his iPhone to take a few pictures of the vessel sailing by, before looking back at the map on his laptop. He watches the triangle slip slowly out through the Bay. Aune knows the pilots on the other ships. Six years ago, they had all worked for the same tugboat company, pushing and pulling barges in the waters of the Bay Area. It’s like a reunion. “Except now instead of moving little pieces of equipment we’re moving very large pieces of equipment,” Aune says, laughing.
Behind the exiting ship are two more, one turning, another waiting. The pilots have a name for this. They call it the Oakland Shuffle — the “commuter hour” when multiple ships have to exit and enter the port. The risks are numerous. The ships’ engines could stop working; they may not adapt to the lighter, low-sulfur fuels they have to switch to when entering California ports; or large swaths of fog could suddenly descend, making the pilots dependent on their GPS units in zero visibility. But for a pilot, navigating the ship is not the most dangerous part of the job. It is the climb up and down its side on a swaying rope ladder that causes the most injuries.
Before 1850, ships’ captains were responsible for docking the ships themselves. They would often seek help from individuals familiar with the tides and shoals of the area, but these pilots could prioritize these jobs as they wished. During the gold rush, merchants eager to collect the riches California promised began abandoning their ships in the waters to row out to the land in little boats. Soon, drifting ships filled the San Francisco Bay, colliding with one another and running aground. “It was complete chaos,” says Bruce Horton, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots. “And so the government decided to regulate the process.” In 1850, the California state legislature established the San Francisco Bar Pilots.
Today 59 men and one woman navigate all the ships through the San Francisco Bay. They take the occasional cruise ship in and out of Monterey Bay, as well as piloting commercial vessels as far up the Sacramento River as Stockton, but the majority of the traffic comes from the Oakland port. The pilots work seven days on and seven off. This time off is needed to recover from the grueling hours of work the pilots put in, Horton says. Pilots, he says, can work any time during the week, with a day as short as six hours or as long as fourteen. Horton has been a pilot since 1991, but his introduction to the maritime community came when he was 8 years old. “My dad put me on a rowboat on a lake in the middle of nowhere and tied the other end to a tree, and let me row to my heart’s content,” he says.
Today, the training he undergoes every few years is eerily similar to those early lessons. The manned model training class the bar pilots are required to take puts them on small boats on a 10 acre lake in France. While it may seem counterintuitive to put pilots manning gigantic vessels on little boats, Horton swears the classes are extremely realistic. “You can’t just try things offhand on a thousand foot long ship and hope it works,” he says. The smaller boats give them more flexibility to simulate dangerous situations, like losing an engine, or having a rudder get stuck, and allow them to try different emergency maneuvers on the water.
Most pilots have considerable experience before they are inducted, and have already been trained at a marine academy. Despite this, they undergo three years of training before they become bar pilots, accompanying registered pilots on more than 400 ships and learning on the job. This continuous training is necessary. It is only when a bar pilot retires or dies that a trainee replaces him.
As they recall their experiences from the Bar Pilots’ office on San Francisco’s Pier 9, both Horton and Aune agree that while they spend most of their time training to navigate the ships, getting on and off the vessels is the most dangerous part of their job. As the two vessels come to a halt in the water, neither remains steady. The pilot, dressed in a lifejacket with a locator beacon, and armed with the laptop they refer to as the piloting precision unit, climbs up the side on a rope ladder. The pilot boat, tiny in comparison with the ship the pilot ascends, tends to bob up and down with the waves. He waits on the platform for the perfect moment, until the rise and fall of the water turns into a predictable pattern.
When the boat mounts the crest of a wave, he lunges, and grabs hold of the ladder swinging in front of him. If he misses, he could fall into the water, between the two vessels, or onto the metal surface of the bobbing boat below. Both could be fatal.
As Aune describes the climb, he perches precariously on the edge of his desk, leaning forward as if to underscore the urgency of the situation. Horton leans against the door frame, and interrupts Aune’s story with an occasional remark. “Still, that’s the easy part,” says Aune, as he recalls his last climb. “You have a bit of a head start – you’re on the unstable part. You can time it so you grab the ladder and shimmy up before the boat can come up again and squash you.”
Jumping back down to the boat when the ship is exiting the Bay Area is an entirely different matter. This time, the pilot must time his jump so he falls onto a heaving platform. If he jumps too soon, he risks falling too far and breaking his bones on impact. If he waits too long, he risks having the boat come up on a wave and crush him. “It doesn’t come overnight,” says Aune.
This is on a good day. “The most dangerous part is getting on and off the boat, in the middle of the ocean, in the middle of winter, with 20 to 30 foot swells, and 50 to 60 knot winds outside,” Horton says. Horton is tight-lipped; he does not describe the dangers he has braved in any more detail. But as a pilot for 20 years, he has seen it all, and Aune is quick to acknowledge that.
“Bruce is an old salt,” Aune says, as Horton grins back at him. “He has a lot of good piloting under his belt. He’s a sharp guy.”
The pilots all have one thing in common; the love of the ocean. Together, the sixty bar pilots navigate around nine thousand ships every year, taking them from the ocean to the dock, and back again, weathering all kinds of climates and visibility conditions to do so. There is nothing else they would rather do.
Like Horton, Aune says it began when he was young. “My dad being Norwegian – the salt water sort of ran through our blood,” he says, chuckling. “We’ve been cruising and sailing our whole life.”