Sunday, January 27, 2013

A patient departure

The San Francisco Chronicle has a fascinating story in this weekend's paper: Bar pilot panel slow to act on complaint.

The story specifically involves an incident from February 18th, 2012, in which Captain David Chapman of the SF Bar Pilot's Association was commanding the Overseas Tampa, an oil tanker departing Richmond's massive Chevron refinery with a full load of diesel fuel destined for Hawaii.

The preferred method for Chevron pilots pulling away from the wharf, the state commission found, is to use two tractor tugs to help a ship make a pair of 180-degree turns and head to open sea.

On Feb. 18, however, Chapman persuaded the tanker's captain to agree to an alternative plan: The tugs would pull the tanker backward and north, then position the ship at an angle that would, with the force of the maximum ebb tide, swing it toward the Golden Gate. Chapman called the move a "patient departure," telling the ship's master and tug pilots that it would work "as long as we're patient."

When it left its berth, however, the Overseas Tampa began moving more swiftly than expected, complicating its ability to reach an intended 45-degree angle from the wharf. Chapman ordered the engines to run at full power in reverse, and the tanker narrowly missed shoals north of the wharf.

I'm very familiar with the area surrounding the Richmond oil tanker wharf; I've sailed past it a dozen times and can attest to the extremely tricky currents and winds in that area. If you don't know where this wharf is, you should check the pictures in the Chronicle story; they make visualization of the incident much easier.

The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo, and Suisun investigated the incident; its report cites issues of judgement, and of communication, as well as some more primal questions about how and why humans decide to cooperate in situations where chain of command is not established by force:

In his defense, Chapman not only denied being reckless but also blamed the event on the failure of one of the tug pilots to obey his orders at a critical point. That pilot, he said, still resented that Chapman had passed the bar pilot test more than a decade earlier and that the tug pilot hadn't.

The Bar Pilots association has had a long and complex history here in the Bay Area, and the Chronicle story continues on to consider the larger question of how the bar pilots are assessed, regulated, and overseen, and whether the public's interests are being adequately protected.

Mike Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group representing shipping companies and terminal operators, said dealing with Chapman is the state commission's job.

"That is precisely why we rely on the state and the board of the pilot commissioners to regulate the licensees and ensure the safety of the ships that come into the bay," Jacob said.


Steve Knight, political director for the environmental group Save the Bay, said the commission's handling of the incident and the questions about Chapman's seamanship raise "serious concerns" about "the systems in place to protect San Francisco Bay."

"The public relies heavily on these pilots to keep our bay safe," he said. "Why we are reading about all this nearly a year later?"

It's not often that you see the captains of industry and the tree-huggers line up so clearly on the same side like this, and it indicates that the issues with the Bar Pilots are reaching a head. As the article notes, some shipping companies are now refusing to allow certain pilots aboard their ships, effectively taking the question of certification and validation of pilot skills into their own hands.

If the bar pilots arrangement were to break down, it's not clear what would replace it. As Wikipedia notes, the handling of port traffic on the California coast is a real hodge-podge:

Pilots on other California waters operate under the authority of their federal pilot’s license. Port of Los Angeles pilots are municipal employees. Port of Long Beach pilots work for a private contractor. Pilots in the ports of Humbolt Bay, San Diego, and Port Hueneme are commissioned or contracted with by their respective port authorities or districts.

I love living here in the Bay Area, and have enjoyed the beauty of the bay ever since we arrived. Commerce is necessary, though, and the Richmond refinery is just one aspect of the Bay's commerce; the Port of Oakland is the fifth busiest container port in the country, handling an enormous amount of traffic.

It's good to see the Chronicle keeping its attention on the issues with the Bar Pilots; the discussion of how we want to ensure the Bay's safety is important and needs to continue.

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