Bar pilot guides Great Lakes freighter into California port


It sits solidly at anchor on the waters of San Francisco Bay — an aging Easterner a long way from home. With all the characteristics of a long, narrow bulk carrier, Atlantic Superior proudly proclaims its origins as a St. Lawrence Seaway laker. Its 730-by-76-foot length and beam put it just under the 740-by-78-foot dimensions prescribed as the maximum size ship for the locks on the seaway. The seaway allows a maximum precise water draft of 26.51 feet and draft marks on the anchored Atlantic Superior show 26.6 feet.
A member of Canada Steamship Lines, the Bahamas-registered ship had arrived with its cargo of Canadian aggregate from Port McNeil on northern Vancouver Island with a little more draft. While waiting for a good tide to get into the Port of Redwood City at the extreme south end of San Francisco Bay, the vessel was able to lighter off some cargo with its self-unloading conveyor. A two-belt hold conveyor system is located below the hoppered bottom of the cargo compartments. These conveyors have a capacity of 2,700 tons per hour of aggregate. On this June day, the bulk carrier’s draft and the tide added up to the correct numbers for San Francisco bar pilot Capt. Tom Miller to come aboard for the run from the anchorage down to the south bay port. 

After circling the ship with the pilot boat to check the draft marks, Miller boarded via the port-side pilot ladder. On the bridge he introduced himself to Capt. Denys Lozovsky with the usual pilot-captain exchanges of information. The pilot card confirmed the drafts with the added information that the ship’s air draft was 108 feet. Miller pointed out that the San Mateo Bridge, under which they would pass, had a 135-foot air draft at mean high water, so there would be no issues. 

With the tide still in flood, the ship hung on its anchor with the bow pointing toward the Bay Bridge. The vessel’s captain asserted that there were nine shackles of anchor chain out and that the crew was standing by to raise the anchor. The bridge of the 32-year-old ship was utilitarian but efficiently functional. “High water in Redwood City will be at 1426,” Miller explained of the port that lay a little over 20 miles from the anchorage. “With a draft of 26 feet we could make it on a smaller tide, but with today’s tide we will get through the 28.8-foot-deep San Bruno channel with more than two feet under the keel.”

Crewmembers stand by as Capt. Tom Miller, a San Francisco bar pilot, disembarks the old laker by descending a gangway that was originally designed to get crews on and off at St. Lawrence Seaway locks.

This channel north of the San Mateo Bridge has a hard bottom and, unlike the Redwood City Harbor channel, cannot easily be dredged deeper. Miller was familiar with Atlantic Superior as it is a regular visitor to the Bay Area. “She has a CP prop in a steerable nozzle,” he explained. “This can make her difficult to maneuver in tight or narrow spaces.”

Having boarded the ship at 1045, Miller had the anchor up by 1115 and had asked for “slow ahead” and then “half ahead.” Low water had been minus 1.5 feet and high water would be plus 4.8 feet at the Golden Gate. This would mean a 4.5-knot current at the Gate, which would translate to about 2.5 knots of flood at the anchorage. With the current in mind, he let the ship run up toward the Bay Bridge before asking for “port 20.” This would allow him to swing the ship from the 325-degree heading at anchor to the 166-degree course to the entrance of San Bruno channel. 

The prescribed turn rate allowed Atlantic Superior to turn in an arc, well clear of a second ship at anchor just down current. By 1130 the GPS showed the bulker making 11.7 knots over the ground with the added push of the tidal current. “The actual heading to the channel is 158 degrees,” he explained, “but a 166-course allows for the push from the tide.”

Miller had been met at the pilot ladder and escorted to the bridge by Kateryna, a young second-year officer cadet from the Odessa National Maritime Academy. Now she asked if he would like anything and brought a requested bottle of water before occupying herself at the chart table. Some time later, Miller wandered over to the chart table and asked, “Are you charting and recording our courses?” He expressed surprise at her prompt, “Yes,” and the quality of work for a sophomore student. 

The CSL company is obviously supportive of training, as two more cadets — Hans Jessen and Todd Boyle, both from the Vancouver-based Marine School of Transportation — came on the bridge a short time later and carefully followed the ship’s navigation for the balance of the voyage. 

At 1136 the ship was abeam of the derelict Treasure Island Naval Station at Hunters Point. Three minutes later, Miller ordered “half ahead” and explained that while there was adequate water for passage through the channel for San Bruno shoal, it was wise to still be prudent. “It is best to slow to minimize squat but also keep a bit of speed should the ship take a run,” he added.

Miller with Atlantic Superior Capt. Denys Lozovsky at the controls on the bridge as the vessel is being turned to the pier at Redwood City, Calif. 

The view from the bridge windows showed the channel marked by a series of red and green buoys across a wide expanse of water with the San Mateo Bridge in the distance. On the electronic chart, the channel showed as a set of parallel lines with shallows to either side. At 1144, the ship appeared to be crowding the left side of the channel with a heading that seemed ready to take it off into the shallows. Miller pointed to the current trail on one of the marker buoys and explained, “The current is giving us a set to starboard, so I have changed the course from the normal 150 degrees through this shoal, to 154 degrees to compensate.”

With continued minor course modifications directed to the quartermaster, Miller guided the ship between the marker buoys. He continued to monitor the ship’s electronics, the current trails on the buoys, and his own laptop that he brought aboard and attached to the ship’s pilot plug. “The laptop is not for navigation,” he explained, “but it is an excellent reference to check against the ship’s electronics.”

At 1205 the ship’s heading was 158 degrees, but the course over the bottom is 160. At 1208, as the ship cleared the last of the markers for San Bruno shoal, Miller noted that the “set is easing off and little,” and called for “full ahead” again.

By 1218 the radar showed the bridge to be 3.29 nm from the ship. The ship was on a heading of 150 degrees but still had to come to 132 degrees to line up for the bridge. The “port 10” command to the quartermaster was followed by “port 20,” and the ship began to swing toward the bridge. Then the helm was ordered back to “port 10” and finally to 132 degrees. A minute later this was modified to 130 degrees — “I could see that 132 was not quite enough,” explained Miller, who now saw one of his assist tugs waiting under the bridge. Picking up the phone, he arranged with the tugs to use 77 as a working channel. “This one works on both the walkie-talkies and the ship’s radio, which is not possible with the A-channels on most non-U.S. ships,” he explained. 

The Starlight Marine tugboat Ahbra Franco helps Atlantic Superior safely accomplish a turn in the harbor at Redwood City.

The two Starlight Marine assist tugs had earlier run down from Oakland to be there ahead of Atlantic Superior. Miller explained to the tugs that he wanted them to make up on the forward quarter when requested. At 1234 the ship passed under the San Mateo Bridge and shifted course to port to line up for the entrance to the Redwood City channel 3.1 miles from the bridge. At 1237, with the ship making 10 knots, the pilot asked for “slow ahead.” Then at 1245, when still a mile from the channel entrance, Miller asked both tugs to put lines up and leave their engines out of gear. This was intended to provide drag and thus slow the ship. The procedure took effect and the ship slowed to 7 knots and then 6.2 knots, even though the ship was still operating at half speed. This gave adequate wash through the steerable nozzle to maintain control. 

At 1250 Miller gave a series of commands to begin a starboard turn into the channel. A tide trail on the first red spar marker suggested a strong 1.5-knot crosscurrent with 10 knots of wind from the same direction. With water depths of 2 to 3 fathoms on either side, maintaining wash over the steerable nozzle and staying within the channel was crucial. With the tugs continuing to provide drag, Miller called for “full ahead” to maintain both steerage and a low 7-knot speed, which is important to reduce the hydraulics of bank effect and squat. It is a delicate balance of power between the uncontrollable natural forces of water, wind and current, with the controllable forces of propeller rpm and the drag effect of the two tugs. The result was three degrees of set, which Miller accounted for with a 171-degree course, giving a 174-degree heading. 

A screen shot shows the extremely tight turning space in the port. 

At 1304, with 4 or 5 feet of water under the keel, the squat effect began to slow the ship. The ship was making 6.7 knots with only about 300 feet between the channel markers. Then, at 1307, a course change required a further reduction of speed to half ahead. Miller moved the ship to the outside of the turn to get the bank effect to push the bow around while it pulled the stern to port to aid the starboard turn. Then at 1310 he called for “full ahead” and “hard over” to start the turn. Two minutes later, as the ship was in the turn, it slowed to 5.6 knots by the combination of turning and suction. By 1315 the ship had made the turn and settled on a 226-degree course. It was now inside the land, so the crosscurrent had reduced. 

But there was still more maneuvering ahead; Miller began setting the ship up to be on the outside of the curve for a port bend. He needed to take off more speed and, explaining that the controllable-pitch prop tends to be only 50 percent efficient in reverse, he called for the two tugs to pull “slow straight back.” At the same time, he ordered that the ship reverse the minimum on the CPP. At 1325, the ship entered the port’s small turning basin at an angle of about 50 degrees to the pier with its port side. The normal landing here is port side-to, but the ship needed to take on lube oil so it required a starboard side-to landing. Either way, with the lack of maneuverability provided by the steerable nozzle and CPP combination, it was up to the tugs to do the job. “I normally take pride in maneuvering the ship to the dock, but today I will have to turn the ship into the dock with the tugs,” Miller acknowledged. “If I had more turning power with the ship, I would put the more powerful tug on the bow to hold it there while I pivot the stern. But now I need power on the stern quarter so I will place the Ahbra Franco on my port stern quarter.” 

The tug Z-Four, with its line still up, would pull on the port bow, ready to push toward the dock when directed. The 103-foot, 6,850-hp Ahbra Franco, with over 90 tons of bollard pull, acted as a stern thruster. The 95-foot, 4,000-hp Z-Four, with over 47 tons of bollard pull astern, acted as a bow thruster. The 730-foot-long Atlantic Superior turned like an obedient puppy on a leash. 

On watch aboard Atlantic Superior is second-year officer cadet Kateryna from the Odessa National Maritime Academy. She is one of several cadets whom Canada Steamship Lines offers sea experience.

When the ship reached an angle of 90 degrees to the pier with its length taking up most of the turn area, Miller ordered “slow astern,” then “slow ahead,” then “stop engines” to center the ship in the tight turn area. Sea gulls circled and dove in the wash of Ahbra Franco in search of food churned up from the bottom mud. Despite the well-managed and disciplined behavior of the ship, Miller was still apologetic. “This is 100 percent against my grain,” he said, as he had the tugs push on the port side to bring the starboard side of the ship to the pier. “I normally only use tugs for what I can’t do with the ship, so it irks me.” 

At 1342, he joined Lozovsky on the bridge wing to supervise the mooring. Before the lines could be fixed, the long arm of the self-unloader was swung out to align the end of the conveyor with a hopper on the pier. 

The cadets had just witnessed a fine piece of shiphandling to add to their growing maritime knowledge. Miller shook hands with the ship’s captain and headed for the companionway and a waiting taxi. But there would be one more reminder that this ship was a laker: Instead of the usual gangway, a long aluminum ladder, mounted at an angle on the deckhouse, was lowered. This common practice for crew changes at the locks on the St. Lawrence Seaway proved effective in California.

By Professional Mariner Staff