Port Pilots: Sailing Into Trouble?

Shipping Out

George Waldie (my great grandfather) was a New York port pilot.

In his day, piloting meant standing out to sea on a small, schooner-rigged boat while the crew and company of pilots on board waited for arriving ships to appear over the horizon.

The wait could be long, and storms, fog, and moonless nights made the work dangerous.

The pilots were private contractors, and each pilot boat competed with others in the fleet for incoming ships. Especially fast pilot boats and canny pilots were the most successful. (Those fast boats were the pattern for the yachts that later competed for the America's Cup.)

Pilots are as essential to shipping today as they were in the 19th century. Harbors are dangerous places, where weather, wind, and the constant movement of vessels in and out of anchorage can change sailing conditions in moments. It's not a job for the inexperienced.

And ports, of course, are essential to the regional economy. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles together handle about one-third of the nation's container cargo.

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With the loss of aerospace manufacturing, the ports also offer some of the last, good-paying, blue-collar jobs in Southern California. Probably the best paying is piloting.

According to Christopher Palmeri and Rodney Yap, reporting recently in Businessweek, pilots for the Port of Los Angeles made an average of $323,000 in 2010. (Pilots also can make an additional $36,000 a year through an "efficiency bonus" incentive,according to a recent report in the Daily News by staff writer Kerry Cavanaugh.)

Vessel owners pay for pilotage, not taxpayers, although the Port of Los Angeles pilots are city employees and participants in the city's pension system. Los Angeles is unusual in having city employees serving as harbor pilots, and they've done very well by being unionized since 1995.

Pilots in the adjacent Port of Long Beach are employees of Jacobsen Pilot Service Inc., a family-run company that has serviced the Long Beach port since 1924 (according to the company's website). The company doesn't disclose its pilots' average income.

Most other pilots, as my great grandfather was in the 1880s, are still independent contractors.

Pilots at the Los Angeles port make about as much as pilots in New York harbor and slightly less than the pilots at Florida's ports. But pilots in San Francisco can make nearly $500,000 a year. And in the ports of Savannah and Charleston, pilots earn an estimated $460,000 to $560,000 a year.

Vessel operators chafe at the costs of pilotage and the system of pilot associations and service contractors that protects jobs and income. The critics want more competition and lower the fees for pilotage, which run about $2,000 for a typical cargo ship.

Piloting fees at the Port of Los Angeles are set by the city's Harbor Commission. They're already about 25 percent lower than Long Beach's. And both ports have fees that are significantly below those charged by some other California ports - just part of the reason why the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have done reasonably well even during the recession.

A difficult job, with millions of dollars riding on every decision, and a career-ending accident just a moment of distraction away - perhaps nearly $400,000 a year isn't too much to pay. Los Angeles pilots certainly hope so. They're now in negotiations with the city for a new contract.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page of the Australian pilot boat Birubi was posted by flickr user Kookaburra2011. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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The Bloomberg article made it clear that the efficiency bonus is included in (not in addition to) the $323k income figure for L.A. port pilots. The pilots are certainly earning every dollar of their pay this week in the breezy Santa Ana conditions they are dealing with. Moving a 900 foot long ship around in a harbor with 40 mile an hour winds must be stressful.