A Bar Pilot is a master mariner with specialized training and experience who navigates vessels through the San Francisco Bay to more than 200 different ports, docks, and berths.
For 170 years, the San Francisco Bar Pilots have been navigating the world’s largest ships through some of North America’s most difficult waterways. These state and federally-licensed master mariners are highly-specialized ship captains who rely on navigational experience, ship-handling skills, and local knowledge to transport more than $1.2 billion in goods to and from 200 Bay Area ports, docks, and berths every day. This critical service protects more than 1,000 miles of fragile coastline and 90% of the state’s marshlands.
24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Bar Pilots meet all vessels that come to the Bay 11 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge at a geological feature known as a sand “bar,” from which the pilots derive their name. The bar pilot then scales a rope ladder in rough seas to board these ships, making them one of only a handful of pilot organizations that conduct these dangerous open water boardings. Once aboard, the pilot takes command and navigates ships up to 1300 feet long through extremely narrow channels to docks across the Bay.
The critical nature of the services Bar Pilots provide was recognized by the first United States Congress in 1879 and at the first California State Legislature, which in 1850 founded the California State Board of Pilot Commissioners (BOPC) and created the San Francisco Bar Pilots. To this day, the Bar Pilots are regulated and licensed by federal and state levels of government, including the United States Coast Guard and BOPC. The governor-appointed BOPC is responsible for overseeing the licensing, continuing education, training, and physical examinations for all San Francisco Bar Pilots. And, because a Bar Pilot is often the United States’ first contact with a foreign ship, they work closely with the Department of Homeland Security to help ensure the nation’s domestic security.
The Bar Pilots partner with several local organizations including the San Francisco Fire Department, California Maritime Academy, and Monterey Bay Aquarium to provide opportunities and services to the local community.