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Crossing the Bar

Golden Gate bridge

Great Escapes

There is nothing placid about San Francisco Bay. Its waters have hosted brutal storms, horrendous accidents, and countless hours of drama. Captain Paul Lobo knows that better than most. As a licensed sea and harbor pilot in those treacherous waters, he piloted nearly 6,500 vessels in a 31-year career. His harrowing experiences—and lessons—are excerpted from his memoir Crossing the Bar.

Most pilots don’t like discussing their errors or miraculous recoveries, but I will because if something can go wrong in piloting, it probably will. This isn’t always caused by pilot error; rather, there are so many things entirely out of the pilot’s control, such as equipment failure; misinterpretation of a pilot’s orders; putting the rudder the wrong way; weather incidents such as unexpected wind shear, heavy rain, or fog; published data being wrong; events happening out of the pilot’s sight, e.g., the crew letting the anchors go at the wrong time, not at all, or putting out the wrong amount; or actions of other pilots, as when saying they will remain at the dock, then running you out of the channel. I had my fair share of close calls, and thank goodness I got out of almost all of them.

Crossing the Bar - cover

Yes, I did have a few incidents such as going aground three times and twice touching docks hard enough to do some damage. This makes my accident rate about .0006 percent based on how many ships I moved, so in general I had a normal career. However, when you move massive ships, sometimes things get broken. I liked when other pilots discussed jams they got themselves out of.

I knew I could always learn something from their experiences, and if nothing else, they made good sea stories. When someone goofed up and went before the Commission, you read about it in their monthly minutes; otherwise, the pilot might never mention the incident.

This section is about incidents that happened to me that didn’t involve the UP Bridge, where I had three near-misses. After reading this, you might think I had a lot of interesting experiences, and I did, but I’m not so sure I was the exception. Either I had crazier things happen to me, or I was very good at extricating myself out of trouble, which Al Clarke counseled me to do when I was only 26.

In front of Antioch’s Riverview Lodge, between Kimball Island and Antioch Point, is the only place wide enough to turn around a ship after passing New York Point three miles downstream. From here the San Joaquin River turns east toward Stockton another thirty miles upriver. Riverview is also a good place to dine unless you’re eating when a ship crashes into the restaurant, which happened once. Too much speed will do that every time.

One of my more bizarre “near misses” happened on my way up to Domtar on Goldbond Trailblazer loaded with Gypsum rock. These particular ships had cargo doors on the port side near the stern, so they had to be docked port side-to. We had to turn them around at Riverview, then backed them up more than a mile to the pier.

That day, it was clear with flood current. I wasn’t concerned about the job because daylight always made jobs easier, especially upriver ones, and flood was ideal to go backwards because the ship would be facing into it. I actually liked backing ships into berths because their pivot point moves aft as the ship gains sternway, so you can control the bow more easily. Trailblazer had a small bow thruster, which is a propeller in a tunnel perpendicular to the hull near the bow that pushes the bow left and right. Thrusters have less power than tugs, but when going astern they are effective if the ship is moving slowly. American Navigation Company’s tugs, Bobby Jo and Marauder, assisted me.

Bobby Jo was a small single screw tug, but she was handy, meaning she could move around quickly. She put up two lines through chocks on both sides of the stem so she could work both bows. Acting like a “rudder” in front of the ship, her bow to mine, she could push the bow either way as the ship moved up the slough backwards. Marauder was tied up on the port quarter laying alongside until I needed her. Using the ship’s engine and the current, I slowly moved the ship from Riverview up the last stretch of slough.

I thought it was slick that AmNav owned another tug named Lobo and was thoughtful enough to give me the tug’s name board when I retired. I have it proudly displayed at our Cape Cod home. As ships traverse this little waterway, the river bends in a slight arch on the portside. When I was about two shiplengths away from the berth, the bow started sagging slowly toward the portside river bank. I wanted the current dead ahead, not only on one side, which could affect the ship. I had to react quickly.

I assumed the current was a little stronger on the starboard side and I could control the swing using only the thruster. The bow was only moving slightly, so I put the bow thruster lever all the way over to starboard. When that didn’t do anything, I radioed Bobby Jo to push full into the port bow. Even at 90 degrees and Full Speed, she didn’t budge the bow in the slightest. When the swing increased more, it really got my attention. Something was terribly amiss. I let out all the stops, ordering Marauder to come up to Full Speed into the quarter, hoping to swing the stern back toward the dock.

I was certain Marauder’s two several-thousand-horsepower diesels would do the trick. They didn’t. The bow kept accelerating toward shore and I wasn’t the least bit comfortable, hollering into the wheelhouse, “Half Ahead” as I raced out to the port wing. I had to stop the ship from going backwards and stabilize the situation. Even Half Ahead didn’t slow the ship or slow the turn that had started involuntarily. I didn’t have much left up my sleeve, so I ordered “Hard right!” trying to help Marauder push the stern in and stop the ever-increasing rotation.

I’m sure I was praying, anything to help, but nothing had any effect. I was edgy, and the last thing a pilot can be is nervous. I had piloted thousands of ships, but I was in uncharted waters. Not only was it bizarre that the ship had a mind of her own, but I felt helpless. I only had one bell left, which I was reluctant to order because I didn’t want to drive the ship into the bank or, worse, the fast approaching dock. I was running out of options; I yelled, “Full Ahead,” into the wheelhouse.

It didn’t matter, the bow swung faster and faster toward the end of the pier. Water pushing on the side of a ship has a tremendous effect, especially if a ship is deep in the water like she was. I never had a ship this much out of my control, nor had one even come close to making a 180-degree turn I didn’t initiate!

I waited for the swing to stop as she made a big turn with the bow doing most of the swinging. As the legendary Captain Don Hughes often opined, “She’s in the hands of God now,” and he was so right.

My last option was to drop an anchor, but I feared the ship’s crew might drop the wrong one and flatten Bobby Jo. This happened once when a pilot panicked, forgetting his tug was under the hawespipe and the anchor almost hit the tug’s wheelhouse! Full Speed wasn’t only not stopping the swing, but soon, if she didn’t hit the pier, she would be perpendicular to it. If the ship had too much headway on, I might very well wind up ramming the pier I was praying to miss. I also had no idea how much water was outside the channel. As far as I knew, no one had ever turned a fully loaded ship off Domtar.

I was rapidly getting myself into “irons.” Either I was going to run the “expensive” end of the ship (the propeller) into the mud or the bow would flatten not only into the pier, but also the expensive un-loader sitting on it. No matter what I did I was screwed, and I didn’t want to join the “Million Dollar Club” just yet.

I had nothing to lose. I was so certain the pier was a goner, I stopped both the ship’s and the tugs’ engines, thinking, Well, it’s probably better to run the ship aground than to hit the pier. I was sure it would explode into a million splinters at any second. The lesser of the two evils would be the aground, but the ship continued spinning like a whirling dervish, and it still looked like we were going to knock down the bloody dock.

As I gazed at the unloader, like a deer in headlights, the bow went flying by without making a sound. It was the sweetest silence I can remember. Momentarily the ship was perpendicular to the dock, something I was certain I shouldn’t have been able to do. I assumed that the ship was longer than the river was wide off the berth. The ship wasn’t aground; instead, it was facing upriver just as if I were going to dock the ship starboard-side-to. Thinking back, it was good she spun around or we might have drifted upriver sideways until I ran out of the wet part of the river. The stunned captain hadn’t said a word the whole time. Guiltily, I asked him, “Captain, are you sure you don’t want to go starboard-side-to?” He looked at me with this solemn expression. “No, Pilot, we must dock portside-to,” which I already knew!

Just because the ship was facing upriver didn’t mean the current took a break; it was still shoving us toward Gaylord’s pier. I had to back all the way back to Riverview against the current, which wasted more than an hour. How embarrassing this was I cannot tell you, but I was glad the old man took it in stride.

At Riverview, I turned the ship around (again) and dragged it back up the river, repeating what I had just done without all the extra turning. The entire time I was nervous I might replicate the harebrained stunt that had almost been a disaster. It never crossed my mind to turn the ship off the dock, but I had been too lucky already. The ship acted like a real lady the second time, adding to my confusion.

I’m not even certain how I screwed up in my approach or if I learned anything, but no ship ever got out of my control again. The only damage, other than to my ego, was all the standby time my car service charged me.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.