E-pilot, know-how help 1,200-foot ship dock at Oakland


The ports of North America have been scrambling to get larger container cranes and to dredge to greater depths to handle the huge new containerships that are coming. As the East Coast ports work to a deadline set by the completion of the larger Panama Canal, the super-sized box ships are already visiting West Coast ports with some regularity. While port authorities work on the infrastructure to meet the needs of these ships, a large responsibility has fallen on the piloting associations that are looking to their safe handling in confined port spaces.

Capt. Pete Fuller, a San Francisco bar pilot, boards Filomena with the assistance of pilot boat deck hand Charlie Wood.

Containerships in the 12,000-TEU (20-foot equivalent units) container capacity are already becoming commonplace. Some ships with more than 16,000 TEU are in operation with more on order. These will be too large even for the expanded Panama Canal, but will still be able to trade on the Pacific between Asia and the North American West Coast. Another class of ships are around 13,000 TEU and they are designated NPX or neo-Panamax vessels. The Panamax ships built for the current canal lock chambers are 965 by 106 by 41.2 feet. The new or neo-Panamax can be 1,200 by 160.7 by 49.9 feet.

Clearly there are some very large ships already in operation and there are more, still larger, containerships on the way. This puts the pilots of the world’s larger ports on alert, while raising a number of questions beyond port infrastructure. Do we know how to handle ships of this size? Do we have tugs that can handle ships of this size? How will these large displacement vessels interact with moored vessels? What is a safe passing speed?

The major California ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach and San Francisco have taken a proactive approach to handling the larger ships. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the adoption, by both ports, of a precision navigation unit, manufactured by Pilot Mate. This is a package of highly efficient and very accurate navigation instruments. The software in this device allows the pilot to select a ship by name, or to enter the particulars if the ship is not already documented. This “real-size” ship can then be integrated with the electronic charts which have been checked by the pilots and updated to a very high level of accuracy. Once on board the ship, a GPS antenna is deployed outside the wheelhouse. The pilot then paces off the distance from the antenna to the Pilot Mate and enters this into the system. The result is a highly accurate and dependable GPS expression of the vessel on the precise electronic charts. Packaged in a soft case measuring about 3 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot, it can be taken along with a pilot when he boards a ship.

Aboard the escort tug Revolution, Capt. Marc Fankhauser awaits Filomena under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

At 1,200 feet in length by 144 feet in beam, MSC Filomena is smaller than the largest container vessels, but over the 1,150-foot minimum length for which the San Francisco Bar Pilots require the use of the E-pilot. Vessels of this size are required to enter and leave the port in daylight. On June 12, 2014, sunrise was 0547. By 0450 the dawn was lightening the sky when Capt. Don Cloes, designated the lead pilot, boarded Filomena from the San Francisco Bar Pilots’ station boat near the sea buoy about 12 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Meantime, Capt. Pete Fuller picked up one of several E-pilots in the pilot office at the end of Pier 9 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero and boarded the pilot’s run boat Golden Gate.

By 0543 Filomena had passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the run boat, making about 18 knots, had approached to within a half-mile. The ship’s forward located deckhouse, characteristic of most ships its size, was visible in the dawn light. The wind was gusting to 20 knots. Five minutes later, the run boat’s Capt. Geoff Knight brought the boat smoothly alongside the ship’s side at about 8 knots. Deck hand Charlie Wood went forward as pilot Fuller climbed the pilot ladder to the ship’s pilot door. Wood tied a line to the Pilot Mate unit and Fuller hauled it up to the ship. On his arrival on the ship’s bridge he would deploy the antenna and begin giving lead pilot Cloes updates on location, current, speed and electronic data. This would allow Cloes more opportunity to keep an eye on what was happening out of the windows as well as on the crew and electronic navigation aids.

Patricia Ann is one of four tugs assisting the 1,200-foot Filomena.

All ships of this size calling at San Francisco are assigned four assist tugs when they are required to be turned. For Filomena, Oakland-based AmNav Maritime would supply the tugs. By the time the ship was passing Alcatraz Island, the 5,080-hp, 78-foot-by-34-foot, Robert Allan-designed, Dolphin-class tugs Revolution, Independence,  Sandra Hugh  and Patricia Ann were standin g by between the Bay Bridge and the ship’s destination at the Port of Oakland. Powerful as they are, these are neither the biggest nor the most powerful tugs in the Bay Area, but to paraphrase Capt. Marc Fankhauser of Revolution, “It is not all about size and horsepower, it is about doing what the pilot asks and we can.”

By 0622 the ship had passed under the Bay Bridge and Cloes assigned locations to the tugs, but no lines up yet.    Patricia Ann    was assigned the starboard bow and   Revolution   to the port bow matching, stern first, the ship’s 9-knot speed. The docking would require the ship to be turned about 270°  for a port-side landing. The ship’s pilot informed the tugs that the ship has 75-ton bits on deck for the tugs’ lines. The other two tugs took up positions aft on the ship. At 0630   Patricia Ann   was directed to put a line up followed by  Revolution . Angel Jimenez caught the small line lowered from the towering deck overhead and quickly secured to the eye of the tug’s hawser, which was hauled up by the ship’s crew. The ship had slowed to  7 knots and Independence had a line up to the transom with two shots out.  Sa ndra Hugh held position off the starboard stern quarter.

The tugboat Revolution runs stern-first as deck hand Angel Jimenez puts up the hawser.

At 0639 the pilot asked   Revolution   and  Patricia Ann  to pull “half back” to slow the sh ip as it approached the Oakland outer harbor. At 0645 the ship was down to 3 knots and was beginning to turn to starboard with its own rudder while the tugs  Patricia Ann  and Revolution continued with their lines up ready to assist. The pilot asked the tug for “half back” and then, as the speed came down to 2.4 knots, “easy back.” In San Francisco the  order “easy” is used rather than “slow” to avoid any confusion over the radio with “full.”

At 0648 the pilot asked for Sandra Hugh to push on the starboard stern quarter to assist the starboard turn. The ship was down to 1.3 knots. Seven minutes later, with the turn nearly complete, the pilot told Revolution, which was still on the port bow, “Take back your line and go around ready to push on the starboard bow.”

Fankhauser, aboard  Revolution , explained that, even with four tugs working a ship with a pilot, there is no “lead” tug as they all work as directed by the pilot. With the ship nearly in position for a port-side landing at Oakland’s Pier 25 just ahead of the 748-fo ot Hamburg Süd containership Cap Corrientes, the pilot directed Independ ence, still on the stern, for “half back,” Sandra Hugh on the starboard stern quarter “easy toward,” and Revolution to push on the starboard bow. Patricia Ann , with its line still up to the starboard bow, countered with “away easy.”

Like an orchestral conductor with multiple sections of instruments, the pilot conducted the precision job of moving this huge 146,161-dwt ship. Filomena had offloaded some cargo in Long Beach and, with a draft of only about 33 feet, was relatively light compared with its 50-foot maximum draft. But even most of that can now be handled at this pier with a 50-foot depth alongside.

At 0720 the GPS on Revolution showed the ship’s port side nicely parallel to the pier and only a short distance off. The pilot gave a rapid series of commands, “Sandra, easy toward, Patti stop,” etc.

Finally at 0725 the command for “full toward” for some of the tugs indicated that the ship’s lines were being worked by the linemen on the pier. Then came a request from the dock to move the ship 20 feet ahead. Minutes later, with the adjustment complete, the pilot was heard over the tug’s radio, “Dock are we in position now?” “Copy that,” came the reply.

Patricia Ann prepares to take its line back.

At 0735 with all lines to the ship made up to the pier, the pilot released the team of tugs with thanks and checked out himself.

There will be more, still larger ships calling at North American ports. The infrastructure is being developed to meet them. Tugs have been and are being built with the power and dexterity to handle them, and pilots are training in new technology and skills to handle them. Some 15 of the 60 San Francisco Bar Pilots have already returned to California Maritime Academy for training in use of the E-pilot. The pilots took the initiative to organize an exercise in handling a large containership suffering engine loss in early June. Changes are coming and mariners continue to anticipate and to meet the challenges presented by these changes.

By Professional Mariner Staff