San Francisco Bar Pilots: State Looks At Spending, Regulations

02/17/2012 01:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

California's 56 bar pilots provide a vital service, boarding commercial ships as they approach a buoy west of the Golden Gate Bridge and guiding them through dicey Bay Area waters. A giant sandbar in the bay gives bar pilots their name and helps make the zone one of the most treacherous ports in North America.

Bar pilots also make a handsome living, splitting the spoils of a state-sanctioned monopoly that earns them about $400,000 a year each - costs borne by the shipping industry. They take business-class trips to France for training, which they sometimes combine with European vacations. And they work seven days on, seven days off - enough for one full-time pilot to spend more time working as a real estate agent, according to a legislative staff report [PDF].

This week, a legislative oversight committee considered some reforms to the state's Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun, which licenses and regulates the pilots. The goal of the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee is to ensure that various government agencies are "still necessary and that they're running as efficiently and effectively as they can," said the committee's chairwoman, Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi. The committee will vote on staff recommendations at its next hearing.

Committee staff noted that pilots continue to fly to France in business class, an expense that was criticized in a 2009 state audit as potentially "a misuse of state resources." The training, which costs $17,600 per pilot plus about $3,000 and up for travel, is paid for by surcharges on the shipping industry.

Some pilots spent extra time in Europe, going through Rome or Munich, according to staff. The report noted that the latest business-class tickets were free upgrades but recommended that "to avoid future concerns about propriety" the board use the state's standard system for purchasing tickets.

Board President K. Michael Miller, however, offered a full-throated defense of business-class travel at the hearing.

"At some point, you just gotta be a stand-up guy and you gotta say what you think, even if it ruffles some feathers," he said. "And what I'm going to say is going to ruffle some feathers."

"Sending someone on a 16-hour transit, through eight time zones, sitting up in what I like to call 'pretzel class,' in economy, guarantees that that pilot is going to be fatigued when he or she gets off the plane at the other end."

Miller said it was a "safety issue" to have a pilot tired from traveling go back to work in California. He noted that international business travel includes seats that recline all the way.

"If you like to sleep in a fetal position, which I do, you can bring your knees up to your chest," he said. "You get the opportunity for rest, and it mitigates the effects on your circadian rhythms."

Committee staff also recommended that the board competitively bid out its training contract, as there are a few other training facilities besides the one in France. Staff noted that when the board put out a bid for 2011 training, it included qualifications that only the French facility could meet.

"Everyone seems focused on our training in France, because that's a grabber, because it's France," board Executive Director Allen Garfinkle acknowledged at the hearing.

Garfinkle said he hadn't meant to exclude other bidders. He noted that of the two U.S. training facilities, the one in Louisiana had been closed and the one in Massachusetts was small and geared to military training.

"We are looking around for the best facility we can, 'cause you want the best training for the pilots in the bay that you can get," Garfinkle said.

Garfinkle said in an interview that the board signed a two-year training contract, instead of five years, because "we're looking at the other providers more closely."

The most important committee recommendation, according to the shipping industry, is to implement rules making sure pilots don't maneuver ships while overly fatigued. Currently, voluntary standards for 12-hour rest periods between jobs are often violated, according to the staff report.

"It's important to us ... that when a pilot gets assigned to our vessel that we have confidence that that pilot is as well rested and well trained as any other pilot," Mike Jacob of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association said in an interview. "What we would like is to have enforceable and publicly adopted standards."

A rigid rule, however, could result in perfectly capable pilots being prohibited from boarding a ship, slowing down port business, said Miller, of the Board of Pilot Commissioners.

"I'd rather have the pilots figure out how it's going to work because they know their business," he said.

Committee staff also recommended putting an administrative law judge in charge of contentious hearings on rate increases, which raise surcharges on shippers. Bar pilots split their profits, so rate increases lead to higher pay. A battle over compensation last year ended with the Legislature nixing a rate increase recommended by the pilot board.

The issue popped up again this month with dueling op-eds between pilots and shippers in Capitol Weekly.

"What we find offensive is for them to say, 'For us to safely move your ship, we need more money,' " Jacob said.

But Mitch Zak, spokesman for the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, emphasized that the job is extremely tricky and that the pilots are in an elite class of their own. He said pilots sometimes guide ships as far as Sacramento and Stockton.

"Imagine tipping the Empire State Building over, packing it full of these containers ... and then having to steer that in a very narrow channel with all the currents," Zak said. "It is definitely one of the most difficult professions."

"Even though we're disappointed in the stance of the shippers," he added, "we're not going to let that affect our focus, which is the safety of the bay."

Bar pilots and the board that regulates them faced increased scrutiny after a ship hit the Bay Bridge in 2007, spilling 53,569 gallons of oil. A U.S. Coast Guard investigation blamed the pilot for navigating at an unsafe speed with near-zero visibility and noted that he had health problems.

The state Legislature instituted reforms in the wake of the accident. Still, the Board of Pilot Commissioners remains obscure. Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, D-Montclair, said at the hearing that before this week, she hadn't known what a bar pilot actually was.

Negrete McLeod quipped that bar pilots should get the word out about what they do so that people don't think they are "pilots that sit at bars."

Will Evans is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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