At Port of Long Beach, a family firm steers all the ships

Every commercial harbor in the nation has its own pilots, and at the Port of Long Beach one family has been running the pilot operation for 90 years.

It’s the Jacobsen clan, whose roots stretch back to a Norwegian fishing village. Today they are responsible for shepherding ships as long as skyscrapers are tall.

“My grandfather Jacob started doing this in 1922, when this port was pretty much just a mud flat,” said Tom Jacobsen, the third-generation president of Jacobsen Pilot Service. “The old ships were small. The docks were wood, and if you broke a dock piling, that was just part of business. Now the ships are so heavy and everything is more expensive. We can’t afford a mistake.”

Harbor pilots take over for ocean captains unfamiliar with the currents and hazards that make every harbor unique. For Jacobsen Pilot Service, the route is the four to eight miles between a sea buoy outside the harbor breakwater and one of several berths inside the port.

“Every port is different,” Jacobsen said. “Ours is big ships, and lots of them. We’ll average 18 ships a day and close to 7,000 a year.”

Without pilots, American commerce would grind to a halt, with captains guessing where to steer their ships to avoid rocks, shoals and other hazards. That would be a recipe for almost daily multimillion-dollar disasters, said Paul Kirchner, executive director and general counsel for the American Pilots Assn., which represents about 1,200 pilots and 60 member groups nationwide.

“Instead, you have this amazing choreography of giant ships being safely led to port and back out again in a way that most Americans are unaware of,” Kirchner said. “Pilots are the pinnacle of the maritime industry. In the hands of these professionals, it’s a beautiful thing.”

The profession involves a curious mix of ancient gear and cutting-edge electronics.

A pilot still climbs aboard ship on a rope ladder or a gangway. Each pilot will carry a PilotMate, a device slightly larger than an iPad that was co-developed by Jacobsen’s company, the Port of Long Beach and the company that owns the technology, ARINC Inc. of Annapolis, Md.

PilotMate is a global-positioning navigation system that “gives the pilot a chart of the port in high precision, all of the water depths,” Jacobsen said. “It shows the ship and his position with projections of where he is going to be in the next minute, two minutes, three minutes — everything he needs to know.”

That’s important because ships are so huge these days that a modern harbor pilot can’t see the water in front of the ship or on either side of the vessel.

The job wasn’t always so sophisticated. Training and technology weren’t considered important until Jacobsen’s father, Richard, who took over the business in 1963, began keeping records on accidents that were costing the company money.

Then, Richard Jacobsen decided to give his pilots shares in the business, with incomes tied to the safe passage of ships. Such an arrangement is unique among major seaports in the U.S., Kirchner said. Most pilots are independent contractors; at the Port of Los Angeles, they are municipal employees.

Tom Jacobsen said that giving the pilots ownership made a huge difference.

“There was now a vested interest for the pilots for safety, for efficiency,” Jacobsen said. “They wanted to get ships in here quickly, safely and neatly. That is how it works. They were now part of the business.”

Pilots also have the maritime industry’s highest incomes, making between $300,000 and $470,000 a year.

Jacobsen’s company has 17 full-time pilots, two trainees and 11 other employees who steer the fast, small boats that ferry the pilots to and from ships.

Finding the right people for the job is never as simple as placing an ad for a job opening, Jacobsen said. He has followed the careers of potential candidates for as long as five years, looking for the maritime equivalent of the right stuff. It is a job that requires a love for the work, a keen sense of risks, and ice cold calm under pressure.

“We try to pick the rising stars,” he said. “It’s these people that make the company.”

The company trains the pilots for three years, during which they pilot up to 3,000 ships under the scrutiny of senior pilots.

“Talk about putting pressure on somebody. It’s intense,” Jacobsen said.

Jacobsen pilot Grant Livingstone, 51, spent 10 years at sea before joining the company. He said serving on lots of different kinds of vessels was the best training.

“In this business you are getting on a different ship every day,” Livingstone said. “Every job is different and you can’t make any assumptions or count on anything being the same.”

For Jacobsen, its runs in the blood. His family’s maritime roots go back several generations to a family of fishermen from an island — named Mindlandet in Norwegian — off the coast of Norway.

Grandfather Jacob came to the U.S. in 1900, when he was 14, eventually making his way west to work in the fishing and whaling industry. By 1922 he was piloting boats into Long Beach, working for William H. Wickersham of San Pedro, owner of fishing vessels and an agent for the early oil tankers. In 1924 he founded Jacobsen Pilot Service.

Jacobsen started hanging around the family business when he was 14, riding along when the captains would allow it. He even got a chance to do something that would never be possible now — steer the ships. But his father, who still serves as company chairman, discouraged his son from following the same course.

“My dad always told me that a bad accident could potentially put us out of business,” Jacobsen said. “So figure out what you want to do on your own. He said it in a nice way, but he was worried that we could be put out of business for various reasons.”

Jacobsen mentioned the 2007 case of the Cosco Busan, a container ship that veered off course in heavy fog and struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, resulting in a fuel spill, a $44.4-million civil suit settlement and prison time for the pilot. “If something like that happened here, we would be out of business,” Jacobsen said.

For now, Jacobsen is content to watch his three sons — Mitchel, 14; Garret, 12; and Ryker, 10 — enjoy hanging around from time to time, the way he did.

“I see them out there playing on the rocks and fishing and I get these flashbacks,” Jacobsen said. “We’ll see what happens.”