By Capt. Paul Lobo
My first and only pilot job on a yacht was in the summer of 2007. I thought I’d never pilot one because I was retiring that year. So the day the dispatcher told me I was going to pilot the yacht, New Century, into Sausalito, California, I thought he was kidding. For one, when the dispatcher says you have a certain ship, there is always the chance that that ship will arrive earlier, or later, than their estimated time of arrival at the pilot station.
The bar pilots use heavy weather boats called station boats to board ships 11 miles almost due west of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is called “being on station.” Only New York and San Francisco still maintain pilot stations in the U.S. Bar pilots board ships day and night, 365 days a year, so there are no holidays for pilots.
Eleven miles doesn’t sound like much distance, but those miles are considered one of the toughest stretches of water in the world to board and disembark pilots, to say nothing of getting the world’s largest ships in and out of port safely. Many pilots worldwide are hurt , maimed or lost at sea every year. In 2005 alone, five U.S. pilots died boarding ships and one pilot boat was sunk by a careless ship.
Over 31 years as a ship pilot, I saw many yachts that my company, The San Francisco Bar Pilots, provided pilots for. Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to board one because of our rotation system. Pilots stay in strict rotation; no matter what ship shows up first at the pilot station, it’s the “number one” pilots to board. The last pilot that finishes up at the end of the day is the last pilot to go back to work, which is called “going to the bottom of the board”. Because of the 200 miles we are responsible for, pilots return to the pilot office at all hours of the day and night. A pilot might start his day hours ahead of another pilot, but return hours after him, so our rotation system was fair.
Incessant fog and storms are common west of the Golden Gate. In the spring, it’s normal for the wind to blow 35-plus knots every afternoon. (Not a good time for small vessles to venture out to sea) In fact, between winter storms, the sea conditions are actually better than during the spring time, El Nino years being the exception. When I joined the pilot force in 1977, the weather people hadn’t thought up that term yet. It’s appropriate to me because El Nino refers to the Christ Child, and one of the worst storms I ever lived through happened around Christmas in 1977 when I was involved in a sea rescue. It took all day, fighting 70-knot winds and 20-foot seas, to get a tow line to a 150-foot research ship that had lost her engines. We saved her just before she went ashore onto Marin County.
In general, American-flagged vessels not engaged in commercial shipping are exempt from state regulations that require all vessels calling at San Francisco to hire bar pilots. The only exemptions are public vessels, such as the Navy and U.S.-flagged ships solely engaged in coastal trade that have federally licensed pilots aboard. Most U.S. private yachts are exempt, but foreign-flagged ones over 750 tons are charged. The Pilots were created under Article 3 of statehood. That is how important piloting is regarded, even way back in 1850. There are state pilots in almost every major U.S. port. Bar pilots have a monopoly in exchange for the state selecting, training and disciplining pilots, as well as setting pilotage fees.
The day I was assigned the M/Y New Century, I took our high-speed run boat, Golden Gate, from our San Francisco office out to the ocean. I felt lucky because the wind was light and I didn’t know what it was going to be like coming alongside a hull so immaculate. Most ship hulls are painted black and are rusty.
When our 110-foot boats rub against a ship’s hull they often take a pounding, so we hang huge truck tires over the sides to act as fenders, which can leave ugly black smudges on the ships’ hulls. So as to not harm a yacht’s hull, we use Avon rafts. The only other times we used them were to board submarines because their hulls are too sensitive to come alongside with big boats like ours. And we use them to rescue pilots who fall into the sea.
When we boarded subs, we usually got wet because we had to jump from the Avon up onto a ladder made from canvas and 2-by-4s. They aren’t pretty, but they work on a rounded hull. The Avon operator would rev the outboard up to full throttle, then run it up the sub’s hull as far as possible. Then we leapt onto the canvas ladder, grabbed a man rope, and hoped we didn’t fall into the sea. No matter how high the Avon went up we usually were hit with sea water.
When I took the Avon over it to New Century, it couldn’t have been better conditions, which was fortunate because it’s rare to have such smooth seas at the pilot station. When we came near, the first thing I noticed, besides the immaculate paint job, was what they put over for a pilot ladder. It was more of a swim ladder than a pilot ladder. I made it up without much trouble because her freeboard wasn’t very high; but it felt strange grabbing onto something so flimsy. Pilot ladders are required by SOLAS to conform to certain conditions, one is that it be made of rope or nylon with hardwood steps.
Once I stood on deck, I was greeted by the mate who ushered me into the salon where he surprised me by asking me to take off my shoes. The only other time I was asked to do this was aboard a 100-foot schooner during the America’s Cup. I had been invited to watch the races on a privileged vessel, a boat allowed to motor directly behind the competitors inside the race boundaries, because my school, State University of New York Maritime College, owned the America’s Cup boats in that campaign. After I walked up the gangway, onto the most unblemished teak deck of the largest sailboat I was ever on before or since, I was asked by a deckhand to take off my shoes. I told him my boat shoes wouldn’t harm their nice teak decks. Not to worry, he said; all he wanted to do was wash my shoes’ soles. So they were the cleanest pair of boat shoes I ever wore.
When New Century’s mate took me up to the wheelhouse through the salon, in my bare feet, it certainly beat the heck out of going aboard a Third World crewed ship. In comparison, everything on New Century was first class and spotless. The only thing to compare her to was piloting ocean liners, something I did hundreds of times.
After I introduced myself, I went over details with the skipper on which berth in Sausalito we were heading. I then met the captain’s wife, who was also the boat’s purser, when she brought me a cup of espresso.
The New Century handled like a dream, going into the dock almost on her own. I have to admit, even though I possessed an unlimited first-class pilot ticket for all of San Francisco Bay, I had never entered Richardson’s Bay as a pilot. I had been in there many times on my friend’s racing sailboat, just not on a megayacht.
That was a fun day. I wish I had done it more often, but with my job, I never knew when I went to sleep at night if the next day I would pilot a containership, a spy vessel, a Polish fishing boat or an aircraft carrier, such as the USS Enterprise, which was the first Navy ship I ever piloted. That’s why my job was so interesting and so enjoyable. Most of the time.