Richmond Inner Harbor never a routine ride for bar pilots

It could be argued that a San Francisco Bar Pilot is required to be several pilots in one. Their pilotage zone stretches over 50 miles north to south and, counting the navigable rivers, a similar distance from west to east. The greatest concentrations of piers in the bay are the container terminals at Oakland, Calif., but there are piers for tankers and bulkers scattered throughout the whole area. A pilot in San Francisco must be trained to cope with strong currents and shallow channels, fog and wind. There are narrow channels dredged through the bay’s mud and deltas as far northwards as Sacramento and as far south as Redwood City.

Apprentice pilot Paul Ruff operates a bow thruster while docking CSL Acadian at Richmond Inner Harbor under the supervision of San Francisco Bar Pilot Capt. Hugo Kenyon. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

The Port of Richmond, located on the east side of the bay just north of Berkeley, is a complex of piers along a narrow federal waterway. The Inner Harbor berths are around a tight bend at Potrero Point. In early August, San Francisco Bar Pilot Capt. Hugo Kenyon was assigned the task of taking the bulker CSL Acadian, loaded with Canadian gravel, from anchorage south of the Bay Bridge, into a dock in Richmond's inner harbor. CSL Acadian is one of the largest, slowest-handling vessels to call at Richmond Inner Harbor and moors at a berth built for much smaller vessels.

Just before 0700 he boarded the pilot boat, along with two trainee pilots, at the Bar Pilots offices on the end of Pier 9 on San Francisco's Embarcadero. Some distance off the end of the pier, Trainee Paul Ruff called out, "Swimmer in the water."

The boat operator had already seen the heads of several swimmers and took evasive action to avoid the early morning exercise fanatics. The pilots are accustomed to such antics as they share the bay with windsurfers and sailboats, not to mention fast ferries and heavy ship traffic. Early morning swimmers are just one more hazard.

The AmNav tugboat Sandra Hugh provides an assist as the bulk carrier completes a hairpin turn toward Richmond Harbor. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

By 0740 the pilots, having checked the draft fore and aft from the pilot boat, were on board CSL Acadian going over procedures with the ship's master, Capt. Y. Musiyenko. A regular caller to the Bay Area, the 800-by-105-foot ship routinely arrives with a draft of about 39 feet. Lightering off some of the gravel cargo had brought this up to 30 feet, 4 inches aft. With the anchor hauled, Ruff, under the watchful eye of Kenyon, gave the helmsman a course for the center of the Bay Bridge Delta-Echo span. Then, as the ship came up on the Bay Bridge helped along by about 1 knot of ebb tide, he switched to direct rudder commands asking for various degrees of rudder to port or starboard. This was a practice he would follow as the ship moved up the bay. He switched from course commands to helm commands whenever the ship was in a close quarters situation.

The ship moved up the bay past Alcatraz and the old Angel Island immigration station, on the port side. Just above Angel Island, two AmNav tugs waited for the ship at the entrance to the Southampton Shoal Channel. On the chart, laid out on the chart table, the channel showed as a long dog's leg marked by dotted lines that appeared remarkably close to each other. Out the pilothouse windows, the channel showed as a series of green and red can-buoys stretching northward across the expanse of water toward the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

The outbound CSL Acadian sails past the San Francisco skyline while en route to an anchorage. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

In training, each pilot is required to make supervised voyages to each of the various segments of the extensive pilotage area. Ruff was making this voyage under the direction of Kenyon. A second trainee, David Merritt, was along for the ride. Although he had completed all of his training requirements and was about to be accepted into the pilots, this was a good opportunity to observe the tricky Richmond Harbor job one more time. A “hawsepiper,” Merritt had worked his way up on the AmNav tugs, where his father Milt Merritt is general manager and where David began as a school kid on summer jobs.

The channel is maintained with enough depth to easily handle the 30-foot draft of CSL Acadian, but Southampton Shoal, on its eastern side, rises quickly to as little as 21 feet, while the shoal water to the west comes up to a 22-foot depth. On the ship's charts, the mate had penciled in "NO GO AREA" on all sides of the channel.

San Francisco Bar Pilot Capt. Hugo Kenyon, foreground, stands watch on the bridge with apprentice pilot Paul Ruff, left, and the ship's officers near San Francisco's Bay Bridge as the vessel heads from anchorage toward Richmond. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

At 0830, with the ship making just under 7 knots, Ruff directed the Robert Allan-designed AmNav tug Sandra Hugh to put a line up midship aft. Its sister ship, Revolution, was directed to put a line on the ship's forward port quarter. He ordered the helm to 352°. Ten minutes later, he called for Sandra to go "easy straight back." The ship began to lose forward speed and Ruff continued to vary the drag of the stern tug until he got the headway down to 5 knots.

At 0850, as the ship came up on the turn where the chart showed "NO GO AREA" dead ahead, Ruff directed the helm "hard to starboard." At the same time he ordered the ship speed to "full ahead" and Sandra to pull off to the port side of the stern while Revolution pushed on the port bow. In spite of the ship's notoriously slow rudder, the combination of speed, rudder and two tugs began to swing the heavily laden vessel through nearly 180° in only a half-mile distance.

A view from the top of the pilothouse as CSL Acadian eases into its berth in Richmond Inner Harbor. Once the bulk carrier is docked, the conveyor, lying fore and aft along the hatch covers, will be swung out and extended to deposit the cargo into storage. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

By 0900, the ship was being steadied up on a set of ranges that brought it to a course of 131° and a set of range lights that would continue it on the new course down Entrance Channel. Further course changes brought the ship to 103° and, with a second set of range lights, to 99°. Sandra was still on the stern and Ruff directed it to "stop and drag" in order to slow the ship to 4.2 knots as the entourage moved into Point Potrero Reach and passed a yacht basin.

By 0935, the ship had entered a turning basin abeam of the moored World War II-era SS Red Oak Victory on CSL Acadian's port side. When the ship is stopped, its bow is no more than a few feet from the nearest of the range lights. Just a few points to starboard of the bow, a hill rises from tiny Brooks Island. Even with a rising tide there is a mere 7 feet under the ship's keel. Just off the bow and the starboard side, the waters shoal rapidly to 2 feet. There is little room for error and the lookout on the bow calls back distances to the shore as Ruff directs Sandra to begin towing the stern around to port while Independence holds the bow steady from its position on the port bow.

With the combined effort of the two tugs working in concert with the ship's bow thruster, the ship slowly turned in virtually its own length. When it was positioned so that the stern was facing northward up the channel toward the gravel pier, the final stretch of water could be addressed. At 0948, Ruff having ordered astern on the main engine, the ship was making 1.8 knots in reverse. Ruff and Kenyon stood on the port bridge wing with Musiyenko and steered the ship up the Harbor Channel with the bow thruster.

The pilot's laptop shows the transition to stern-first progress, with the ship appearing as the green figure on the screen, its bow pointing downward on the screen and almost touching a small island. (Alan Haig-Brown photo)

This works well, but with the bridge located so far aft, it is difficult to ascertain by sight if the ship is traveling on a straight course, so the pilots sight along a railing or any other straight surface to check their course. The gravel pier, with waiting linemen, was right at the end of the Harbor Channel in the entrance to the still narrower Santa Fe Channel. Shifting the bow thruster dial so as to push the bow a few degrees to port, Ruff lined the ship up about 50 feet from the pier. Then, with the tugs and the ship's power, he began to work it into the pier where a pair of spring lines would be used to help line it up so that the ship's self-unloading conveyor arm would be precisely over a hopper on the dock.

With this bit of jockeying done by 1030, Kenyon declared himself satisfied with Ruff's ship-handling through this difficult dog's-leg course. Merritt added a bit more to the extensive knowledge that would complement his pilotage training and allow him to be accepted into the pilots by the end of the summer.

Bringing the loaded CSL Acadian up into the Richmond Inner Harbor is a regular job for the San Francisco Bar Pilots. But it is never a routine job. Winds either onshore or offshore can add complexities, as can unusually large tidal currents. The pilots' operations office works with all their customers to set appropriate times to minimize risks in transit. A vessel like CSL Acadian will be scheduled for close to high water with minimal current across the maneuvering areas. The day started with swimmers in the water off the pilot station and ended with line handlers who seemed more than a little uncertain as to their job. In between there were other stresses apparent and invisible to the casual observer. It is the pilot's job not only to recognize and deal with these variables, but also to do this in a calm manner that will assure the ship’s master and crew that all is under control. As Kenyon explained, "The pilots' selection and training process, as well as ongoing professional training, ensures the highest level of professionalism in a tightly regulated industry. There is no margin for error in moving vessels like the CSL Acadian."

By Professional Mariner Staff