Ship Happens

“Unit 48. Forty-eight, Traffic.”
The voice comes across on the radio like a hand punching through a pane of glass. Bar Pilot Donald Hughes is calling the United States Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service from the command center of a tanker ship, 10 minutes past 9 o'clock at night. The Mundogas Europe, less than 2,000 feet from the Golden Gate Bridge, is bearing down on the gate strait at 14 knots, riding a swift-flowing flood tide that is cresting into the harbor from the sea. In three giant tanks she holds anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous cargo. Mixed with water, it forms a poisonous gas, a visible, toxic cloud reeking of ammonia. If you breathe it, the gas will explode your larynx and burn the insides of your lungs. On board the Mundogas, there are 36 million pounds of anhydrous ammonia, enough to enclose San Francisco in a circle of death.

“Go ahead,” Traffic says.
“Ahhhh,” Hughes says. A long exhale through gravel. Hughes makes his living steering ships in and out through the perilous waters of the Golden Gate. He boarded the Mundogas just 45 minutes ago, at a buoy 11 miles out to sea, climbing a rope ladder up the side of the ship in the fading light of a mid-March night. “Our steering just went out on us and we're approaching … we're approaching …”

There are screams in the background now, men shrieking, a sound that drowns Hughes out, momentarily. His voice surfaces an instant later, like a strong swimmer in rough water: “We're turning right and our steering just went out on us.” He spits it out above the shouts and echoes, his diction a slingshot ricochet in the bottom of a metal barrel.

“Roger sir, uh, stand by,” Traffic says.
On the radar screens in the building on the top of Yerba Buena Island, Traffic watches the tanker spinning starboard, out of control, in front of the Golden Gate. The screens are orange and black, and light sweeps across them in circles, clockwise, like the circle sunlight makes on the Earth, multiplied, amplified. Outside of Traffic's radar room, cars on the Bay Bridge drive toward the city, which is pulling down its window shades in preparation for Sunday night's slumber, entirely unaware of the wreck that threatens to erupt on its doorstep. That could take its breath away.

“Are you backing down or trying to drop the anchor?” Traffic asks. “Over.”
In fact, to prevent the Mundogas Europe and her deadly cargo from slamming into the Golden Gate Bridge, Hughes is doing both. He orders the tanker's engines to a full stop and then slams them into reverse. This torques her single-screw engine, pushing her farther into her starboard swing. Hughes casts her anchors out too, the left anchor first, its heavy chain unwinding into the dark water, some 300 feet deep where the bridge is, shallow — too shallow — to starboard, where the ship is heading. The Mundogas is 561 feet long, 30 feet deep in the water, her cargo stowed in pressurized tanks that could crack open if the water hits them. The area she's traveling toward is 30 feet deep, which means she's desperately in peril of running aground. Hughes' voice, preserved on a Vessel Traffic Service tape, is garbled, rushed. Listening to it is like picking your way through a minefield, each noise an explosion. Unintelligible to the unpracticed ear. Hughes says, repeating himself, as if to make it all understood: “You see what happened, uh, the, the, the, the steering went out on us here in front of the bridge.”

“Do you have an escort tug?” Traffic asks.
“We don't have no escort,” Hughes says. Oil tankers require escort tugs, under state guidelines. But other tankers, including those with hazardous cargoes, do not. The Mundogas, with her broken steering, is on her own.

Total time elapsed: a minute and three seconds.
Across the Bay, the captain of the Chevron Richmond, a tug belonging to the oil company, has heard Hughes on his shipboard radio, Channel 14. Capt. Ern Russell calls in: “We think we would be advantageous if we head it over his way.” However, Russell is a half-hour away, near Point Blunt at Angel Island.

“At your own discretion,” Traffic says. “We can't request that. He's at the South Tower right now.”

“Roger we'll, ah, start heading his way,” Russell says. Onscreen, the Chevron Richmond swings around toward the bridge, a slow-moving comet in the radar sea.

“Traffic,” Hughes barks. “I need some help.” The Mundogas is hard up onto the bridge buoy, about her own length away from the bridge itself. If she hits it, the Mundogas could smash the concrete retaining wall that protects the South Tower.

“Roger sir, we're working on it,” Traffic says.
“Chevron Richmond, we're on our way,” Russell says. He can see the ship and the bridge in the distance in front of him, lit up beneath the night sky.

“I need help as soon as possible,” Hughes pleads into the radio. “Please.”
The tanker's all the way over now, to starboard, just 300 feet from the rocks — gray, waterworn granite — west of Fort Point, where other ships sleep beneath the water, where the waves break, where the sea stops and the city begins.

Perhaps this comes as a surprise to you: the sea and its secrets, what occurs while you are asleep. It shouldn't. The waters that surround San Francisco are among the most dangerous in the world. Not so much because they are busy, although they are busy: Tankers, freighters, ammunition carriers, ferries, sailboats, fishing vessels, windsurfers, tugs, and barges tempt fate and the laws of physics on the bay each day. More that the water is mostly shallow, its bright expanse deceptive to the land-accustomed eye, narrow ribbons of deep water forcing big vessels into intricate dance steps with each other, skyscraper-size two-steppers on a floor without a caller. The tides are swift-flowing, the fog opaque, the bridge underpasses demanding, the winds at times brisk. In all, a challenge for mariners who don't want to become pasta sauce, particularly because it isn't always possible to predict what will happen next. Every so often, to use the words of Capt. Gregg Waugh, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots and a man with long experience of the sea, ship happens. [page]

In this century, the waters of San Francisco have been cruel to visiting vessels. Two tankers — the Frank H. Buck and the Lyman Stewart — lie side by side off Ocean Beach, having spilled their crude cargoes into the bay. The City of Rio de Janiero hit the rocks at Fort Point in 1901, taking 129 people and millions in gold and silver to the depths. In 1906, the Pacific Coast liner Alameda went aground near the Cliff House. In 1936, the steamship Ohioan lost her way in a dense fog and crashed on Seal Rocks. And this was before pilots had to thread the needle beneath the Golden Gate. In the water, as in life, it doesn't matter, really, what you do right. It's what you do wrong that counts. One slip, and there's an oil slick. Yet in San Francisco harbor, the regulation of ship traffic seems, at times, less than watertight.

Since January 1, 1990, some 18,200 tankers and freighters have made their way east beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Running on tight schedules, jockeying for position as they squeeze through the restricted bay waters, traveling from as close as Los Angeles or as far away as Korea, with crews and officers from many different places, some ships tie up at Oakland or Richmond or the oil refineries past the Carquinez Strait; others travel 80 miles upriver to Stockton and Sacramento, where deep-water channels have been carved to accommodate them, straight shots with mud banks, one way only. On board, the tankers carry oil and anhydrous ammonia and gasoline and bunker fuel, among other cargoes. Many of the tankers are too big and too deep in the water to make it even to Richmond without getting rid of some of their load: In the anchorages just south of the Bay Bridge, you can see them transferring their flammable liquid cargoes, ship to ship, being made lighter and shallower to brave the Southhampton Shoal, past Angel Island, where the mud lies slick beneath the surface, siren song to a ship's hull. The tankers' larger seaborne sisters, the container ships, slip into the Port of Oakland with just 6 inches of water to spare, easing into the narrow mouth of the outer channel like the Transamerica Building cruising for parking in North Beach on a Friday night. The containers on their decks hold everything from teak furniture to television sets to hydrobromic acid, a danger to eyes and skin. Most of them make the trip without incident. Some of them don't.

Of the 17,964 tankers and freighters that entered the bay between 1990 and 1994, 132 were involved in accidents or near misses of some sort, according to statistics kept by the United States Coast Guard. Ten tankers and freight ships were involved in collisions; 31 ran aground; 10 ran into docks or other stationary objects; and 43 lost either power or steering or both. Of these, 15 were tankers.

It is this last category, the loss of power and steering among tankers, that is causing a controversy on the waterfront these days. The argument pits different parts of the maritime community against each other, a civil wrassle that could pop its brass buttons and get downright mean. At issue is this: which tankers should have tug escorts, and how fast the tankers should be allowed to go. The current regulations, you see, have a little loophole in them: Petroleum tankers require tug escort, to be sure, but there's no official speed limit on the tankers. On paper, the tankers are supposed to travel within the tugs' “effective” speeds, which is generally at 6 or 8 knots. In practice, tanker pilot Capt. Ken O'Laughlin says, “we can run at any speed we think safe. We're doing 10 or 12 knots. The tugs are not as effective at that speed.”

New regulations, in the works now, aim to close that loophole, which means some sort of agreement on speed will have to be reached. In addition, the director of California's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response is considering requiring escort tugs for tankers that carry hazardous cargo, like the Mundogas. This possibility ups the argument's ante, in that more ships will potentially come under the new rules, whatever those rules turn out to be. And if the dispute sounds easily resolvable, keep in mind that it took a full-fledged tanker disaster to put San Francisco's current maritime oversight system in place at all. That wreck was in 1971, and it occurred in precisely the same spot where the Mundogas ran into trouble this March.

It was 1:41 a.m. in the morning of Jan. 18, 1971, when two Standard Oil tankers smashed into each other 300 feet west of the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling 800,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay.

The ships — Arizona Standard and Oregon Standard — were sisters, each 523 feet long. Their captains, Morris English and Harry Parnell, were neighbors in Alameda. In the fog, English and Parnell didn't see each other until it was much too late. English, outbound on the Oregon Standard, had been navigating through the Golden Gate by the sound of the foghorn off Lime Point. His ears had brought him off course, to the starboard side of the traffic lanes in the deep water beneath the bridge. Parnell, inbound on the Arizona Standard and also to the right of where he should have been, told an investigating committee that when his ship sliced a 75-foot-wide slash into the side of the Oregon Standard, puncturing the barrels of bunker oil and spilling them into the sea, “it wasn't the tremendous blow you'd expect. In fact, it was rather soft.” [page]

Onshore that morning, in the cream-colored buildings of Fort Mason, a Coast Guard lieutenant named James MacDonald was watching the sister ships head toward each other on his radar screen. MacDonald was on duty as part of an experiment in maritime monitoring called Harbor Advisory Radar Project. Established the year before, in 1970, HARP was a voluntary link in an often-fragile communication system between ships, and between ship and shore. MacDonald tried to call the Oregon Standard to warn her about the approaching disaster, but he could not raise her on the radio. On board the doomed tanker, Capt. English had switched his radio off HARP's frequency.

In the aftermath of the accident, Congress passed the Bridge to Bridge Radiotelephone Act, which requires ships' captains to tune into the same radio channel. That same year, an advisory committee met in San Francisco to figure out how to make HARP permanent. And in the summer of 1972, Vessel Traffic Service San Francisco was born.

Next time you're driving west on the Bay Bridge, glance up just before you enter the Treasure Island tunnel. You'll see a building — one story, pale-colored, blinds pulled against outside light — surrounded by trees beneath a radar tower. That's VTS. Inside the building, in a light-blue room, are five radar screens, three televisions, and a radiotelephone system. Together, the equipment provides the United States Coast Guard with a complete overview of the bay.

“We're in direct communication with these vessels,” VTS training coordinator Scott Humphrey is saying, on a mid-May morning, the radar screens in front of him making their sweeps. Two watch-standers — a Coast Guard officer wearing a light-blue shirt, dark pants, black socks, and polished shoes, and a civilian in black jeans and a dark shirt — sit with headsets on, moving little paper cards around on a ledge in front of the screens. Each card represents a ship, and its position on the ledge is a code of sorts, marking where the ship is at the moment in the water. The radar swirls clockwise around on the screens, a swath of spinning orange light. Unlike the way it is in the movies, these radars are silent. No blips, no bleeps. The only sound comes from the window, where the noise of cars passing on the bridge below resembles paper being torn slowly in half.

Last year, the VTS supervised more than 83,000 ship movements on the bay. That's counting tankers, freighters, ferries, cruise ships, Navy ships, tugs, and barges — but not sailboats, motorboats, or fishing vessels, which aren't required to check in with Traffic. The VTS provides information to the vessels and reports their movements to others on the water. Traffic rarely, if ever, actually tells a ship what to do. “We have the right to direct them, but it's very rarely used,” Cmdr. Dennis Sobeck, USCG, says. That's mainly because in 1980, when the VTS did step in and tell a vessel how to get back inside the gate, the ship ran up onto the rocks.

Up until very recently — Oct. 13, 1994 — ships in San Francisco weren't required to notify VTS of their arrival or departure. Before that date, all communication was voluntary. Even more recent — May 3, 1995 — are the established traffic lanes. Once tankers and freighters clear the straits of the Golden Gate, they must pick their way through shallow, rocky waters with swift currents and strong tides. On the city side of Alcatraz Island, the water is not deep enough to allow ships with drafts of 45 feet or more to pass safely. Those ships must all pass into the bay along the north side of Alcatraz, in what the Coast Guard has named the Deep Water Traffic Lane. “The DWTL is sufficiently narrow that meeting, crossing, and overtaking restrictions are necessary to reduce the likelihood of a collision,” the May 3 rule states. Accordingly, if a ship in the deep water lane carries oil or another hazardous cargo, like anhydrous ammonia, then no other ship may enter the lane. Before the rule went into effect — on the date, for example, that the Mundogas found herself out of control beneath the bridge — those traffic lanes were mostly voluntary, too.

Now the VTS is going through an upgrade — called “The Upgrade” — that will expand its radar sites and replace the little paper cards with a computerized ship-tracking system. Mid-May, the new computer equipment isn't here yet, and the light-blue metal boxes that will eventually hold it sit in a room behind the VTS control center, empty holes where the screens will be, black like punched-out television sets.

Once the computers are up and running, the paper cards will be gone. More efficient, except for one eventuality: “If the computer dies, we'll be up a crick without a paddle,” Sobeck says, tapping the empty blue boxes with the flat of his hand and smiling the smile of a military man contemplating disaster. “They're not supposed to die. They will not die.”

Of course, ship happens. Consider the case of the Mundogas Europe and her steering. The Liberian-registered Mundogas is 27 years old. Just two weeks before the Mundogas careened out of control beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, the United States Coast Guard had inspected the ship's steering and declared it to be “in a satisfactory operating condition,” according to Coast Guard records.

“The vessel received maintenance on its steering on 27DEC94. A technician found the electric contactors on the control starter panel (on the bridge) were badly carbonated and badly worn. These items were replaced and no other faults were detected in the steering system by the attending technician,” the Mundogas incident report states.

“She's an older ship, but she's in pretty good shape,” says Capt. Don Montoro, captain of the port, in command of safety operations for the Coast Guard. [page]

The Coast Guard has been inspecting tanker ships in the San Francisco Bay since the mid-'80s, and since May 1994 has expanded its inspection program to include more non-tankers and more foreign-owned vessels, Montoro says.

“They certainly are a risk,” Montoro says, “but they're not in the same category as a tank vessel.”

In March and April of this year, the Coast Guard boarded and inspected 87 of the 360 priority-list ships arriving in port.

“When we first instituted the program, we did some interventions. We stopped the vessels from conducting their business — either the cargo-loading end or from sailing until they did their repairs,” says Cmdr. Tom Mar, who heads up the inspection office for the Coast Guard. “Within a couple of months, we believe we saw an improvement.”

Among the ships the Coast Guard boarded last year were a group of four Sealift tankers, used to transport petroleum products for the United States Navy. Here's what the inspectors found:

“There were numerous burned out lights, some of which were emergency lights. The crew stated that they had no spares. One fire station was out of service. Excessive oil blanketed the deck of the Sealift Antarctica's engine room. Many stair tower doors were lashed in the open position during cargo operations. The pump room had a number of non-intrinsically safe electrical fixtures. Ring buoys had lights which would not work.”

In all, the inspectors issued 30 “requirements” for the vessels to meet before they could be declared safe. In addition, Montoro required tug escorts for four Sealift tankers that had a history of steering or propulsion failures.

“I have developed a very negative opinion of the fleet's maintenance program,” Montoro wrote to Sealift's owners. “It is evident that the problem is systematic and requires improvement.”

The Navy let its Sealift contract expire in April. The tankers were sold to a Greek company. These days, they're on the Persian Gulf.

Now, mechanical things do go wrong out on the water. In December 1994, the American Kestrel, laden with ammunition, lost power approaching the Bay Bridge. Her escort tug helped her come hard left. Catastrophe averted. In March 1995, steering on the bulk carrier Neptune Canopus blew just east of the Golden Gate, and the container ship President Kennedy lost power in approximately the same spot. Tugs helped both ships limp into anchor.

But mechanical causes are not at the root of all accidents. In fact, conventional wisdom around the waterfront says human error — predictable, preventable human error — causes 80 percent of all maritime incidents. Take two tanker collisions that occurred last October. The Delaware Trader and the Faith IV both demasted sailboats whose crews had seen the tankers coming, misjudged their speed, tried to turn, and got caught “in irons,” which is a sailor's term for being rooted in place. In charge of those two tankers: San Francisco bar pilots. Ultimately, any consideration of harbor safety comes around to the bar pilots, who since 1835 have been steering big ships in and out through the perilous waters of the Golden Gate.

Six minutes and five seconds after his first call to Traffic, pilot Donald Hughes and the Mundogas Europe are melting off the radar screen. The huge tanker is so close to the bridge that the radar can't differentiate the two. She's swinging in a slow semicircle at the end of the anchor line Hughes has put down, like a 16,000-ton bomb on a 540-foot leash. She's come almost 180 degrees; her bow — the front — is facing out toward the deeper water, where the anchor lies, and her stern's in the shallow surf near the beach, where the waves come to shore, where the rocks are. Unlike the soft mud of the deltas to the north and east, the saw-toothed rocks off Fort Point are not a place where any pilot can afford to go aground.

After hearing from Ern Russell aboard the Chevron Richmond tug, Traffic has put out an all-points bulletin for assistance. “Securite, securite, securite,” Traffic says, using the mariner's code for emergency. “This is the United States Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Service. Any light tugs, any light tugs to wounded tanker landing on the beach just outside of the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Please respond.”

Three more tugs take up the call: Andrew Foss and Seariver California, which belong to Exxon, and a tug named Taurus, of Westar Marine, a privately owned tugboat company. Traffic tells them they can find the Mundogas a quarter-mile west of the bridge, a quarter-mile west of Fort Point. In fact, the Mundogas is a lot closer than that to the shore. She's just five-hundredths of a nautical mile — 305 feet, less than her own length — from coming aground.

On board the tugboat Chevron Richmond, Capt. Russell can see the lights of the disabled tanker way off to the side of the shipping channel, underneath the bridge. Traffic has not told Russell what the tanker's cargo is, but by chance there are two bar pilots on board the Richmond this evening, and they fill Russell in as the tug powers out toward the gate. Hearing that the cargo is anhydrous ammonia, Russell orders his crew to break out all of their emergency gear: Scott AirPacs, tanks full of compressed air and a mask which protects eyes, nose, and throat; heavy-duty raingear, bright yellow with reflective stripes on it; hoses to spray down the ammonia and melt it back into a less toxic form; and the ship's emergency generator, in case all other power fails. The Richmond has responded to sea emergencies many times. Russell knows what it might take, if the tanks blow.

The Mundogas, meanwhile, has been silent. No communication with Traffic as Hughes struggles to keep her off the rocks. The Mundogas and her deadly cargo are almost on the beach. She's starting to bounce up and down now, her stern mired in the shallow water. Hughes has never felt a ship bounce like that before. For long instants, he waits. Then he gives an order, the last chance between himself and shipwreck: engine half-ahead. [page]

The ship's captain balks. Slow ahead, he says, fearful of losing the ship's anchor.

Better the anchor than the ship, Hughes says. The engine kicks on, propelling the ship forward, away from the shallows. He's hauling the Mundogas out toward deeper water on her anchor chain, using the anchor as substitute steering, the long weight of the chain below the water a way to keep her bow pointed toward the depths. Underneath the sea, the anchor is being scrubbed clean, shiny like a new dime, as it drags along the sandy bottom.

Since 1835, when Scottish sea Capt. William Anthony Richardson first thought up the idea, San Francisco pilots have been meeting ships west of the Golden Gate Bridge at a lighted buoy in the open ocean, climbing on board and riding them back in, guiding them through the tricky waters of San Francisco Bay.

A salty, sea-sprayed set, the pilots are crucial to the waterfront. With very few exceptions, all large ships that enter or leave the harbor are in their hands. The pilots are part of a traffic trinity — along with the Coast Guard VTS and the Marine Exchange, a nonprofit organization that serves the shipping community — and they're the ones out on the water. For that reason, they play a pivotal role in San Francisco shipping, and in shipping safety.

These days, there are 60 pilots, 59 men and one woman. They belong to a limited partnership — a private enterprise — called the San Francisco Bar Pilots, formed in 1985, when three distinct groups of pilots — bar, inland, and independent — merged. The pilots are paid by the shipping companies to drive the ships into the harbor, and to drive them out from port to the 11-mile buoy. They charge 6.275 cents per ton per trip. On a 100,000-ton ship, that's $6,000. Last year, the San Francisco Bar Pilots took in $14 million. They own their own building at the end of Pier Nine, a beautifully sculpted series of rooms looking out onto the water, decorated with masts, plaques of ships, and pieces of sailcloth. They also own the 85-foot pilot boat that waits at the lighted sea-buoy 24 hours a day, every day of the year, for ships to come in. The pilots' limited partnership works as a cooperative arrangement — after expenses, the pilots divide the money 60 ways. Last year, each pilot took home about $160,000 for nine' days work a month.

For obvious reasons, being a bar pilot is a lucrative, prestigious, and highly demanding profession. The work requires perfection amid the treacheries of time and tide. The pilots try to oblige, but — being human — sometimes they make mistakes. That's where the state Board of Pilot Commissioners, and its attendant controversies, comes into play. The board that supervises San Francisco's pilots is under fire for the way it handles investigations oR>f accidents and for its selection of pilot trainees. The criticisms include whitewashing and racism.

Back in 1850, one of the initial acts of the first California Legislature was to pass a bill establishing a Board of Pilot Commissioners to regulate San Francisco's pilots. The board's members are appointed by the governor, and include three pilots, three shipping industry professionals, and three “outsiders,” two of whom, currently, are retired captains. The board is a state agency, but its $1.5 million annual budget doesn't come from California's general fund. Instead, the Board of Pilot Commissioners is financed with a surcharge on pilot fees. In other words, the agency that regulates the pilots is paid for by the pilots themselves. And the board is the only agency that has jurisdiction over the pilots when they are in charge of foreign-flagged vessels, which are the majority of vessels entering and leaving the harbor. The Coast Guard can investigate the accidents involving foreign-flagged vessels, but only the Board of Pilot Commissioners can take action against their pilots, if action is called for.

In the last 10 years, the Board of Pilot Commissioners has investigated 242 “incidents” — collisions, allisions, and groundings — that have occurred on ships being driven by bar pilots.

Consider Capt. Donald Hughes, the bar pilot in charge of the Mundogas. Hughes has been a San Francisco pilot for more than 20 years. Since 1985, when the current record-keeping system got started, Hughes has been involved in 13 “incidents” — docking, undocking, grounding, collision, and piloting incidents listed in records maintained by the Board of Pilot Commissioners. According to those records, in 1986, Hughes was on the bridge of a tanker that collided with a sailboat. He had three groundings in nine months, between December 1986 and September 1987. In late 1986, he was placed on probation for two years for three docking and piloting mishaps involving tankers and bulk carriers. And he has twice been issueR>d a warning letter of reprimand, the most serious penalty short of suspension that the board applies. The first time was in 1988, but that file is sealed, Board of Pilot Commissioners Executive Director Patrick Moloney says. The second warning letter of reprimand was issued to Hughes on July 26, 1994, for not noticing that a tanker he was piloting was turning to the right. “Inattention,” the board called it. That tanker ran aground.

Consider Capt. Michael Simenstad, another bar pilot. According to the Board of Pilot Commissioners' records, Simenstad has been involved in seven incidents since 1985, including one grounding and four dock allisions. In 1993, when the half-loaded tanker Riverhead Spirit hit Exxon's Benicia wharf, the United States Coast Guard supplied documentation to the board on Simenstad's “use of speeds in excess of what might be considered prudent.” The board counseled Simenstad, told the pilot they'd be keeping an eye on him, and declared the matter closed. [page]

Consider Capt. Alfred Carlier, who was put on probation in April 1994 after the Miramar, a tanker ship, hit both the San Pablo Railroad Bridge and a dock in a single transit, according to the Board of Pilot Commissioners' records. In its investigation, the board noted that visibility was so low that Carlier should have waited at anchor instead of trying to make the trip. The board placed the pilot on probation. It was Carlier's eighth incident in eight years. He admitted no wrongdoing.

“We try to make it into as positive an experience as possible,” says Capt. Moloney. “There's a learning curve as opposed to a punitive approach.”

There are those who say that the board investigates the pilots adequately. Capt. Don Montoro, for example, the chief Coast Guard safety officer for the port. “I think the board does a good job,” Montoro says. “Why pile it on?”

And there are those, like maritime attorney Cory Birnberg, who aren't as satisfied.

Last year, Birnberg objected to the board's handling of the investigation into a collision that took the lives of two fishermen underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the pre-dawn darkness of Jan. 18, 1994, the NYK Surfwind, piloted by Capt. Bruce Alden, collided with the fishing vessel St. Francis, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. The St. Francis sank within 20 seconds; one crewman survived, but two others — including her captain — perished. The board investigated the accident and ruled that Alden committed no error. Birnberg disagrees.

“This investigation was a whitewash. There's so many violations there it's incredible. He didn't try to get the vessel on radio, he saw the lights, he didn't have a bow lookout,” Birnberg says. “If he had held his course, he would have missed it.”

“The thing is, they never even looked to see if lives could have been saved,” Birnberg says. “The commission never even recognized the alternatives of what could have been done.”

Birnberg wrote to the board, asking it to reopen its investigation. The board declined, voting to send Birnberg this letter in reply: “You have been given ample opportunity to offer evidence to the Board that would provide a reason to reopen it. You have been heard. The matter is closed. The Board must get on with its business.”

“I think the investigation was a travesty,” Birnberg says. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

In the course of its investigations, the Board solicits a letter from each pilot, to outline his or her version of what occurred. In the case of the President — the tanker that Mundogas pilot Hughes ran aground in soft mud in the Pinole Shoal Channel, northeast of the Richmond Bridge, last January — Hughes had the following explanation. “I believe that for the misunderstanding of the helmsman of my orders this accident would not have happened,” Hughes wrote. “I note that we had substantial problems in communication. The captain's English in my opinion was very poor and so was the helmsman's.”

The board, in compiling its incident report, included Hughes' complaint in its findings. “Misunderstanding of orders was a potential factor in this incident,” the recommendations section of the report notes. It's an argument you hear a lot on the waterfront — how foreign crews are ruining safety for everyone out on the bay. Here's Capt. Ken O'Laughlin, operations officer for the bar pilots, on the subject: “I think in general foreign crews are not as well-trained and as well-qualified as our American crews. Of course, there's a bias there. We have to realize that.”

And indeed, bias is exactly the issue in a class-action lawsuit pending in Superior Court against the Board of Pilot Commissioners. The board is being sued over its administration of the admission process for the pilot training program, which all those who want to be bar pilots must complete. The plaintiff is an unsuccessful applicant named Rene Peinado, a Mexican-American with a United States Coast Guard master's license. Peinado's suit says he was barred from the pilot training program because of his race.

“The Board relies heavily on nepotism and word of mouth in admitting individuals to TTP and thereby filling the Bar Pilot positions,” the lawsuit alleges. “Such practices have a disparate impact on minority applicants and potential applicants.”

Since 1988, people who want to become pilots have had to gain admittance to a formal apprenticeship program. The admission process is highly competitive: In 1994, the Board of Pilot Commissioners received 98 applications for 10 places. Among the current apprentice pilots: E. Nyborg, son of senior pilot Russell Nyborg.

Capt. Moloney, executive director of the board and a former ship's captain, keeps the 1994 applicants' files in a box to the left of his desk. He can't comment on the lawsuit, he says, because he's a defendant. But he can — and does, eagerly — outline the selection process for the 1994 training program applicants.

According to Moloney, a board of nine was convened — three bar pilots, three members of the Board of Pilot R>Commissioners, Moloney, and two “outsiders,” to use his word, environmentalists who are members of the Harbor Safety Committee. This board as a whole decided which applicants should be allowed to take the preliminary tests, the first hurdle of the training program admission process. The board made its decision on the basis of presentations of a panel of “briefers” — the three pilots, Moloney, and two of the pilot commissioners. The “outsiders” were not among the briefers, and thus didn't review the files of the applicants.

“It had to be people with waterfront connections,” Moloney explains. “We didn't want the two outsiders involved. They wouldn't know what to look for.” [page]

In part, that's what Peinado's suit objects to. “It's all secret, exactly what they use as their criteria,” says Peinado's lawyer, Daniel Berkeley. “We believe it's a totally discriminatory admitting group. We don't think that the Pilot Commissioner Board has sat there from on high and said, 'OK, here comes another Mexican-American, here comes a woman, let's exclude them,' but the result over these many years has been to exclude minorities.”

In the board's reply to Peinado's lawsuit, it disputed Peinado's assertion that race has anything to do with its trainee selection practices.

“[The Board] did not ask for, determine or consider the applicants' race, color, national origin or ancestry in the selection process. The Board presently understands that one applicant in 1991 who was selected for entry into the training program indicated during the contracting process that he is 50 percent Pacific Islander and that two applicants in 1993 who were selected for entry into the training program indicated during the contracting process that they were 25 percent and 50 percent Hispanic, respectively,” the legal papers state.

Moloney is confident. “We're looking forward to the case. It was designed to withstand that sort of thing.”

The captain of the port, Don Montoro, United States Coast Guard, supports the Board of Pilot Commissioners.

“I think they need the ability to say, 'This person doesn't cut it, he doesn't have the aptitude for the job.' Hopefully, it won't be based on gender or race. Some people are suited for it and some aren't.”

The trial date on the suit is set for Oct. 10. And Berkeley says his client has a good case.

“This is a state agency, so what we have is a state agency practicing what has become a discriminatory situation,” says Berkeley. “They've made it their own little club.”

Little clubs, of course, are integral to San Francisco's waterfront, an insular community where everyone knows — and knows about — everyone else. Both the pilots and the Coast Guard, for example, like to point out how close they are to each other. What a good working relationship they have. The facade isn't just airtight, it's leakproof. That's why, when cracks emerge, they're instantly apparent. And there's one running right down the middle of the tanker escort controversy these days. It's a fight with big stakes for the city, in that if the wrong decision is made, the people of San Francisco might find themselves on the beaches in their bare feet, pulling oiled birds out of the surf. It has, after all, happened before.

The Harbor Safety Committee, whose members include both public and private agencies who work on the bay, is the group in charge of coming up with new tug escort regulations for San Francisco. To do that, the HSC has a Tug Escort Subcommittee. The TES is, at present, the site of the controversy.

The crux of the debate boils down to something everyone who's ever driven anything knows about: speed. The pilots would like to be able to go fast, and in order to go fast, special “tractor” tugs are being recommended.

The conventional tugboat operators, on the other hand, would like to have the tankers slowed down, at a speed where their tugs are more effective.

“The TES and the HSC have apparently decided to hang their hat on recommendations from an ad hoc group of senior pilots: the TEWG [Tug Escort Working Group]. With all due respect to the San Francisco Bar Pilots, these recommendations fail to provide the best achievable protection and fail to comply with the new federal regulations,” attorney Jeff Mudgett wrote to the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) in March, on behalf of a group calling itself the Union of Concerned San Francisco Bay Mariners, which is in favor of slowing the tankers down. “At six knots and below, the brute force of the larger conventional tugs provides the best achievable protection,” Mudgett continued.

The current draft of the new tug escort regulations provides that a tanker with a tractor tug leashed to it will be allowed to make 10 knots; with an untethered conventional tug, 8 knots.

“You need speed to maneuver,” Capt. Moloney explains. “You've got currents here that you're fighting — we don't want to hamstring the pilots. The problem is, the people who are making demands aren't ship drivers.”

“I look at a tug escort as a safety escort that may produce more problems than would otherwise be likely to occur,” says Capt. O'Laughlin, operations officer for the bar pilots.

The tugboat operators, unsurprisingly, don't all agree with this assessment.
“The economical, environmental and political fallout from an accident in this bay would be monumental,” tugboat operator Brad Burkhart wrote to OSPR. “I would be disappointed to see such well intentioned efforts wasted on a knee-jerk reaction to a problem which has such a simple solution, namely, slow the ships down and provide them with suitable escort tugs for the speeds at which they travel.”

At OSPR, which will ultimately take charge of the new regulations, Bud Leland says the debate is to be expected.

“When the stakes are as high as they are, given the cost of the service of escorting, we're not going to make everyone happy,” Leland says. “But in my opinion the process hasn't been subject too much to any particular group or another. Those decisions have been very democratic.”

In addition, Leland says, “you can't or shouldn't try to devise a system that would affect that particular navigation area without pilots' input. The pilots certainly have provided technical expertise in terms of waterway analysis because they really do know that better than anybody else.”

At 24 minutes and 15 seconds past 9 o'clock — 14 minutes after Hughes first saw the steering go out — the pilot radios in. “We were on the beach, almost,” he tells Traffic. But using the anchor as a pulley of sorts, he's kicked the ship off the beach into deeper water. Now the tanker's in midchannel, in deep water, waiting for escort tugs to help her limp into port. [page]

When Ern Russell and the Chevron Richmond tug arrive, Hughes wants Russell to put up a tow line. Then, as the other tugs pull up, it's decided that the tug Albert Foss will put a line up to the stern, to be able to prevent any forward motion if necessary. The other tugs are lined up to the side and front. But as the men are beginning to attach the lines from the Mundogas to the tugs, Hughes calls them off. The Mundogas' chief engineer has discovered the blown transformer at the root of the steering malfunction and has wired the hand-steering system over to the auto-steering system. Under her own power, with the four tugs as escorts, the Mundogas creeps into port, finally anchoring at a quarter past midnight on Monday, March 13, in the deep water south of the Bay Bridge.

“They said when Don first called into the Coast Guard it sounded like he was talking to God,” says Capt. Moloney, in his office at the Board of Pilot Commissioners, recounting the Mundogas tale for a young apprentice pilot, Mike Haggerty, who sits bolt upright in his gray business suit, his eyes almost colorless behind wire-rimmed glasses. Moloney talked to Hughes the morning the accident happened. When Hughes saw the bridge in front of him, “he says, 'Holy shit, I'm going to die and I'm going to take a whole bunch of people with me.' The second thing he says is, 'Why does this stuff always happen to me?' ”

In fact, it didn't have to happen at all. On board the Mundogas on the night the steering blew beneath the Golden Gate were two functional backup steering systems.

“It never should have happened,” says Moloney.
“That's why you've got backup systems,” Captain of the Port Don Montoro says. “That's the whole thing about steering systems — if they had recognized it.”

“I don't know why they didn't go to it right away,” says Hal Hoffman, the agent for the ship's owner, Aris Shipping.

The Coast Guard's report does not fault those on board the Mundogas for not employing the tanker's backup system. The report also states: “This investigation has not revealed anything which would lead me to believe that this was not a one-time event.”

But in fact, it was not a one-time event.
On March 28 — two weeks and two days after the ship went out of control beneath the Golden Gate Bridge — the Mundogas was on her way to Stockton in the narrow deep-water channel that leads from the bay to that inland port. Capt. James Shanower was on the tanker's bridge. At 4:25 in the afternoon, the tanker's steering blew. Shanower “immediately shifted to secondary steering from bridge, functioning perfectly,” the Coast Guard's incident report states.

“Since then they've had a technician from the manufacturer from Germany to install a whole new system,” says Hoffman. The Mundogas is traveling between Alaska and Korea at the moment; she'll be back in port Aug. 8.

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