Yee bill would buy laptops for bar pilots

With memories of the crash of the Cosco Busan still vivid, a San Francisco lawmaker wants shipping companies to buy $4,000 laptops and software systems for San Francisco Bay bar pilots. While the companies acknowledge the need for the modern systems, they initially balked at putting up more money for pilots making $450,000 a year.

Bar pilots are specialists who guide ships to and from Oakland and other ports across the treacherous San Francisco Bay. One of these pilots, John Cota, was at the controls of the tanker Cosco Busan when it hit the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, 2007, spilling 58,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay.

“I made it clear to all sides that this is really about dealing with public safety,” said Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who is carrying legislation, SB 300, to require the companies to foot the bill for the equipment.

Yee was one of several legislators who carried bills in the wake of the Cosco Busan spill. His SB 1217 imposed several new responsibilities on the bar pilots in terms of licensing, training and medical standards. He said SB 300 seeks to give the pilots the tools to live up to these new standards.

It also increased oversight over the Board of Pilot Commissioners, which oversees the Bar Pilots. The director of that group, Captain Patrick Maloney, made some negative headlines after the spill when he said his board “self-audits.”

The San Francisco Bar Pilots have already spent $240,000 to buy the systems and train their 60 or so licensed members on how to use them. Pilots are regularly called on to pilot ships of many different designs, with different navigation software and interfaces on the bridges, said Charles Goodyear, a spokesman for the Bar Pilots.

“The goal with these laptops is to make sure no matter what kind of system they’re using on whatever boat, the bar pilots can bring the system and plug in and not have to worry about different types of equipment,” he said.

But Mike Jacob with the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, said his members did not want to be on the hook for ongoing costs on behalf of a group of independent contractors who are already extremely well-paid. His group dropped its objections to SB 300 when Yee put in amendments on Monday that took out references to training and ongoing responsibility for upgrades.

“Our main concern is that, given the economy and our position with regard to trade competitiveness, it’s a particularly bad time to increase costs on international ocean carriers that don’t provide explicit benefits in return,” Jacob said. “However, we are pleased with the direction that the bill is going and look forward to working with Senator Yee to continue to make this a better bill – one that imposes less of a burden on industry but still achieves his stated goal of improving safety.”

In an April 20 letter sent to Sen. Rod Wright, D-Los Angeles, the Pacific Merchants said the industry has been suffering declining traffic and profits while laying off workers. Wright chairs to the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which passed the bill 11-1 on April 30.

The pilots are paid via fees levied on shipping companies every time they guide a ship into or out of a Bay Area port. For example, on May 1, the owners of the 64,000 ton, 906-foot APL Singapore paid $8,364.94 to be guided into the port of Oakland on May 1, according to Kenny Levin, business director of the Bar Pilots. This doesn’t include about $2,000 for tugboats, a service that is not administrated by the pilots.

They’ll pay the exact same amount when the ship leaves, he said. SB 300, Levin said, would add about $30 to this transaction. In return, he said, a ship such as the APL Singapore could deliver up to 4,000 shipping containers, holding merchandise worth a total of tens of millions of dollars.

Such fees added up to $37 million last year, Jacob said. This money goes to the Bar Pilots, who spent some of it on training, apprenticeships and a pension fund. But the majority, about $25 million, went to bar pilot pay. Each pilot is considered an independent contractor. The arrangement dates back to 1850, when codifying the bar pilots system was on the first acts of the newly created California Legislature.

Levin said that pilots engage in difficult, dangerous work that takes many years to train for. Any pilot has to be an ocean-going ship captain for at least two years. Then they must take a huge pay cut to enter a training program that can last three years.

Most don’t become bar pilots until their 40s, then do work that regularly has them climbing rope ladders on the sides of ships in rough seas—something other professionals in their pay class, such as surgeons or law partners, never have to deal with, Levin said. The average pilot is probably in his early 50s, he said. Levin added that about two pilots retire every year due to on-the-job injuries each year.

“Teenagers, no problem, they’re built out of rubber,” Levin said. “We’re brittle at our age.”

Levin also said that pilots also risk personal liability when they do their jobs. It was widely reported that Cota retired with a $150,000 a year pension after the Cosco Busan disaster. But in the wake of reports that he abused alcohol and prescription drugs, he faces lawsuits and an upcoming criminal sentencing hearing.

“There’s tremendous personal liability,” Levin said. “He’s going to be bankrupt, even with his pension, while he’s sitting in jail.”

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