Bar pilots brave a treacherous Bay cont.
Manipulating a container ship, one might say, is like coaching a hippo to dance on a dime. Consider that the ship is 300 meters long, 40 meters wide and may have as little as 2 to 5 feet draft between it and the Bay floor. The NYK Atlas is carrying 6,500 20-foot containers. That's a lot of videogames, clothes, computers, building materials and Barbie dolls.
Asked if he's ever touched the Bay floor, Miller shakes his head and shudders, "That's not good."
As the vessel proceeds down the channel between Oakland and Alameda, a sailboat floats in front, seemingly oblivious to the hulking presence towering behind it.
The Atlas captain and the pilot become irritable. This impasse wastes time and they are already facing considerable stress today. They expect the sailboat's skipper to do what's necessary ? get out of the way. Seconds tick by with no diversionary action from the diminutive craft. Finally, the container ship sounds its alarm, deep, low and unmistakable. The sailboat glides to the Alameda side of the channel.
Meanwhile, there is a delay among the three vessels lined up at the port. One is moving later than anticipated.
The Atlas prepares to make its 180-degree turn so it ends up facing the proper direction. The tugboats are crucial in this operation.
"The ship's engine drives us forward and aft while the tugs push us side to side," Miller said.
Although the pilot is giving commands to the tugboats behind the Atlas, he can't see them because the mass of containers stacked up on deck obscure visibility.
The bar pilot and the captain go out on deck to observe the tugs as they pull the ship's stern in an arc with only 20 feet to spare at either end. The maneuver takes 45 minutes.
By the time the ship is turned and looking at the Bay Bridge, the other vessels have departed. Miller steers the ship alongside the dock at the AP Moeller terminal.
'We are right here'
Miller hands Capt. Nikolai a sheaf of papers to sign: the San Francisco Bar Pilots invoice for their services for this move ? $5,000.
Miller thinks the price is well-earned, but cheap for four hours of work.
"The movements go on seven days a week, 365 days a year," Miller said. "When you're cuddling up to your significant other in the evening and discussing how terrible the weather outside is, we are right here. We board 12 miles outside of the pilot station, where it gets really rough. It was not pretty there today. Where we board is extremely dangerous. The pilot boat was going 25 feet up and down."
Since the amalgamation of bar and river pilots in 1984, San Francisco Bar Pilots have maintained a safety record of 99.74 percent of all vessel movements in the Bay without pilot error, according to statistics from the pilots association.
Last year, Miller was the bar pilot who brought in the luxury liner Queen Mary 2, which is 113 feet longer than the original Queen Mary.
"I was very honored," he said.
Asked about Cota, Miller expressed only concern for his former colleague. But the accident has been stressful for Miller.
"While I always knew I had a big responsibility to shoulder, when that happened, I realized, my god, this is really a big, important job," Miller said. "Look at the consequences when something goes wrong. I always knew that, but this event reinforced that."
So far, Miller has had no mishaps in 21 years of service. But he doesn't discount the possibility that it may happen, considering all the challenges of the job. But he doesn't expect to lose his license or livelihood.
In the past, that was the worst that could happen to a bar pilot's career.
Today, the pilot of the Cosco Busan is facing criminal charges under environmental laws.

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