Bar pilots square off over bigger boats, bigger paychecks

It sounds like a scene from a disaster movie: A ship nearly a quarter-mile long and weighing as much as 24,000 elephants, drifts sideways with stalled engines through the San Francisco Bay towards the docks of Oakland, not far from the Bay Bridge.

It happened on Sunday. But the two bar pilots onboard calmly directed four tugboats, which got the ship under control and brought it into its berth. The next day, after the ship had unloaded in port, a pair of pilots guided the 1,145-foot Norma back out to sea.

The incident also brought up a question with implications for policy, and for the rates shippers pay: How much did having the second pilot on board help the situation, and should it be a standard practice for the biggest ships coming into Oakland?

It has also prompted a new verbal skirmish between the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association and an industry group representing shippers, the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association (PMSA). This comes as the Legislature considers a bill — AB 907 by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco — that would give the pilots their first pay increase since 2006. Like the Norma, the bill appears to at least be temporarily stalled, in the Senate Governmental Organization Committee.

“I think PMSA is mistakenly thinking they can publicize the incident with the Norma to their advantage,” said Charlie Goodyear, an outside spokesman for the Bar Pilots.

“The issue isn’t whether or not they have one pilot on board or two,” said PMSA vice president Mike Jacob. “Their job is to do it with however many pilots it takes. But they are only allowed to charge us the statutory rates that are approved for the service.”

Another way of saying that is the San Francisco Bar Pilots are basically a private monopoly whose rates are set by the Legislature. It’s an unusual arrangement dating back to the Gold Rush era. Usually former ships captains, the 60 or so pilots well-paid to know the treacherous waters of the Bay like the back of their hands, taking over for the crew when large ships get close to shore.

And they’re paid well, in the neighborhood of $400,000 a year. The bar pilots aren’t paid a salary, but instead get paid for each job based on tonnage and the amount of time it takes. Their take-home pay has actually been dropping during the economic crisis, down from an all-time high of $490,000 in 2006.

The PMSA has circulated an analysis they said showed that AB 907 could result in pilots being paid a whopping $530,000 a year. The pilots say the real number is only about $430,000. By contrast, pilots in the Port of Los Angeles bar pilots are city employees who make about $227,000, though these waters are also much less complex to navigate.

Proposals have been circulated in recent years to make the San Francisco pilots public employees, or to add a second certifying body to increase the number of pilots while bringing down average annual pay.

However, pilots also pay for their own training and health insurance, not to mention thousands in equipment. They face long hours and often dangerous conditions. Then there’s the matter of legal liability — as pilot John Cota discovered in 2007, when he clipped the Bay Bridge in 2007 while piloting the 900-ft. Cosco Busan through heavy fog, spilling 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Bay. He was sentenced to 10 months in jail for criminal negligence, and is facing multiple lawsuits.

The pilots are governed by the Board of Pilot Commissioners, which sets the rules they work under. Commission rules have long set a limit of 1,140 feet for ships coming into Oakland, along with other guidelines, which among other things call for the largest ships to only be moved in daylight.

But, in response to repeated requests by shipping companies, the commission issued a May 3 report saying that it would be fine to bring ships up to 1,205 feet into Oakland, as long as a second pilot was on board. The first test of the system went off without incident on June 5, as a pair of pilots brought the 1,150 foot CMA CGM Orfeo into port.

But two weeks later, the Norma suffered engine failure while making one of the slow, complex turns needed to bring such a large boat into Oakland. While the details of why it lost power were not immediately available, large ships can temporarily lose the ability to push back against their rudders at low speed, something referred to as “losing steerageway.”

Sometimes engines stall out completely at such low speeds, which is part of the reason big ships are followed around the bay by teams of tugboats. Jacob said the stalling risk has become more acute since California implemented a low-sulfur fuel standard for ships operating within 24 miles of the coast in 2009. This is because the sulfur helps the fuel mix with oxygen at low speeds, but also contributes significantly to air pollution. Jacob said the PMSA actually supports the standard, as well as new guidelines from the International Maritime Organization calling for using low sulfur fuels within 200 miles of any coast by 2015.

Goodyear said the incident with the Norma shows how well a two-pilot system works in these cases, with the second pilot providing extra “eyes and ears” for the most dangerous maneuvers. But Jacob said the issue is that the pilots are trying to sneak through a mandatory 50-percent surcharge to shippers that would raise the typical cost of bringing a large ship into or out of port from about $10,000 a pop to $15,000.

Jacob said the pilots have tried unsuccessfully to put the 50-percent surcharge – basically, a half-rate for the second pilot – into AB 907. Instead, the bill appears to refer to the commission recommendations for the 50-percent surcharge instead.

But the pilots have now moved two of the larger ships with two-man teams—all but one of the 60 or so pilots is male—but without the surcharge being in law. Jacob pointed to a June 10 email from Bruce Horton, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots, saying that “until further notice we are not taking vessels greater than 1,140” into Oakland. This, he said, is evidence that the pilots are pushing shippers to pay an extra fee that is not called for under the law. On June 16, three days before it was due, Horton sent another email agreeing to take the Norma to Oakland.

“When you’re guaranteed a monopoly by the state, you can’t turn around and cut side deals. You need to provide the services at the published rates.”

Goodyear countered that the pilots were merely responding to demand from shippers themselves, who have long requested the ability to bring larger ships into Oakland.
“For us, it’s a safety issue,” Goodyear said. “For the PMSA, it’s all about money and politics.”

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