|Bar pilots brave a treacherous Bay
|By Francine Brevetti
Article Created: 06/10/2008 06:09:47 PM PDT
He is not the ship's captain. Miller is a bar pilot, a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilot Association.
Every harbor has its own complement of bar pilots who know their individual harbors intimately, the channels and currents, depths and buoys. Whenever an oceangoing vessel pulls into a port, the captain of those vessels cedes some control of their ship temporarily to a bar pilot, who guides the ship to the dock.
It is a highly specialized profession that takes years of experience, training and competition. After the catastrophe involving bar pilot Capt. John Cota on Nov. 7, the skills and experience of bar pilots came into focus. Cota grazed the 900-foot Cosco Busan against the Bay Bridge, gashing a hole in the side and spewing 58,000 gallons of crude oil into the Bay.
The term "bar" pilot derives from the enormous, crescent-shaped sandbar miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. The waterway there is extremely treacherous, crowded, and the bar shifts frequently, seamen say. The waters there are far more challenging than the harbors of Long Beach or Seattle, for instance.
Miller, 50, of Petaluma, is enthusiastic about his job. A tall, mustached redhead, he has been ushering behemoths through the estuary for 21 years after spending several years as a tugboat captain.
He starts the day on a pilot boat 12 miles outside the Golden Gate because that's where the Army Corps of Engineers created the channel that burrows through the sandbar. Its starting point is marked with a buoy.
To board the ship he is expected to pilot, Miller must jump from the launch boat to a rope ladder that clings to the side of a container ship. It's a task that's not for the faint-hearted. Pilots have died this way.
Once on the bridge of the vessel ? today, the NYK Atlas, a Japanese vessel flying under a Panamanian flag with a Romanian crew ? Miller discusses the challenging conditions ahead with Atlas Capt. Marcel Nikolai.
On this day, not only is the water turbulent, but three vessels are lined up in the Port of Oakland: one where the Atlas is to berth, one just ahead of that spot and one behind. The NYK Atlas has to pass all of these vessels, then turn around in a tight space, when the vessel in the space leaves. It gives new meaning to the concept of parallel parking.
'I love my job'
"We've got current on the channel, cross currents from left to right," Miller said. "So we have to favor one side of the channel to compensate for the drift that we're going to get as we advance through the estuary."
Miller said he enjoys the challenge of the job.
"At the end of the day, when I'm going home and I see a ship in the harbor, I can say to myself: I put that boat there," he said. "I love my job."
As the NYK ATLAS passes Yerba Buena Island, Miller watches the drift of the ship by checking visual cues against the bow to see which way the ship is headed. Of course, he is also amply provided with instrumentation on the bridge.
He gives commands to the helmsman who echoes them back to him: "Amidships." This indicates that the rudder must resume its position at the center of the boat.
"Starboard 20" ? turn 20-degrees to the right.
But as Miller is judging the drift of the ship, approaching the channel between the Port of Oakland ? where three vessels are dockside ? and Alameda, he has to gauge his speed. It's a balancing act.
"I have to get up speed to cross the currents, but I have to go slowly so as not to damage to the ships along the docks," he said.
Just passing those large vessels on the NYK Atlas' port side with any speed will create enough suction to throw them against the wharf and damage them.
A delicate dance
San Francisco bar pilots bring in vessels from Monterey to Sacramento, about 10,000 "moves" a year, coming and going.