Pilot boat operators need a steady hand

Above, the station boat California approaches a containership, where the boat crew will pick up a pilot coming down the ship’s starboard side. California is one of two station boats operated by the San Francisco Bar Pilots. The station boats operate on a four-day rotation. (Photos by Alan Haig-Brown)

The challenges faced by boat operators for the San Francisco Bar Pilots are formidable. They need to come alongside ships in seas that routinely reach 20 feet and on occasion considerably more. But then imagine having 60 bosses, all with advanced master’s tickets, who come on board with great regularity.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots have two station boats that serve on a four-day rotation on a station 11.1 miles off the Golden Gate Bridge. On May 10, the station boat California was ready to trade places with her sister ship, San Francisco. She left the dock at 1030 with two pilots on board in anticipation of ships arriving at the station at 1230 and 1500.

The crewing of a pilot station boat is like nothing else. Three operators work a total of six watches of four hours each. In that fashion each operator puts in eight hours per day. A fourth crewmember is a full-time cook, or more appropriately, given the quality of the meals, a chef. With pilots coming and going on a regular basis, there are often several people other than the crew for meals, so meals are selected from a menu and cooked to order as in a restaurant.

In most cases, there is a pilot or pilot trainee on board, to handle the deck work, which primarily involves assisting pilots coming off the ladder.

On California, Mike Sposeto is the first operator, with Liam Casement as second and Mark Hargus as third. Klaus Lange is the cook and Jim MacFeeters is in training as an operator.

On the run out to take up station, one of the pilots told Hargus, who was on watch, that he was going below for a nap. Hargus asked, “Are you going to be in your usual spot? How many miles do you want?”

The pilot replied that he would be in his usual bunk. That information allows Hargus to call the pilot on the phone near his bunk when his ship is at the specified distance. In this case the pilot requested the wake-up call when his ship was four miles from the station.

At 104 by 28 feet, the station boats are very comfortable, with the salon set amidships and bunks for up to eight pilots built down the vessel’s centerline aft of a large forecastle. Crew’s quarters are aft of that. Unlike the big station boat used by the New York pilots — the only other U.S. port employing this approach — the San Francisco boats are small and maneuverable enough to put pilots directly up to a ship without employing a daughter boat.

Going out over the bar, the boat encountered a bit of a chop put up by the ebb tide meeting the prevailing westerly wind. With plenty of time before the ETA of the first ship, the operators ran the boat at about 7 knots so as to maintain comfort for those aboard. With 2 knots of tide, the boat was actually making 9 knots and is capable of up to 15 knots through the water.

The operators are hired out of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP) hall. Capt. Peter McIsaac, the president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots, said of the relation with the SUP, “There is reference to pay increases on the pilot boats in the SUP newspaper in the early 1880s which were put into effect with a handshake agreement. I have long maintained that our boat operators take care of us, and we take care of them. It has been a century of mutual respect.”

Boat operator Liam Casement pushes up the throttles as he rounds the stern of the outbound ship Star Isfjord.

Most operators have experience on deck of deep-sea ships, so they enter a new world when they come to the pilot boats. While it helps to have at least a 100-ton license, this is not so essential as a good attitude and willingness to learn. Typically new crews start out on the smaller run boat Golden Gate inside the bay and then have the option of moving to the station boats for training. MacFeeters, the current trainee, has been a recreational sailor and has a good feel for the boat.

By 1145 the boat was on station. The ship Rotterdam Bridge had already reported in from 15 miles out. At 1145, when Second Operator Liam Casement came on watch, the ship had announced an ETA at the pilot station for 1220. By 1210 it was reporting one mile off and Casement asked the ship to maintain its current heading of 359º and speed of 9 knots. As the pilot came into the wheelhouse, Casement noted that the ship was running parallel to the swell, but a lee in such conditions can cause the ship to roll, creating a dangerous boarding situation. He instructed the ship to steer 050º, to put the ocean swell on the ship’s stern quarter, and maintain 9 knots as he sped the station boat to 9.8 knots and rounded the ship’s stern to approach up its lee side.

The actual transfer happened quickly. The pilot stepped out of the door to a platform set above the deck. Two rope handholds are suspended from a bar over the platform. The operator is at the port controls operating the boat with a jog stick. From this position, he can look over the pilot’s shoulder to the ladder and move the boat alongside the ship, holding it there until the pilot feels it rise on a swell and steps across to grasp the ropes of the ladder with both hands.

The week before a pilot had done this, and then, when he transferred his weight from the platform to the ship’s ladder, the bottom rung snapped, leaving him hanging from the ship’s ropes. It is for just this sort of incident that the pilot boat operator is on constant alert so as to handle the boat in an appropriate manner for the situation.

But now, as in the great majority of transfers, all was routine, and within minutes the pilot was safely on the ship.

Two years ago, things did not go so well. Pilot Jim Shanower’s career ended prematurely one stormy night when the vessel rolled as the boat was rising up on a swell. The boat crushed Shanower’s leg so badly against the hull that he almost lost it. After numerous surgeries, he is able to walk with a cane but he will never work again.

Coast Guard sea marshals board the station boat from the run boat Golden Gate before a tanker inspection.

As the boat pulled away from the ship, a call came in from Jin Quan announcing an ETA at the station of 1530. Casement explained that it is not a good idea to give long-range instruction to vessels such as this whose captains are not fluent in English. He once told a ship to come up the 10 miles or so to the sea buoy and then change course to 60º to make a lee. The captain said that he understood and promptly changed course, which took him on a heading straight for the coast. “We like to get them to steer right for the sea buoy,” he explained, “and then we can get them to make a port or starboard lee depending on which of the three directions they are coming from.

By 1400 there were several ships in the three approaches inbound to the sea buoy and the single approach outbound from the Golden Gate. The scheduling of ships for dropping off and picking up pilots becomes crucial at such times. Although the dispatcher in the pilot office back at Pier 9 works with the ships to keep the schedule up-to-date, it remains to the pilot boat operator on duty to give the final directions. The next couple of hours was a blur of action, as the operators on two watches put pilots up to inbound ships and took them off outbound ships. At the same time, they were taking care of administrative details like reporting every pilot that boards a ship to the Marine Exchange, calling pilots up for their ships, directing ships to the right course to form a lee and dealing with at least one vessel that couldn’t understand their directions.

The latter arrived at the sea buoy an hour ahead of schedule in spite of being asked much earlier to slow down as there was not a pilot ready for him. When the ship arrived early, it had to be given a course that would take it away from other ships while the Golden Gate run boat delivered more pilots to the station boat. This same ship was asked to come to a heading of 070° to form a lee and to maintain a speed of 9 knots. It made the course change, but the AIS showed it doing only 3.5 knots. It sped up to 5.1 knots by the time the station boat came alongside. This required the operator to jockey the boat’s Cat 3508 engines with the clutch and throttles to keep from being pushed ahead by the swell.
The boat is fitted with shaft brakes that are a big help in this kind of work.

With some possible omissions, the list of ships served and their times looked something like this: Star Isfjord, outbound, pilot off 1407; Hellespont Triumph, inbound from north, pilot up 1425; Golden Gate, deliver three pilots, 1432; Ever Reward, inbound from south, pilot up 1448; Jin Quan, inbound from north, pilot up 1500; Mahimahi, outbound, pilot off 1540; Veracruz I, inbound from south, pilot up 1558; Kapitan Maslov, inbound from west, pilot up 1613; USL Kiwi, inbound from north, pilot up 1626. And more vessels in sight.

At some point, when traffic slowed, Chief Operator Sposeto called the crew out for a man-overboard drill. The pilots have recently installed a simple arm that can be hydraulically lowered from the cabin side. It has a hook on the end to catch the bight of a line from a throw bag, and every pilot has a carabiner attached to his float-coat harness that can be clipped onto the throw-bag line.

Live man-overboard drills have been carried out in San Francisco Bay. For practice on the rolling deck out at the sea buoy, where great white sharks could add danger to the exercise, a life ring stands in for a person. This is just one in a long list of rescue devices from an easily launched RIB to the latest Crewfinder RT-202. This device, mounted on the compass console, hones in on a tiny salt-water activated EPIRB worn on each pilot’s float coat.

Bar pilot Will Lemke on his way up the ladder from the station boat California to the vehicle carrier Veracruz I.

As with the pilots themselves, the skills required of a San Francisco pilot boat operator are quite specific to the job and the locale. During the hectic work above, the operators gave operator trainee MacFeeters the helm for some of the transfers. After a trainee has been on for a year, the two senior operators decide if he should be recommended to become an operator.

Sposeto said, “I always check with my other two operators to see if they are comfortable sleeping down below while the trainee is going alongside ships.”

The operators also explained the importance of knowing the abilities of individual pilots on the ladder. While some have excellent timing in stepping onto the ladder at the top of a swell, others may hesitate. Pilots vary in physical fitness and age as well, and this has to be taken into consideration when they are swinging off the ladder on the manrope.
Sposeto explained, “A ship coming out is more difficult than inbound. If a pilot is already on the ladder, you feel the pressure to get in there.”

In the intermittent periods of calm, the operators are also responsible for maintaining position near the sea buoy with a reasonably gentle ride for others on board. This is made easier by a water flume stabilization tank mounted abeam under the wheelhouse floor. On very rare occasions, the sea may be calm enough to permit putting the boat in neutral, but generally there is a good sea running, so it is a matter of trying to keep it on the boat’s stern.

Sposeto is a surfer in his time off the boat and likes to recall the day that the boat, which has a top speed of 15 knots, actually achieved 28 knots surfing down the face of a big long swell. Although it was just for a few seconds, he recalled with obvious delight, “The wave was cookin’.”

Four days on an often disturbed sea is not everyone’s idea of a great job, but the operators of the San Francisco pilots’ station boat tend to stay for a long time. This is a good berth.
The way it was in the old days
by Alan Haig-Brown
The San Francisco Bar Pilots have a history of station boats going back for over 100 years, but Captains Knud Jensen and Bob Porteous are probably the oldest living raconteurs of that history. After spending a few days with the contemporary pilot boat operators in the bay and out at the sea buoy, I stopped in at Porteous’ home in Novato just north of the bay to hear about the early days.
At 81, Porteous has the size and stature of a man accustomed to command. He started with the pilot boats in 1947 on the 136-foot sailing schooner California (ex and present Zodiac). She had been brought around from the East Coast by the pilots in 1931 to join their alternate boat, the Crowninshield-designed 85-by-21-foot Adventuress.
Designed by William Hand Jr. and built in East Boothbay, Maine, in the 1920s, California was modified by the pilots who shortened her masts and removed her bowsprit.
Porteous, who had been at sea since 1943, started as an AB at $100 per month and worked up to master after 10 years.
In those earliest years, before the introduction of outboards, they rowed a heavily built 16-foot carvel-planked yawl to deliver the pilots to the ships. California was powered by a 175-hp Atlas Imperial, and could operate under power or sail. In the yawl, they used two sets of oars. This was particularly important in pulling away from the ships to avoid the wheel wash and to get out to the lee side of the pilot boat, which would have to maneuver between the ship and the yawl to provide the lee from which to recover the yawl.
After they got outboard motors in about 1949, they used larger boats. Eventually they got a plywood double-ender bar tender boat with a 35-hp outboard in a well. Porteous doubled the framing and reinforced the boats with fiberglass, but it remained a tough job to run small boats out in the fog and heavy seas to put up or take off the pilots. In one storm, he said, the seas “shifted the whole house and opened every seam on the California.”
The schooners didn’t anchor, but they got a 147-foot former minesweeper renamed Golden Gate in 1962, and it could.
“We had to kind of use our noodle,” Porteous recalled, “Laying at anchor in the fog, we would watch the ships on radar and give directions over the radio until we could hear the ship.”
Once, when he was fishing from a launch with some crew, they caught eight 15-pound salmon. When a ship’s captain asked for one, they bent a line to it and sent it up. When he asked for another, they hesitated but sent it up also. They were promptly rewarded with two bottles of Canadian Club.
The two schooners, Adventuress and Zodiac, were retired in 1952 and 1972. Both are fully restored and are used for sail training in Washington state. Porteous retired in 1996 at 70 after 49 years of service.
Peter McIsaac, the president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots, explained that this retirement “prompted us to establish a formal training program because prior to that, Bob was our training program.”
The station boats have changed since then, and so have other things, “Pilots in those days weren’t so time conscious as now,” Porteous told me. “Most had been to sea and all pretty much dressed the same, but some were real fashion plates.”
There is little doubt that Porteous and his contemporaries cut a pretty fine figure in their day as well.
By Professional Mariner Staff