VR 360 View: The high-stakes world of San Francisco’s bar pilots

By Itay Hod

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SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Capt. Zach Kellerman makes what might be the world’s most dangerous commute every day.

To get to work, he must jump from a swaying boat onto a rope ladder dangling from the side of a massive 15-story ship as waves crash beneath him.

“In really inclement weather, this is a very dangerous place,” Kellerman said.

He is part of a small but fierce force called the San Francisco Bar Pilots, a group of master seafarers who have boarded some of the world’s largest cargo ships and piloted them in and out of San Francisco Bay for two centuries.

They are called bar pilots due to their ability to navigate shallow channels with sand bars on either side.

“We’re sort of the first line of defense for the bay,” he said.

Both state and federal law require a local pilot to relieve the ship’s captain to navigate the San Francisco Bay, not only to protect the cargo but the bay itself.

“When we started in 1850 during the gold rush, we were tasked with protecting ships from the environment. Now we protect the environment from the ships,” he said.

At Pier 9 in San Francisco, Kellerman boards a small boat that will take him to the Port of Oakland. There he will board a state-of-the-art cargo ship called the George III bound for Hawaii and pilot it into the open sea.

One of its biggest challenges is a narrow canal that the ship has to navigate through on its way out of port.

“It’s only 50 feet deep, so we have limited space on each side, including under us,” he said.

If he’s worried at all, it doesn’t show. After all, that’s what he’s trained for.

Becoming a bar pilot is not that easy. Applicants must complete a four-year maritime academy and must have 15 years of experience as a seagoing vessel or tugboat captain before even applying. There is also a written exam, a simulator exam and an interview. Anyone who passes all the exams must then complete another 18-month to three-year training course.

The group’s chief executive, Captain Anne McIntyre, said the San Francisco Bar Pilots are the “human link in the supply chain” and responsible for nearly all containerized cargo shipped through Northern California.

They went largely unnoticed until the pandemic, when supply chain disruptions led to an epic backlog of ships around the bay. It was the bar pilots who got it going again.

“It wasn’t until the supply chain was disrupted that people realized how important we are to the economy,” McIntyre said.

As Kellerman pulls up next to the ship, we receive one final instruction: “No swimming.”

It’s a steep climb – no safety net or harnesses. Luckily it’s a beautiful day. But this is the Bay Area, where conditions are rapidly deteriorating (more on that later).

Once on board, you get a glimpse of just how huge the ship actually is. It’s the size of 2.5 football fields and carries between $150 million and $300 million worth of goods to Hawaii.

Ed Washburn — senior vice president of fleet operations at Pasha, the company that owns the ship — leads CBS San Francisco to the beating heart of this ship, a huge clean-energy engine with about 200 times the horsepower of the average car.

“The ship was built specifically for the Hawaiian trade,” Washburn said. “They need their goods immediately and if we’re late, their stores will be empty.”

So Kellerman doesn’t waste any time. With the help of two tugs, he slowly pulls the 45,000-ton ship from its place in the canal.

Its biggest concern, along with cross currents, boat traffic, and sandbars on the ocean floor, is the formation of a dense blanket of fog on the horizon that San Francisco is famous for.

“We’ll probably be completely enveloped,” Kellerman said while looking through his binoculars.

Within a few minutes the fog moves in. When looking ahead it is impossible to see beyond the bow.

For the next 20 minutes, Kellerman flies blind, using radar, GPS and instinct to navigate the steel giant through one of the most dangerous parts of the bay.

After 11 long miles of near zero visibility, the ship safely left the bay. But the bar pilot is not out of the woods yet.

Kellerman hands control of the ship back to its rightful captain before rushing back to his pilot boat, which awaits below. But this time he’s out at sea and the rickety ladder is his only way down.

“There’s no protection out there behind the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said. “It’s really scary out here.”

As he dangles from the side of the ship, the pilot boat is brought into place so he can jump up. The surf is so rough that the waves smack the boat. As Kellerman begins his descent, he knows there’s little room for error. One wrong step here could be disastrous.

Fortunately, the transfer to the pilot boat runs smoothly for him and for us. At the end of a long day, Kellerman returns to the pier after completing another shift.

“I come home feeling accomplished and having a little adventure along the way,” he said.

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