|Bay bar pilots paid well, but training is tough
|By Francine Brevetti
Bar pilots stand to earn about $450,000 this year, down slightly from what they made last year, according to association Business Director Kenny Levin.
Pay fluctuates depending on the amount of cargo that goes in and out of the Bay. The pilots association charges every vessel owner each time a pilot takes a vessel in or out of the Oakland estuary. And imports have been down.
"These guys earn it," Levin said of the extremely stressful and dangerous profession.
But these pilots ? of the 55 in the area only one is a woman ? don't get that money free and clear. They have to invest in the association when they join. The cost to join has fluctuated through the years.
When Capt. Tom Miller joined the bar pilots association 21 years ago, he had to pay $87,000. Today, shareholders pay more than $400,000, Levin said. The share varies based on the average pilot income of the previous three years and aspirants normally have to find ways to finance the cost of entry.
It's not unlike buying into any other professional practice. Although, Levin said, "I don't know of any physicians or attorneys who go to work wearing float coats and emergency locator beacons."
Meanwhile, the training to become a bar pilot is long and arduous. All prospective bar pilots start mid-career after they've had significant maritime experience. Most have been educated at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo.
"The pinnacle of a maritimecareer is becoming a pilot," Levin said.
Bar pilots have to pass the Coast Guard training that requires sailing the 12 Coast Guard-designated areas of the Bay Area. They must be able to draw from memory these areas on a blank chart, recreating all the channels, depths, bridges and buoys. Furthermore, trainees must know the meaning of the lights and colors of all the buoys, which are color-coded to indicate the depth of the Bay.
If they pass that test, within the course of one to three years trainees must ride with every pilot to every dock from Monterey to Sacramento and Stockton, said Capt. Pat Moloney of the California State Pilots Commission.
"They must learn every route and experience every kind of ship, and we keep track," Moloney said. "The minimum number of trips is 300."
Moloney said a lot of people are attracted to this position but along the way candidates drop out or fail.
"We are hurting for bodies," he said. "But until they qualify, we can't license them."