Shippers balk as SF bar pilots demand raise


Under state law, shipping companies have to use bar pilots when their ships come to San Francisco. The state even sets fees the pilots can charge. But now the pilots want a raise. Shippers say the pilots already make enough. Last year, each bar pilot brought home $450,000.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots say they learned an important lesson after the Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge, spilling oil into the Bay, and after the Fabiola – the largest ship ever to enter the Bay -- squeezed under the Golden Gate Bridge in a blanket of fog.

"I don't believe anyone in their right mind had ever thought, even 10 or 15 years ago, that vessels would reach the size that they are now," said Capt. Bruce Horton, head of the San Francisco Bar Pilots.

The bar pilots say they need to add a second pilot on some ships to ensure safety. "The value of our service to the state of California and the protection of the environment, I mean, I'm not sure you can put a price on that," Horton said.

But the bar pilots have put a price on it. They want to charge 50 percent more for ships they believe need two pilots. The shippers don't want to pay.

Mike Jacob of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association says state law already dictates pilots' fees based on the size of the ship.

The smallest ships coming into the Bay are around 460 feet and 12,000 tons. For those ships, the bar pilots get paid about $3,500. The newer, larger ships are 1,000 feet and longer, sometimes more than 100,000 tons, and can cost more than $20,000 to pilot. The Fabiola is 1,204 feet and 140,000 tons, costing more than $34,000 to pilot.

The shippers say the added payment for the larger ships is enough to pay the second pilot. And Jacob points out, each pilot makes the same amount each year, no matter how much work they do.

"Those individual pilots that are working that ship last year they made, the first pilot on, he made $450,000. The second pilot on made $450,000. The pilot at home eating peanut butter and jelly sandwich that week made $450,000. That's what they're paid to do," Jacob said.

Assembly member Fiona Ma sponsored a bill last year to set the rate for a second pilot. She eventually withdrew the measure. But while the bill was still under consideration, the pilots started charging the extra fees prematurely, and they made what the shippers perceived as a threat.

The 1,145-foot long cargo ship Norma was steaming toward San Francisco. The shipping association says Capt. Horton threatened not to bring in that ship or any other of the larger ships.

The I-Team obtained an e-mail Horton wrote to the Port of Oakland: "If we can't charge for the extra pilot service, I doubt we will ever bring those ships in."

The threat not to bring in a ship was an "unprecedented" step, according to Jacob.

Horton said he was simply trying to convey his safety concerns, and that the shippers initially agreed to pay. "There was not an actual threat," he said. "It was strongly worded because I thought we had an agreement."

The state stepped in and two bar pilots brought the Norma to port, without additional charges. The shipowners' association asked for an investigation from the Board of Pilot Commissioners, the state agency that regulates and licenses San Francisco's bar pilots.

"I don't know what to make of that. Perhaps it was a threat. Perhaps it was just an offhand comment. I was not there. I have seen the e-mail," said Knute Michael Miller of the Board of Pilot Commissioners.

The commission released its report on the incident -- basically a narrative of what happened -- but it failed to mention Horton's e-mail.

"There was some reference to the communications," Miller said. But the crux of the investigation was to have the background, he said.

The shipping merchants believe the threat needed to be looked at more closely by the board.

"I would like to think that if their state regulator had been asked to do a report, to go through all the facts and tell us what actually happened and put those in a context, that they would do that. Unfortunately, they chose to completely ignore the facts in their report," Jacob said.

Still, based on the board's report, the attorney general released an opinion in April saying the bar pilots cannot charge for a second pilot. It would take new legislation for them to collect more fees.

So the pilots are back at it again, asking legislators to approve payment for a second pilot. This time, they have Assembly member Sandre Swanson of Oakland sponsoring the bill.

Swanson says he'd like to see them compensated for a second pilot, but he doesn't want them deciding when a second pilot is needed.

"Should public safety be left to their discretion? I think public safety should be left to the discretion of the legislature who is responsible to protect the public," Swanson said.

If his bill doesn't pass, Swanson says the safety of the Bay is at risk. "If they don't get compensated and we don't pass a bill that requires there to be two pilots, is there a chance that maybe we might have one pilot on a super vessel that requires two? There's always that chance. That's a chance that I don't think we can afford to have."

The pilots point out they're not being paid with tax dollars, but by wealthy shipping merchants, owned mostly by foreign companies. The merchants say if they have to pay the pilots more, there is a good chance the cost will be passed on to the consumer.

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