Pilot boat crews are unsung heroes of Golden Gate
San Francisco Chronicle
November 28, 2010
Every day for 160 years and in all kinds of weather – the calm of autumn, the fog of summer, the storms of winter – stout pilot boats have cruised 11 miles at sea, ready to provide commercial ships with pilots to guide the vessels into San Francisco Bay.
The pilots, who are required by state law to guide ships entering or leaving the bay, have been around since the Gold Rush and the great age of sailing ships. Only now, the ships that they serve are as long as 70-story buildings are high. The pilots, as they always have, must make the jump from their boat to the rungs of a rope ladder that leads up to the large ships.
Kip Carlson, a veteran ship’s pilot, calls it “a leap of faith.”
“Putting this boat alongside a pitching, rolling ship and transferring a pilot is one of the most dangerous things we do,” pilot Carl Martin said.
Standing on a diving board-like platform near the pilot boat’s wheelhouse, the pilot watches the roll and pitch of both vessels, then jumps onto the ladder. If he makes a mistake, he might fall into the ocean’s chilly water.
As old as sea travel
The use of an experienced mariner to guide ships into difficult harbors is as old as travel by sea. Plato’s “Republic” mentions ship pilots.
The first mariner offering his services as a pilot to bring ships into San Francisco Bay was Capt. William Richardson, who founded Sausalito. One of the first acts of the Legislature of the new state of California regulated pilots. That was in 1850. The San Francisco Bar Pilots Benevolent and Protective Association is one of the oldest organizations in the West.
The pilots like to keep a low profile and don’t make the news much. In 2007, however, Capt. John Cota made a serious error in navigation and ran the container ship Cosco Busan into the Bay Bridge, causing a big oil spill.
Cota pleaded guilty to violations of pollution laws and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Pilots don’t like to talk about the Cosco Busan, but it is always on their minds.
To someone driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, it might look easy to enter and move a large ship into the Golden Gate and through the bay. It’s not.
For starters, the channel that leads to the Golden Gate is only deep in the center. There are sandbars on either side, shaped like the claws of a crab. The channel is marked by buoys. The fog is famously thick in the summer and strong gales create big swells and waves in winter.
There are five pilot boats, but only one is on station at a time. They operate in an area near the San Francisco Sea Buoy, 11 miles from the Golden Gate.
The Chronicle recently went along for 24 hours on the 108-foot-long pilot boat San Francisco.
Each boat on station has a crew of four: three operators who take turns running the boat, four hours on and eight off, and a cook. The San Francisco’s regular cook is Ray Pinochi, a one-time merchant mariner, who later worked as a chef at the Washington Square Bar & Grill when it was one of the city’s top dining spots.
Up in the wheelhouse, Dave Stuhlbarg is working the noon-to-4 p.m. watch. It is a beautiful afternoon, with 8-foot swells out of the north. Mount Tamalpais looms up to the left, the mountains of San Mateo County on the right. It is hazy and San Francisco is hard to see. The entrance to the bay – even the Golden Gate Bridge – is not visible.
Stuhlbarg runs the boat at a dead slow speed, barely making headway, in the direction of the swell. He’s listening to the radio, watching the radar and checking an electronic chart that shows the speed and direction of all ships in the vicinity.
He’s been with the bar pilots for seven years. “I like the rhythm of life out here,” he said.
Out of the west, on the horizon, comes the tanker Maersk Bering, headed for Richmond. Stuhlbarg calls the ship on the radio: “Please slow to 9 knots, steer 080, rig a starboard ladder 3 meters above the water for boarding,”
Stuhlbarg takes the San Francisco around the ship’s stern, then up the starboard side. The pilot, Capt. David Wainright, stands on the platform holding a hanging rope, for balance.
A moving building
Stuhlbarg brings the pilot boat in close to the ship. The tanker looks like a moving building. Both Stuhlbarg and Wainright are tense. Wainright steps across, then scrambles up the ladder.
Stuhlbarg turns the boat away and reports to the pilot office.
The afternoon wears on with ships every hour or so: the Bangkok Bridge, the APL Holland, the Tokyo Express. The Manoa, a Matson Line ship bound for Oakland, is the only American flagged ship.
“In winter, you don’t want to be out here,” Stuhlbarg said. “It can be blowing 50 knots and there can be 25-foot seas.”
Pilot Capt. Tom Vilas, who is closing in on 64 years old, has been a pilot for 30 years.
On a recent and unusually warm night, he moved the 1,099-foot-long CMA CGM Don Giovanni from the Oakland Estuary and out the Golden Gate.
He noted the fine weather: “If you could guarantee it was like this every day, I’d stay on another year, but I don’t want to see another winter. … I’d do it if I was 28 or 29, or even 40. It wouldn’t bother me. But I’m getting too old. I’m not as agile as I used to be.”
Then he tells a story about another pilot who was older, and a bit slower: Getting off a ship one day, his foot got caught. It was crushed between the ship and pilot boat.
“That was a while ago,” Vilas said. “Now he can walk again, with a cane.
“One job too many,” he said, looking off into the distance.