Harbor pilot known as master of the sea

Times Staff Writer

The 7-year-old has been behaving badly, the captain complains. Like a moody child, the British Purpose, a massive BP oil tanker, is riding low off the Port of Long Beach, stubbornly content to stay right where she is.

Lately, the Purpose has been hard to turn at low speeds. And on this afternoon, low speed is all that the 310,000-ton ship has.

No worries. The captain entrusts the tanker to Victor Schisler, one of the best harbor pilots in the world.

“When I set foot on deck,” Schisler says as he takes control, “I feel like I’m part of the vessel. I can feel the motions of the ship. I can feel where it wants to go. If I want to go the same way, that’s great. If it isn’t where I want to go, I know what to do.”


International commerce would probably grind to a shipwreck-strewn halt without pilots like the 67-year-old Schisler, whose profession dates to, at least, classical times.

Today the job is a mix of ancient and cutting-edge technology. Schisler boards most ships by climbing a rope ladder with wooden rungs, taking steps pilots have followed for more than 100 years.

When he climbs, though, he carries a touch-screen laptop linked to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit that superimposes an image on a digital chart that shows the ship’s position, course and speed.

Harbor pilots are every seaport’s most exclusive club, few in number and commanding salaries that start at about $70,000 and can exceed $300,000 a year. Only about three dozen work the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and Schisler’s reputation among them is legendary.


“He’s the first guy to go to whenever there’s a difficult job,” says Dick McKenna, deputy executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

When a shipper needs to know whether a giant vessel can safely reach a port somewhere around the world, “they will ask for Capt. Schisler by name because, first, they want to know if it is possible,” says retired Navy Rear Adm. David Ramsey, an expert in producing computer simulations of harbors. “But they will also ask for another pilot to do it next, to know whether mere mortals are capable of doing it.”

Schisler, who threads billion-dollar ships through the tiniest clearances with an almost imperturbable calm, was working at 3 a.m. one recent day when he and two other pilots orchestrated the departure of the 1,086-foot-long CMA CGM Vivaldi. The mast of the ship came within three feet of the bottom of the Gerald Desmond Bridge on its passage out to sea.

This afternoon, Schisler is wearing a beige business suit and a brown beret, a Kings Point class ring and thick rubber-soled shoes. “Slow ahead, five knots. Starboard, five,” are his first commands, telling the engineer to ease it forward to that speed and to execute a five-degree turn to the right. Once the ship has been brought up and about, Schisler will say, “Midships,” which means neutral rudder, or “Straight ahead.”


The real work, says Michael Calvert, the pilot working with Schisler, starts at the point of no return. That’s 1.5 miles outside the breakwater where the narrow dredged channel begins and there’s no room to abort an approach.

More than 40 years ago, Schisler wanted to be an aviator. But given the choice of a yearlong wait for a spot at the Air Force Academy or an immediate opening at the Merchant Marine Academy, he chose the latter.

The 1964 graduate’s first job was with Crowley Maritime Corp.'s San Francisco tugboat service. He says his epiphany came when he watched a harbor pilot, “the guy I worshipped and idolized,” at work. “He got to board a different ship every time and drive it like it’s a sports car.”

Two tugboats, the Stout and the Master, are connected by towlines to opposite ends of the tanker’s stern; they’ll provide control if the rudder fails. At the breakwater, the tugs the Quig and the Admiral take up positions on opposite ends of the bow. This is “team towing,” a concept Schisler and another pilot developed as the best way to guide large ships.


Schisler has been steadily bleeding speed. Closing in slowly on the stern is the mid-size containership Tianjin, and closing in more rapidly is the smaller freighter Dolphin Strait. Outbound toward the open sea, the bulk ship Long Beach is on a course to cross in front. And in the middle of everything, perpendicular and off the Purpose’s port bow, the tanker Atlanta Frontier sits at anchor.

Schisler isn’t required to help the other vessels, but he knows that the two cargo ships have crews of dockworkers already on the clock, waiting to unload.

“I have the tonnage. That gives me the right of way. I could just make them all wait, but I’m the cork in this bottle and I need to go slow anyway,” he says. So he plays traffic cop. His tanker will pass the stern of the other tanker on the right, allowing the faster ships to pass on the left across the anchored ship’s bow. The small outbound ship will cross in front of the Purpose but will wait on the starboard side of the anchored tanker for the inbound ships to pass.

Within minutes, all three inbound ships are neatly lined up. Then, the Purpose is at its dock. For the next 90 minutes, as 16 mooring lines are attached, Schisler instructs the tugs to push against the starboard bow and stern, holding the Purpose in place as the pressure from ships in the channel threaten to push the tanker away from shore.


Done for the day, Schisler consults his watch before calling his wife. On a waterfront famous for the expensive timepieces that grace men’s wrists, Schisler dons a simple Swiss Army.

He shrugs and explains, “The numbers are easier for me to read.”




Living legend

Subject: Victor J. Schisler

Age: 67


Title: Senior pilot for Jacobsen Pilot Service, an 85-year-old private company that has held the contract to steer ships in and out of the Port of Long Beach for as long as there has been a port.

Education: One year studying engineering at San Diego State University; graduate, 1964, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y.

Least favorite job: Piloting the Boeing Sea Launch program’s Odyssey Launch Platform, which was built as an oil rig, not a ship. “Very high windage. No directional stability.”

Favorite hobby: Built an Aztec 7 electric car. “It could go 75 miles or 75 mph, but not both.”


Likely second career: Opening a school on the West Coast that is like the Port Revel Center near Grenoble, France, where students climb aboard scale model ships on a 10-acre lake that mimic the feel of the large ships the pilots handle.

Personal: Married with two grown children and five grandchildren