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And Some People Don’t Even Know How to Parallel Park

“Anytime you’re responsible for something that weighs 30,000 or 40,000 tons,” Capt. Michael Owens said as he cracked a smile, “you’ve got to be a little careful.”

Moments later, Owens, necktie only slightly askew, jumped from a small boat just outside Los Angeles Harbor and onto a rope ladder dangling from the side of the 650-foot-long Kemano, a Hong Kong freighter that had stopped to fuel up before heading on with its load of lumber.

Once aboard, the 40-year-old Owens headed to the bridge, and 30 minutes later had safely steered the vessel between a half dozen others anchored inside the harbor’s breakwater for the same purpose, making it appear as easy as backing the family station wagon out of the garage. He then anchored the ship before climbing back down the ladder onto the boat.

Another day, another job for one of the city of Los Angeles’ civil servants.

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Owens is one of 15 Port of Los Angeles pilots whose job is to maneuver ships into anchorages and berths at the port, a job performed seven days a week, 24 hours a day, rough seas or calm. Last year, according to Owens’ boss, Capt. Jackson Pearson, the pilots climbed aboard ships 7,000 times to usher them in or out of the harbor.

“I like to tell people that a pilot is a seaman with a lunch pail,” Pearson said.

It is a job that port officials say has become more difficult recently as the Harbor Department continues to tear down old terminals and berths and build new ones to accommodate a boom in business that has made Los Angeles, together with neighboring Long Beach, the busiest port complex in the country.

The Los Angeles port is investing tens of millions of dollars in six major projects to handle the growth in container cargo, imported automobiles and cruise ship traffic. Those projects do not include the Cabrillo Marina recreational complex still under construction next to the 55-foot-deep channel where pilots jockey supertankers into dock.

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“We have construction going on at unprecedented levels with a lot of berths being torn up or half torn up,” said Bill Stein, who oversees pilot operations. “In fact, right now from my window I can see dredging being done in the main channel. The most challenging part of being a pilot is to provide good, quick and safe service in the wake of all this activity.”

Pearson and Owens shrug it all off as part of the job. The greatest challenge for a pilot, they say, is tangling with bad weather, namely thick fog or high winds.

“Piloting is one of the few fields left where you are at the mercy of natural forces,” Pearson said. “And when it changes, there is nothing you can do about it.”

The 58-year-old Pearson became the port’s chief pilot about two years ago under the condition he could still do some piloting--something he has done since 1960. He writes poetry in the Japanese haiku style in his spare time, is fond of quoting Mark Twain (“Life on the Mississippi”) and recently earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

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What the pilots sell to steamship companies, who pay upwards of $1,400 to have a vessel brought into or out of the harbor, is their knowledge of local waters and years of experience at sea, Pearson said. Most have worked at sea for more than 15 years before they are chosen as pilots, he said.

Unlike pilots at most other ports, including Long Beach, Los Angeles pilots are city employees. They earn an average of $65,000 annually, according to Pearson and other port officials. At other ports, pilot work is typically performed by private firms on contract with the harbor department.

“The job has a certain attraction because it enables a guy to still get pretty close to sea, yet . . . he is not away from home,” Stein said. “They have regular hours and all the benefits that any city employee has.”

There are no women pilots in Los Angeles and never have been since the port started its own pilot service in 1909. The maritime industry has historically been a male bastion and, as a result, few women can qualify for the job.

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“I don’t see in the next several years where things are going to change very much,” Stein said. “We may have to figure out an apprenticeship term or something.”

Local pilots have been fortunate and skillful enough to have so far avoided disastrous accidents like the one in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1980 in which a pilot rammed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a blinding storm, resulting in the deaths of 35 people, but accidents do occur.

For example, in 1984 a port pilot was found guilty of negligence after the Japanese container ship he was steering smashed into a wooden wharf in heavy fog. No one was injured and the ship was only scratched, but the berth suffered $220,000 in damage.

“It’s part of the game,” Pearson said, referring to occasional minor mishaps. “It is something you try to forget about and learn from. This job is like any other in the sense (that) you are always learning.”

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One thing Owens said he has learned is that how such mishaps are viewed sometimes depends on the typed of ship involved. “If you have even the tiniest accident on a passenger ship, it becomes news,” he said. “You can do the same thing on a tanker ship, and everybody will be sitting around telling dirty stories.”

Pearson said that on the average, a pilot handles three ships per 12-hour shift, or 400 to 500 ships a year. And as ships carrying cars and container cargo have grown larger, so has the challenge of getting them in and out of port. Or even getting aboard when seas are rough.

“A lot of people think the hardest part of this job is getting up on the ship,” Owens said. “It isn’t really that difficult, but it is something you want to give some thought to.”

Both Owens and Pearson said few problems occur in communicating with the ship’s crew because English is recognized as the international maritime language. And most of the time, Owens said, he is treated with an “inordinate respect” from a ship’s officers and crew.

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Uncomfortable moments do occur, however--situations akin to walking into someone else’s home and right into a family squabble.

“One time I had a ship with a German captain, Filipino officers and a Japanese crew,” Owens said. “And none of them liked each other.”


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