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Navigating the strong currents and foggy horizon of the San Francisco Bay is no easy task, especially when maneuvering a ship larger than the size of the Salesforce Tower. And as international commerce dependency expands, giant cargo ships are only getting bigger.

A San Francisco Bar Pilot travels alongside the cargo ship Zhen Hua beneath the Golden Gate Bridge on June 24, during the delivery of a new ship-to-shore crane to the Port of Oakland. (Photo by Harika Maddala/Bay City News)

A team of 54 master mariners called the San Francisco Bar Pilots acts as the experts of the region’s waterways 24 hours a day, often clearing bridges within a few feet and surpassing language barriers with limited shared vocabulary between international crews.

Last week, the team helped bring in a giant crane to the Port of Oakland, purchased by Everport Terminal Services to further innovate cargo operations at the terminal. What made this task unique was the unusual width of the vehicle — though the crane was disassembled, its position on the ship accounted for an extra 75 feet of width on one side, and 211 feet on the other.

For reference, a container ship is typically 150 feet wide, said John Carlier, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots. Maneuvering the ship off-center, no longer able to depend on one’s visual center, made the job all the more technical, he said.

“For the pilot coming in with 433 feet total width, that’s almost half the width of the span. It’s not where he’s calling the ship from that is the center, it’s the very port side of the vessel, which is another 75 feet over to his left. That’s the center,” Carlier said.

No room for mistakes

With a ship that large, there’s little room for error. Pilots had been planning for months to ensure a smooth arrival, constantly finding a balance between water levels and ship weight. The Bay is rather shallow because of silt that pours into it from river systems, which can get tricky as cargo ships get heavier to keep up with demand, said Anne McIntyre, business director of the San Francisco Bar Pilots.

“The deeper the ship is, that means the more cargo that’s on it, which is better from a profitability standpoint. We’re tasked with being able to let them know what the maximum safe depth of the vessel is to get it in,” McIntyre said.

In the bar pilots’ two-year training program, pilots learn to quickly assess the condition of the ship and the skill levels of the captain and crew in order to make decisions. Trainees also work through worst-case scenarios, like engine failures, to learn the best ways to minimize harm in high-pressure situations, McIntyre said.

“You’ve got to get more aggressive, you got to get to the berth and try to not hit things.”

John Carlier, San Francisco Bar Pilots

“It’s a lot of stress. When you get on a ship, every ship is different. Things are standardized in one sense, but to another sense, when you get on you need to very quickly assess the condition of the ship,” McIntyre said.

They also can’t be afraid to get close to clearance. Each pilot has at least 15 years of experience under their belt before their training, typically with experience as captains of deep sea ocean vessels or tugboats, but Carlier said he has seen trainees drop the program because of the tight spaces these massive vessels must fit into.

“You’ve got to get more aggressive, you got to get to the berth and try to not hit things,” Carlier said. “That’s why sometimes the tugboat guys, they’re used to coming in and landing ships and maneuvering in tight places. So for them, it’s getting them used to something a lot bigger.”

Knowing what lies beneath

Most commercial vessels approaching the Bay have to use a San Francisco bar pilot, according to state law. For the Port of Oakland, which is responsible for 99 percent of the goods coming to and from Northern California, their work is essential.

“They have to understand what the topography of the Bay underneath the water is that you and I don’t see, but they have a knowledge of what that looks like,” said port representative Marilyn Sandifur. “Underneath the water, there are valleys and channels and different depths … they have to know exactly where those channels are, and how to get these ships in and out.”

When the pandemic hit, ports across the globe saw a record level of cargo ships coming in due to e-commerce. Infrastructure improvements have been planned for years at Oakland’s port, but new equipment couldn’t have come at a better time, Sandifur said. The latest crane is one of four it has received this year.

(Video courtesy of San Francisco Bar Pilots/YouTube)

“Think of it like a Jenga puzzle. You’ve got a big ship, you’ve got tons of cargo, piled high on the top of that ship. By having taller cranes, now there’s more flexibility as to how you move one of those containers off that ship that’s destined for Oakland, and get it off the ship and on the ground,” Sandifur said.

And that only means more work for the bar pilot crew. Its size is wavering as specialized mariners are far and few between, but Carlier and McIntyre hope to see the team get to 60 employees in a few years.

“Since the 30 years I’ve been here, I think this world, this country, the West Coast, is more dependent on the Walmarts and the Targets, or the fact that you can pretty much have any kind of fresh fruit you want year-round. We didn’t have things like that back in the ’70s. It’s the global economy, that’s for sure,” Carlier said.