SAN FRANCISCO -- 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 the 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, aircraft carrier or cargo ship – in, out and around the San Francisco Bay. Most of the ships are docked at the Port of Oakland.
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 state Legislature is tasked with approving the salaries, and 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 mostly Democratic candidates and causes 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 – seven days "on" and seven days "off" duty. They 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.
Then on the foggy morning in November 2007, one of the bar pilots slammed the cargo ship Cosco Busan into the San Francisco Bay Bridge, touching off a massive oil spill that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean and brought the pilots and the commission that oversees them a load of scrutiny.
Now, the mariners 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 exploiting the new-found political vulnerability to successfully oppose 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 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 Monday when the Assembly transportation committee tabled a pilot-backed bill that would have required owners of ships larger than about 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.
"We don't believe it is fair to increase the salaries of people making $451,000 a year at the expense of farmers and Californians trying to feed their families," Crystal Jack, a lobbyist representing the California Grocers Association and several large state agricultural interests, said at the outset of the hearing. Several legislators were clearly concerned with raising the pilot's level of compensation and sent the bill back for more negotiations.
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 the San Francisco Bay. But she said her bill is necessary to ensure the commission receives proper oversight.
Huber and shippers' representative Mike Jacob deny the pilots' charges that they are attempting to do away with the commission or San Francisco bar pilots, named so because of the dredged bar they must cross to get large vessels to port.
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.
"For the shippers, it's about the bottom line," Horton said Wednesday aboard one of the pilots' utility boats, which ferries the captains from the bay-front station house on San Francisco's Pier 9, the heart of the city's waterfront, to ships at anchor in the bay and to another pilot boat anchored 11-miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. There the bar pilots board incoming ships by jumping onto a rope ladder and scurrying up the vessel's side, one of the most dangerous aspects of the job.
Horton said the average age of the pilots is 52 and each has worked about 11 years in sailing before becoming a bar pilot. They also undergo intensive training that finishes with a test that requires the applicants to fill in aquatic landmarks, buoys and other significant parts of the bay from memory. He said the generous compensation is needed to attract the top captains to a congested waterway beset with high winds, changing currents and fog.
"We are well compensated because we are at the acme of our profession," Horton said. "This is not an entry level job."