SF Bar Pilots Run into Political Turbulence

Byline: Associated Press/Paul Elias

SF Bar Pilots Run into Political Turbulence

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Since the days of Mark Twain, the San Francisco Bar Pilots have had it good.

Thanks to outsized political clout and highly specialized training, this elite cadre, currently numbering 56 ship captains, has enjoyed monopoly control over San Francisco Bay since 1850. State law requires a bar pilot to guide every large vessel — be it a luxury liner, a billionaire’s yacht, an aircraft carrier or a cargo ship — in, out and around the bay.

For decades, the pilots plied the Northern California waters with almost no public scrutiny. That’s because they did so largely without major incidents and at no cost to taxpayers. Their salaries and benefits are set by an obscure state commission and paid entirely by ship owners.

The California Legislature is tasked with approving the salaries, and it routinely gaveled home raises over the years for the pilots — with little push-back. It helped that the pilots, through their association, contributed more than $100,000 to candidates and causes in every two-year state election cycle.

The annual income of the 55 men and one woman who proudly call themselves San Francisco bar pilots has risen from about $150,000 in 1990 to $451,336 last year — for a job one pilot argued in a court fight with the Internal Revenue Service amounts to “part-time” work, with seven days “on” and seven days “off” duty.

Pilots fly business class to France every five years for mandatory training and enjoy a pension that is fully funded by ship owners and requires no contributions from them.

Now, the pilots are running into political turbulence in Sacramento after decades of smooth sailing in the capital. Shipping companies, farmers, state Chamber of Commerce representatives and others are opposing pilot requests for raises while demanding more legislative oversight.

The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun — which licenses and oversees the pilots — operated with virtually no oversight from lawmakers, according to a state audit prompted by the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill disaster and released in 2009. The Legislature in 2009 placed the commission under the authority of the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency and its entire membership and executive director were replaced. Two bar pilots, two representatives from the shipping industry and three public members now comprise the board.

The latest political setback happened April 30: The Assembly Transportation Committee tabled a pilot-backed bill that would have required owners of ships larger than 1,150 feet to pay the equivalent of 150 percent of the typical fee to add a second pilot, to help guide the large vessel to dock.

Both sides agree that two pilots should man the biggest vessels. But the ship owners say the pilots are paid by the size of the ship and already receive higher fees for handling the larger vessels. The pilots said the fees aren’t enough to compensate for the work done by the second pilot.

One pending bill could put tighter controls on the commission or even eliminate the panel, 172 years after the Legislature’s third-ever act created it to bring order to the chaotic bay during the California Gold Rush.

“They have been around so long that no one knows what they do until something happens,” said Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, a Democrat from Lodi, who introduced a “sunset” bill that could put the board out of business unless the Legislature acts to keep it alive.

Huber said she believes the board plays a vital role in keeping Northern California waterways safe by having pilots take control of large ships from captains unfamiliar with the treacherous currents, weather and geography of San Francisco Bay. But she said her bill is necessary to ensure the commission receives proper oversight.

Capt. Bruce Horton, the top pilot and “port agent,” said he believes much of the negative attention is being driven by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, in an effort to reduce the fees paid by ship owners — which amounted to $50 million last year. Horton said he believes the Huber bill, backed by the shippers’ lobbyist, is designed to replace them with less expensive pilots licensed by the federal government.

Horton said the average age of the pilots is 52 and each has worked about 11 years in sailing before becoming a bar pilot. “We are well compensated because we are at the acme of our profession,” Horton said. “This is not an entry level job.”

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