At the helm of a container ship three football fields long, Capt. Tom Miller is maneuvering the NYK Atlas from 12 miles beyond the Golden Gate Bridge where the swells rise to 25 feet high to a berth at the Port of Oakland.
He is not the ship’s captain. Miller is a bar pilot, a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilot Association.
Every harbor has its own complement of bar pilots who know their individual harbors intimately, the channels and currents, depths and buoys. Whenever an oceangoing vessel pulls into a port, the captain of those vessels cedes some control of their ship temporarily to a bar pilot, who guides the ship to the dock.
It is a highly specialized profession that takes years of experience, training and competition. After the catastrophe involving bar pilot Capt. John Cota on Nov. 7, the skills and experience of bar pilots came into focus. Cota grazed the 900-foot Cosco Busan against the Bay Bridge, gashing a hole in the side and spewing 58,000 gallons of crude oil into the Bay.
The term “bar” pilot derives from the enormous, crescent-shaped sandbar miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. The waterway there is extremely treacherous, crowded, and the bar shifts frequently, seamen say. The waters there are far more challenging than the harbors of Long Beach or Seattle, for instance.
Miller, 50, of Petaluma, is enthusiastic about his job. A tall, mustached redhead, he has been ushering behemoths through the estuary for 21 years after spending several years as a tugboat captain.He starts the day on a pilot boat 12 miles outside the Golden Gate because that’s where the Army Corps of Engineers created the channel that burrows through the sandbar. Its starting point is marked with a buoy.
To board the ship he is expected to pilot, Miller must jump from the launch boat to a rope ladder that clings to the side of a container ship. It’s a task that’s not for the faint-hearted. Pilots have died this way.
Once on the bridge of the vessel — today, the NYK Atlas, a Japanese vessel flying under a Panamanian flag with a Romanian crew — Miller discusses the challenging conditions ahead with Atlas Capt. Marcel Nikolai.
On this day, not only is the water turbulent, but three vessels are lined up in the Port of Oakland: one where the Atlas is to berth, one just ahead of that spot and one behind. The NYK Atlas has to pass all of these vessels, then turn around in a tight space, when the vessel in the space leaves. It gives new meaning to the concept of parallel parking.
‘I love my job’
“We’ve got current on the channel, cross currents from left to right,” Miller said. “So we have to favor one side of the channel to compensate for the drift that we’re going to get as we advance through the estuary.”
Miller said he enjoys the challenge of the job.
“At the end of the day, when I’m going home and I see a ship in the harbor, I can say to myself: I put that boat there,” he said. “I love my job.”
As the NYK ATLAS passes Yerba Buena Island, Miller watches the drift of the ship by checking visual cues against the bow to see which way the ship is headed. Of course, he is also amply provided with instrumentation on the bridge.
He gives commands to the helmsman who echoes them back to him: “Amidships.” This indicates that the rudder must resume its position at the center of the boat.
“Starboard 20″ — turn 20-degrees to the right.
But as Miller is judging the drift of the ship, approaching the channel between the Port of Oakland — where three vessels are dockside — and Alameda, he has to gauge his speed. It’s a balancing act.
“I have to get up speed to cross the currents, but I have to go slowly so as not to damage to the ships along the docks,” he said.
Just passing those large vessels on the NYK Atlas’ port side with any speed will create enough suction to throw them against the wharf and damage them.
A delicate dance
San Francisco bar pilots bring in vessels from Monterey to Sacramento, about 10,000 “moves” a year, coming and going.
Manipulating a container ship, one might say, is like coaching a hippo to dance on a dime. Consider that the ship is 300 meters long, 40 meters wide and may have as little as 2 to 5 feet draft between it and the Bay floor. The NYK Atlas is carrying 6,500 20-foot containers. That’s a lot of videogames, clothes, computers, building materials and Barbie dolls.
Asked if he’s ever touched the Bay floor, Miller shakes his head and shudders, “That’s not good.”
As the vessel proceeds down the channel between Oakland and Alameda, a sailboat floats in front, seemingly oblivious to the hulking presence towering in front of it.
The Atlas captain and the pilot become irritable. This impasse wastes time and they are already facing considerable stress today. They expect the sailboat’s skipper to do what’s necessary — get out of the way. Seconds tick by with no diversionary action from the diminutive craft. Finally, the container ship sounds its alarm, deep, low and unmistakable. The sailboat glides to the Alameda side of the channel.
Meanwhile, there is a delay among the three vessels lined up at the port. One is moving later than anticipated.
The Atlas prepares to make its 180-degree turn so it ends up facing the proper direction. The tugboats are crucial in this operation.
“The ship’s engine drives us forward and aft while the tugs push us side to side,” Miller said.
Although the pilot is giving commands to the tugboats behind the Atlas, he can’t see them because the mass of containers stacked up on deck obscure visibility.
The bar pilot and the captain go out on deck to observe the tugs as they pull the ship’s stern in an arc with only 20 feet to spare at either end. The maneuver takes 45 minutes.
By the time the ship is turned and looking at the Bay Bridge, the other vessels have departed. Miller steers the ship alongside the dock at the AP Moeller terminal.
‘We are right here’
Miller hands Capt. Nikolai a sheaf of papers to sign: the San Francisco Bar Pilots invoice for their services for this move — $5,000.
Miller thinks the price is well-earned, but cheap for four hours of work.
“The movements go on seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Miller said. “When you’re cuddling up to your significant other in the evening and discussing how terrible the weather outside is, we are right here. We board 12 miles outside of the pilot station, where it gets really rough. It was not pretty there today. Where we board is extremely dangerous. The pilot boat was going 25 feet up and down.”
Since the amalgamation of bar and river pilots in 1984, San Francisco Bar Pilots have maintained a safety record of 99.74 percent of all vessel movements in the Bay without pilot error, according to statistics from the pilots association.
Last year, Miller was the bar pilot who brought in the luxury liner Queen Mary 2, which is 113 feet longer than the original Queen Mary.
“I was very honored,” he said.
Asked about Cota, Miller expressed only concern for his former colleague. But the accident has been stressful for Miller.
“While I always knew I had a big responsibility to shoulder, when that happened, I realized, my god, this is really a big, important job,” Miller said. “Look at the consequences when something goes wrong. I always knew that, but this event reinforced that.”
So far, Miller has had no mishaps in 21 years of service. But he doesn’t discount the possibility that it may happen, considering all the challenges of the job. But he doesn’t expect to lose his license or livelihood.
In the past, that was the worst that could happen to a bar pilot’s career.
Today, the pilot of the Cosco Busan is facing criminal charges under environmental laws.