San Francisco Marine Pilots fees disputed

From New York Times 13 May 2012

Published: May 13, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - Since the height of the Gold Rush, the San Francisco Bar Pilots have been guiding large vessels from the Pacific in and out of the harbors here and further inland, knowing as only they did the vagaries of the bay's currents, its hidden shoals and every foggy channel's twist and turn. The ships steadily grew larger just as the pilots' salaries did, standing at $US 451,336 last year.

These days, though, the pilots, who are regulated by the state and number only 57, are having a hard time navigating the treacherous waters of Sacramento. A bill that would have increased piloting rates and pilots' wages was soundly defeated last year; the fate of another bill that would raise the fees for the largest of the ships now appears bleak.

A previously obscure group of workers, overseen by an even more obscure state commission, is now attracting unwanted attention in the state capital for its high compensation, work schedule and perks. In normally laid-back committee hearings, at least one official delivered an emotional plea in favor of the bar pilots.

K. Michael Miller, the president of the commission that oversees the pilots, said he was going to be a "stand-up guy" and "ruffle some feathers" before defending the pilots' practice of flying business class on training trips to France instead of economy, which he called "pretzel class."

The pilots and their supporters say they are being vilified in a well-orchestrated campaign by shipowners. They say they are asking for the rate increase only to ensure the safety of Northern California's harbors as they pilot bigger and bigger ships.

"That's my utmost goal, and that's what I'm all about," Capt. Bruce Horton, the group's leader, said in an interview in his office, which overlooks San Francisco Bay.

Critics, however, say the pilots are motivated only by greed. After failing to win across-the-board increases last year, the pilots are back asking for a smaller one this year despite the hard economic times, the critics say.

Under state law, bar pilots must take command of an incoming large vessel about 12 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, beyond the treacherous sand bar that gives them their title.

Out in the open ocean, the bar pilots board the vessel by climbing up a rope ladder. Giving directions to the vessel's crew and later to tugboat pilots, they steer the ship into San Francisco Bay, where most ships dock at the Port of Oakland. Bar pilots also guide ships east into San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay and up the Sacramento River. Last year, ships on average paid nearly $12,000 per round trip to the bar pilots.

There have been pilots at ports all over the world for centuries. In the United States, the first Congress gave states the right in 1789 to regulate pilots in their waters, according to the American Pilots' Association in Washington.

"Pilots that come aboard ships are talked about in the Bible and the Laws of Oleron from the Dark Ages," said Paul G. Kirchner, the association's executive director, referring to the 12th-century French maritime code.

Bar pilots - who typically accumulate years of experience as tugboat pilots or captains of cargo ships before training to become bar pilots - represent the "pinnacle of the mariner profession" and deserve their compensation, Mr. Kirchner said.

Experts say it is difficult to compare the San Francisco bar pilots' compensation with their counterparts at other large ports because wages are not made public in many states. But Mr. Kirchner said the pilots here are "probably in the upper half, but there are plenty of groups that make more than that."

The pilots say their priority is public safety; they can resist pressure from shipowners to enter a harbor if they believe the conditions are unsafe.

"We like to be regulated," Captain Horton said.

But the state has gotten tougher on the pilots since a cargo ship guided by one of them hit the Bay Bridge in 2007, causing a huge oil spill. The authorities determined that the accident was partly the result of the prescription medication that the pilot had been taking They went largely without oversight until the recent past few years," said Alyson Huber, a Democratic assemblywoman who is investigating the state commission that oversees the pilots. "They have been around since the 1800s, but most legislators didn't even know they existed."

State auditors found that the commission did a poor job licensing pilots and investigating potential safety violations. They also described as a possible "misuse of state resources" the commission's policy of allowing bar pilots to fly business class to training programs in France and Maryland.

Despite the reprimand, the pilots flew business class to France last year even as they asked for a rate increase, which the Legislature has to approve.

This year, the pilots and their supporters in the Legislature presented a bill that would require owners of ships longer than 1,115 feet to pay an extra cost, amounting to half a pilot's fee. A second pilot, they say, is needed to carry the sensitive equipment required to navigate those vessels safely.

Mike Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents shipowners, says the request is a hidden rate hike. Various agricultural and business organizations are also opposing the increase, saying it would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

Mr. Jacob said that the larger ships did require an extra pilot, but that the cost should be part of the service currently provided by the pilots.

"This has nothing to do with safety," he said. "It has everything to do with their compensation."

Like many critics, Mr. Jacob said that because of cozy ties with regulators, the pilots have been able to maintain a monopoly. Though regulated by the state, the pilots are considered independent contractors who evenly split total profits among themselves.

"They have a natural internal incentive to have few guys working because they get paid more," Mr. Jacob said. The bar pilots deny that they keep their numbers intentionally low. But state officials said the pilots frequently worked longer hours than allowed, suggesting that more pilots were needed.

"This is an entirely appropriate subject to look into," said John Logan, an expert on labor at San Francisco State University. "Things have changed in the last couple of years, but there still needs to be greater oversight."