In a carefully choreographed journey that took months to prepare, the largest vessel to ever visit the San Francisco Bay made its transit through the Golden Gate and to the Port of Oakland Thursday afternoon.
“It’s one of the biggest ships in the world, and the biggest ship to come to the San Francisco Bay,” said Captain Joseph Long, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots.
Bar pilots are specially-trained mariners authorized to guide ships when they enter or leave the Bay. They travel out to meet incoming ships when they’re still in the Pacific Ocean and guide them as they enter the Golden Gate. “When a ship comes into the San Francisco Bay, there’s a pilot on every one of them,” Long says.
The MSC Anna is 1,313 feet long, and can carry 19,200 20-foot shipping containers, making it one of the largest vessels to visit a North American port. To put that in context, that’s longer than U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carriers (1,092 feet), and longer than the Sales Force Tower is tall (1,070 feet).
Long said planning for the visit began two months ago when the Mediterranean Shipping Company contacted the San Francisco Bar Pilots in February. Long’s team then began the work of collecting all of the pertinent information — such as the ship’s draft and height, and what the tidal restrictions would be to maintain a safe distance while passing underneath the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge.
“We develop a plan with MSC to make the transit, and we give them a certain set of windows when they need to show up, and they pick one and let us know,” Long said.
Captain Daniel Bridgman, the bar pilot who guided the Anna in on Thursday, said they worked with computer simulators at the Cal State Maritime Academy in Vallejo to prepare for the trek.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the bridge simulation up there with this ship, and ships like this, to learn more about the unique challenges they pose, and to develop parameters under which they can move in the San Francisco Bay,” Bridgman said.
Long said the timing of the Anna visit is serendipitous, coinciding with San Francisco Bar Pilots’ 170th anniversary.
“In 1850, a pilot’s job was primarily to protect the ship from the environment,” Long said. “But nowadays, it’s the inverse of that: To protect the environment from the ship. And it’s never been more true with a ship of that size.”
Mike Zampa, a spokesperson for the Port of Oakland, said the Anna’s visit is, for now, a one-off event.
“It’s like a bus line, so [MSC] has six to seven ships in rotation,” Zampa said. “They inserted this larger ship, one time, because they needed to pick up an enormous backlog of empty containers from the Port of Long Beach…and then it continued to Oakland.”
But in a year or two that may change, and ships of Anna’s size visiting the Bay may become more common.
“There have been hints from several shipping lines that vessels of this size could end up in regular rotation at West Coast ports, including Oakland,” Zampa said.
To prepare for that, the port has spent millions of dollars over the last decade dredging the bay. Within the last 18 months, the cranes at the port’s international terminal — where the Anna is currently berthed — have been raised 27 feet, and the terminal is in the process of purchasing two brand-new cranes.
Zampa said the Anna is scheduled to depart Oakland on Saturday, during a slack tide.