A California lawmaker's bill to increase the pay of pilots who navigate massive cargo ships through San Francisco Bay's intricate shipping channels drew attention Tuesday to the handsome incomes earned by these little-known mariners.
A state Senate committee heard debate about a proposal sponsored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, to raise the rates of San Francisco Bay's bar pilots, who take home about $400,000 each annually.
The bay's 55 pilots operate as independent contractors who split all annual earnings equally.
Pilots claimed stagnant pay rates over the past several years have made it difficult to retain experienced pilots and attract new recruits to the high-skill, high-risk profession.
Shipping companies and exporters contended the pilots are among the best paid in the industry, and that any increase will hurt Northern California ports' affordability and competitiveness.
Ma's bill calls for the pilots' rates to be increased 1.5 percent annually over the next four years.
While pilots and shippers clashed over exactly how much was enough, both sides agreed that pilots' enviable earnings stem from the skill required to steer a 1,000-foot cargo ship through the bay's environmentally sensitive waters.
"Our profession is not an entry level job," said Capt. Bill Greig, who became a bar pilot after captaining oil tankers, including the Exxon Valdez, which ran aground off Alaska two decades ago under a different captain.
Prospective San Francisco Bay pilots typically have at least 15 years at the helm of large oceangoing vessels before they can even begin the training process, which can take one to three years, with no guarantee of a job at the end of the process, pilots say.
The test to obtain a pilot's license consists of a blank piece of paper on which applicants must sketch the entire navigational structure of San Francisco Bay area waterways, said Capt. Bruce Horton, president of San Francisco Bar Pilots.
Along with major ports such as Oakland and San Francisco, pilots must know how to navigate smaller ports that ring the bay as well as inland ports in Stockton and Sacramento and as far south as Monterey. A bar pilot will guide an outgoing ship until it passes through the Golden Gate into the Pacific Ocean or wait on a small boat to board incoming vessels just beyond the Golden Gate.
The bar pilot profession drew unwanted attention in November 2007 when the 900-foot Cosco Busan sideswiped a tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, spilling 53,000 gallons of oil into the water.
The ship's bar pilot, John Cota, was sentenced to 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor environmental crimes stemming from the spill, which killed more than 2,000 birds, fouled 26 miles of shoreline and delayed the start of that year's Dungeness crab fishing season.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that Cota's prescription medications impaired his performance, though he was not held solely responsible for the crash.
The state of California has regulated San Francisco Bay bar pilots since 1850 at the height of the Gold Rush. The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun, a state agency, currently oversees the pilots and recommends how much they should be paid.
Under the proposed 1.5 percent a year increase, San Francisco Bay bar pilots would earn about $530,000 a year by 2015, said Mike Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which unsuccessfully petitioned the bar pilot commission to recommend reducing bar pilots' rates.
"If the bill doesn't pass, they're still going to be making a boatload of money," said Jacob, who added that shippers do believe pilots should be paid well. "You don't need to further increase their pay to have (San Francisco Bay) be an attractive place to work."
Pilots dispute that the rate increase will yield the jump in income predicted by shippers and say their costs have risen by millions of dollars since their last raise in 2006, especially the cost of fuel for the boats that take them to and from ships. Ma's bill would include a new fuel surcharge in addition to the rate increase.
But neither side can say with certainty how much incomes will rise or fall, since pilots are paid based on ship traffic rather than a flat rate. Shippers pay pilots based on the length of the ship, as well as the weight. The more ships carrying more cargo, the more pilots earn.
The variable nature of pilots' incomes makes comparing their pay to pilots in other parts of the country tricky. But multiple industry surveys suggest that piloting rates in San Francisco Bay are among the country's highest, especially compared to the large ports in Southern California, where pilots are contracted to individual ports and whose rates are not set by the Legislature.
Jacob points to the scheduled opening of the Panama Canal to wider ships in 2014 as a reason West Coast ports must be vigilant in keeping their costs down. When geography no longer limits where China's largest ships can unload their exports, little will stop shippers from choosing the least expensive option, he said.
But the price of a mistake in San Francisco Bay can also be high, as the Cosco Busan disaster demonstrated.
"Currently there is no other occupation where so much responsibility for life, property and environmental protection rests on the shoulder of one person's decision-making abilities," Ma said.