Despite years at sea, pilot trainees start out on bottom rung in San Francisco

The containership enters Oakland through an 800-ft-wide channel on its way to Pier 56. (Alan Haig-Brown)

The tradition of apprenticeship is an ancient and honored system for learning a trade. When one thinks of an apprentice carpenter the image of a young man, perhaps still in his teens, comes to mind. But to be accepted as an apprentice in the San Francisco Bar Pilots, years of experience at sea as a master of your own vessel is the norm.

Although older than most at 49, George Livingstone shares the experience of all when he goes from command to student. Graduating from California Maritime Academy in 1980, he has an unlimited tug master’s certificate and has commanded Pacific Ocean tows from Alaska to Panama and Hawaii. Among other accomplishments, he has written a book on the subject, Tug Use Offshore in Bays and Rivers, with his twin brother Grant, who is a Long Beach pilot.

“My 27 years at sea don’t apply here,” Livingstone explained. “I’m in a different position now. Whatever I bring to the table from my years at sea are secondary to the job of learning ship handling as a pilot in San Francisco. It is a time to hold the ego and act with some deference.”

Capt. David Wainwright, a San Francisco bar pilot, points out a marker on shore to apprentice pilot Capt. George Livingstone as they maneuver the 900-foot containership YM Success in the turning basin before docking in Oakland. (Alan Haig-Brown)

The California Board of Pilot Commissioners, in cooperation with the San Francisco Bar Pilots, operates the trainee program. On the board’s Web page,, the requirements for a trainee applicant are listed. They include, “Two years command on vessels over 1,600 tons and/or towing vessels engaged in ship assist or towing vessels with combined GRT of 1,600 tons within the last 5 years.”

The specifics of this experience and other qualifying criteria are detailed on the Web page. The thinning of the ranks of applicants begins with an exam. As Livingstone recalled it, there were about 50 people who sat for the exam, which tested navigational and ship-handling knowledge. Those who passed were invited to proceed to a bridge simulator exercise involving skills that cannot be tested in a written exam. These include the ability to assimilate and assess a variety of information in a bridge environment and carry out appropriate actions in both routine and emergency situations.

Scores from the simulator exercise and the written exam are combined to rank the candidates. The top 10 students are designated eligible for the apprenticeship program. These are then called as required.

There is an ongoing demand for new people because of retirements and an increasing workload. Over the past three years the number of pilot assignments has grown by about 20 percent to the current level of nearly 10,000 per year for the existing 60 pilots.

Livingstone was called into the apprentice program in January with three other apprentices. Three more from the 10 on the short list were brought in to the program in March and another three were to begin in July. Over the summer another group will sit for the test and the process will begin again.

Livingstone tries to ride two ships per day and averages about 1.5. At 0715, on a typical day in May, he boarded the pilot’s run boat, Golden Gate, at the pilot station on Pier 9 along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. He was to accompany bar pilot Capt. Gregg Waugh, who, as a senior pilot, is one of only four “Red Stack” pilots who go back to the days before the amalgamation of the docking pilots and the bar pilots in 1986.

The run boat took them across the Bay to Oakland and put them up on the pier. From there they boarded the 4,200-TEU containership Ever Diamond by the gangway.

At 965 by 105 feet, it is a Panamax ship and smaller than many containerships coming into the Bay Area. Waugh introduced himself to the ship’s master, Capt. Lim, and said, “Captain, with your permission I’d like to let Capt. Livingstone do the job. I’ll watch him and you’ll watch me.”

YM Success approaches the Golden Gate Bridge from the sea buoy. (Alan Haig-Brown)

With the aid of a pair of tugs and the bow thruster, Livingstone soon had the ship off the pier and moved out into the channel to align with a set of range lights astern. As the ship cleared the end of the pier, a 1.8-knot ebb began setting it down toward Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. Directing the helmsman to put the rudder “Port 10,” Livingstone corrected for the current before asking for “Starboard 5” to begin bringing the ship’s head around to clear a red marker buoy on the port side and to line up for the passage under the bridge.

As he passed under the bridge, Waugh gave small pointers on the tidal effect on the ship, maintaining steerage while staying under the 15-knot speed limit in the bay, even though there was a good ebb pushing the ship along. With regard to setting the ship’s speed, he explained that the pilot’s first consideration is safety, then getting the job done expeditiously.

Waugh had brought his laptop aboard and plugged it into the ship’s AIS plug. He showed Livingstone his customized software display that includes not only the AIS for other vessels, tidal currents and depths, but also his own personally added waypoints and the automatically generated times to each of them, right out to the pilot’s station boat.
“The laptop is a great teaching tool also,” he said, adding, “Now remember, instruments like this are a great tool, but they don’t show yachts on AIS, so you have to keep looking out the window.”

With fog hanging over the Golden Gate Bridge, Livingstone was alert to any traffic that was not in the AIS or vessel traffic system. When the tug American Eagle, with a tow, reported via the VHF its approach from sea, Livingstone checked in on its course by VHF. He proposed to Waugh that he alter the normal 230° course that would line up for the center of the bridge to 225° to allow room for the tug and tow. The blue six-minute vector on the radar showed that the ship was six minutes off the Sausalito shore to the north of the bridge, so it was time to make the course change. Waugh suggested that the regular 230° course combined with the ebb tide setting them to the north would still leave room for the tug and tow to pass inbound to port.

“Shades of Standard Oil 1971,” he said in reference to a famous collision at that spot. He went on to explain that the ebb sets off the Sausalito shore toward mid span so it will set the ship to the correct track line. With 2.4 knots of ebb under the Golden Gate, the ship passed red to red a comfortable 2.6 miles off the tug.

Outside the Golden Gate, the ebb increased to 2.9 knots, reminding both pilot and trainee of the power that the bay tides have even out to sea.

Livingstone and Wainwright on Success’ bridge. (Alan Haig-Brown)

The San Francisco Bar shows on the charts as a semicircle with a radius of about five miles off the Golden Gate. The Army Corp of Engineers maintains a 55-foot-deep buoy-marked channel for two miles through the bar. The weather was benign on this day, giving Waugh an opportunity to explain the importance of precise courses. “A compass that is 1° off equals 100 feet at one mile,” he said. He went on to explain that with a Panamax ship such as this with a beam of 105 feet, when you are passing through the Union Pacific rail bridge at Martinez, you have only 92 feet of clearance to either side. That means an error of 100 feet would spell disaster: “If you’re 1° off, you are 8 feet into the bridge.”

As the ship approached the sea buoy, Livingstone asked for hard to port and a course of 160° to make a lee for the pilot boat. He and Waugh had said their goodbyes to the ship’s captain and descended the ladder to the pilot station boat San Francisco that holds position 11.1 miles off the Golden Gate Bridge.

By 0935, with a couple of other pilots awaiting ships to take into the harbor, they were settled in the station boat’s comfortable lounge just 1.5 hours after taking the ship off the Oakland pier.

For each trip that a trainee makes, the pilot completes a “trainee evaluation card,” giving the trainee scores of one through five on 12 items. These include: job preparation, grasp of fundamentals, willingness to learn and listen, job execution as planned, communications internal/external, situational awareness, appropriate speeds, traffic management, ship handling, keeping vessel on track, tug commands/use and arrival or depart berth or anchorage. On the back of the card, space is provided for the pilot’s written comments both pro and con.

Both men take the exercise seriously. As Livingstone explained, “As a trainee I don’t just want to hear, ‘Good job;’ I want to know what I’ve done wrong and what I can do better. I believe the attitude of everyone in the organization is to build an atmosphere that is conductive to learning, not intimidation.”

Waugh, who started as a pilot in 1976, said, “I want every trainee that comes in to become a better pilot than me, and I am a hard act to follow.”

The trainees are expected to choose the ships they ride so that they cover the full variety of ships, from break-bulk to containers, and from passenger to military vessels. At the same time, they need to cover the complexities of the pilotage area, which, Waugh explained, include “bar, bay and river pilotage,” while learning over 200 miles of pilotage waters with over 600 aids to navigation.

Livingstone and bar pilot Capt. Gregg Waugh on the containership Ever Diamond headed to the sea buoy. (Alan Haig-Brown)

The pilot office maintains a list of departures and arrivals that, on this day, showed a deep-draft containership, YM Success, to be taken from the sea to Oakland’s Pier 56.
Shortly after one of the station boat’s famous lunches, Livingstone and pilot Capt. David Wainwright boarded the ship by pilot’s ladder, arriving on the bridge at 1440.

Wainwright asked permission for the trainee to take the ship in under his guidance. The ship’s captain agreed and gave the ship’s forward draft at 30 feet and the aft draft at 41 feet, 8 inches. At 900 by 131 feet, this 5,500-TEU Taiwanese ship was not the largest that calls in the Bay Area, but it was approaching the maximum draft for the pier to which it was going. The ship would have to go past nine berths in the 800-foot wide channel of the inner port at Oakland to a turning basin and then back out of the channel to the berth second from the bay.

Wainwright, who spent time at sea on tankers before becoming a pilot, clearly enjoys the opportunity to pass on his knowledge. One piece of this was the importance of giving clear directions to captains for whom English is a second language. “A well’ isn’t a word; it is a place you get water,” he commented to remind Livingstone of the many words with multiple meanings in English.

At another point he urged Livingstone to stand in front of the navigation console as close to the window as he could get. “The closer that you get to the window,” he said, “the more light and information you have going in.”

With a 2.2-knot flood pushing the ship along under the Golden Gate Bridge, it was approaching the waters between Alcatraz Island and Blossom Rock. Livingstone asked the helmsman for “Port 10” to give a safer berth to a sailboat crossing his bows. Wainwright explained that from this point, it is possible to see up under the Bay Bridge and into the piers at Oakland. On the ebb with a bow thruster it is sometimes possible to stop here to allow traffic to clear the port.

Even with this day’s flood it was possible to slow here while traffic in the port cleared. This is also the point from which one of the assist tugs is contacted by VHF and directed to put a line up aft, once the ship is through the Bay Bridge.

On the approach to the Bay Bridge with 2.5-knots of flood still pushing the ship along, Wainwright showed Livingstone a beautiful maneuver that set the heading in such a way that the ship passed close to the east pylon of the bridge; then, after he set the helm hard to port, the ship slid sideways in the tide, aligning itself perfectly between the red and green buoys marking the channel into the port. In addition to putting the ship on the correct heading to enter the harbor, the turn took speed off the ship.

The transfer of knowledge never stopped, as Wainwright then warned about the flood around the east side of Treasure Island hitting the bow and pushing it to starboard.
For each of 12 sections of the pilotage area, including the 90 miles up to Sacramento and the 85 miles up to Stockton, the trainee must study and pass individual charting exams. After four months, Livingstone had already completed 10 of the chart exams and was looking forward to finishing up in July, after which he could concentrate on the ship handling.

Capt. Patrick Moloney, the executive director of the Board of Pilots Commissioners, oversees the training. He explained that trainees spend a minimum of one year in the program and a maximum of three. In that time they must complete 300 graded ship rides and attend monthly pilot evaluation committee reviews with five senior pilots. At these the trainee evaluation cards are reviewed with the expectation that a trainee will finally achieve a minimum score of four out of five in all areas for a three-month period.

“Most trainees take about two years to complete their requirements,” said Moloney, adding with a smile, “A water walker’ may make it in under a year.”

For Livingstone the focus on the bridge of YM Success was conning the big ship down the channel to the turn basin. With the tug’s line up on the transom to provide slowing power for the ship, which does 6 knots at dead slow, Livingstone entered the channel doing 4.5 knots, although Wainwright might have come in at 8 knots and taken way off once in the channel.

The ship made its way slowly down the channel with the engines put on “full stop” at one point, when a tacking sailboat was lost from view behind the bow only to emerge on the other side a few tense moments later.

Once in the turning basin, Wainwright showed Livingstone how to pick a marker on shore with which to align the starboard bridge wing. Livingstone noted that another pilot had directed him to use the port bridge wing in the same turning basin and the two agreed that there is more than one way to turn a ship, but Wainwright urged decisiveness on getting up to the mark and turning immediately before the ship begins to drift. The deep draft of the ship makes the turn, even with both tugs and a bow thruster, more difficult, as much of the water in the basin has to pass under the ship’s keel, which is only a few feet from the muddy bottom.

With the ship turned and on course back down the channel, the most challenging part of the job was done, but Livingstone didn’t relax his attention, nor did Wainwright, until the ship was properly moored with all lines fast at 1720.

Twenty minutes later on the pilot boat Golden Gate, Livingstone was on the receiving end of some good-natured kidding about taking longer than anticipated to turn and dock the ship. He listened attentively, while the senior pilots told tales of ship handling as the pilot boat picked up other pilots from their ships and made the run back over to Pier 9.

Once there, Livingstone walked out for a quick supper at North Beach and then went back to the pilot station, where he would study for his chart exams and then sleep in the trainee bunk room. First thing the next morning he would drive to Redwood City, at the extreme southern end of San Francisco Bay, to take a ship from there to anchorage.

With over 160 ship movements on his log, Livingstone is well on his way to joining the exclusive ranks of the San Francisco Bar Pilots.

By Professional Mariner Staff