Learn more about the San Francisco Bar Pilots

The San Francisco Bar Pilots are highly skilled master mariners who navigate commercial ships into and out of San Francisco and Monterey Bays to as far as Stockton and Sacramento.  Established in 1850 by California’s first legislature, the Bar Pilots have been protecting Northern California’s pristine waters since the days of the gold rush.

Bar Pilots board ships from all over the world at sea, 11 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, and are on station 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The primary responsibility of a Bar Pilot is to safely navigate ships over the offshore sand bar and through the San Francisco Bay to and from one of the more than 200 docks and maritime facilities in the greater Bay Area. The pilots’ special knowledge of the currents, channels and navigational hazards of Northern California’s bays and waterways, and their expert ship handling skills in difficult environmental conditions ensure the safe transit of the ship to its destination or to sea. Today’s container ships can exceed 1200’ long, with some exceeding 1300’, longer in length than the height of San Francisco’s tallest building, the Salesforce Tower (1070’).

Nearly all commercial ships are required by state and federal law to use a licensed pilot. Vessels that are not required to use a pilot often do so anyway for the pilot’s expertise and the vessel’s safety. 

The San Francisco Bay area is known as one of the most challenging piloting grounds on the West Coast, and, indeed in the United States.  It is the largest piloting ground in California, with more than 200 different maritime facilities, docks and berths, and 160-miles of pilotage routes. These grounds include environmental, sea and geographic challenges not typical of any other pilotage grounds in the western United States.

Pilots are required in every major US port and throughout the world. In the United States, this includes harbors and ports along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as through river systems, for the same reason they are employed here: to ensure the safe navigation of ships and the protection of the marine environment. 

Apprentice Pilots are selected by the California Board of Pilot Commissioners from among the U.S. merchant fleet, typically ship captains and tug captains – master mariners at the pinnacle of their careers which can take ten or more years to achieve. Candidates must pass a competitive written examination and simulator exercise to be eligible for entry into the state’s rigorous pilot training program. Only upon the successful completion of the training program is a candidate eligible for licensing as a San Francisco Bar Pilot. Details of the selection process and training program can be found here and on the Board’s website

The Bar Pilots are licensed by both the United States Coast Guard and the California Board of Pilot Commissioners, and it is the Board that provides most of the oversight and regulations governing the San Francisco Bar Pilots. Pilotage is also governed by both state and federal law. Both agencies require the pilots to undergo annual fitness examinations.  

The rates that ships pay for pilotage services are established by state law. Any party directly affected by pilotage rates may petition the California Board of Pilot Commissioners to hold a hearing to take evidence and determine whether a change in the rates is warranted. The Board makes recommendations to the Legislature to change the rates. The Board’s recommendations then go through the same process as any legislative bill before it becomes law.

Pilots are not employees and do not earn a salary. They pay for their own health insurance, payroll taxes and other costs typically paid by an employer.

The rates charged by the San Francisco Bar Pilots for pilot services are set by law. Overall revenue depends primarily on the ship traffic – the number of ships piloted and their gross registered tonnage and draft.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots share the costs of operating the pilot boats, dispatchers and administrative staff, and for operating their shoreside pilot station at Pier 9, San Francisco. What is left is divided equally among the pilots.