Port of L.A. pilot boat operators have a swell job

Martin Maher, who takes port pilots to freighters in Los Angeles Harbor, is one of two veteran captains who are taking early retirement.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

It’s chilly and hard to see at 4 a.m. as Martin Maher throttles up his turbocharged work boat against the swells. He is set to rendezvous with a Chinese container ship three miles beyond the Port of Los Angeles breakwater.

His mission: Deliver a port pilot to guide the incoming container ship through the labyrinth of narrow channels and turn basins in the nation’s busiest harbor complex.

Scanning the horizon with an unblinking squint, Maher spins the Stephen M. White’s 36-inch chrome wheel to swing around to the side of the Chinese ship, longer than three football fields. With carefully synchronized tweaks of the throttle, he matches the speed of the larger craft and sidles next to its massive hull.


As the vessels travel inches apart at 10 mph, the port pilot steps off the deck of Maher’s 15-ton boat and climbs up a 20-foot rope ladder to board the 66,000-ton container ship.

“Job done,” Maher said, heading back to his San Pedro berth in the sprawling industrial empire of flaming refinery towers, gleaming cruise ships, 400-foot-tall cranes and mountains of scrap metal.

It is delicate, dangerous work, and it happens at least 12 times a day for Maher, 55 -- one of two senior pilot boat operators who will soon retire after nearly three decades in one of the city’s most coveted and highly specialized civil service jobs. The other retiree will be his friend and colleague, Mark Hansen, 62.

They are a salty pair. Maher and Hansen have sailed a combined 1.5 million miles -- the rough equivalent of three round trips between the Earth and the moon -- at an average speed of about 20 knots (about 23 mph).

Much of that travel was on the Stephen M. White and the Phineas Banning -- 53-foot work boats with 1 1/2- inch-thick fiberglass hulls and twin turbocharged 600-horsepower engines that enable them to, as Maher puts it, “get out of difficult situations.”

It won’t be easy leaving jobs that pay about $80,000 a year, excluding overtime. But for men who count their years on the job by the number of winters survived without serious incidents, “the time has come to take advantage of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s early retirement plan,” Hansen said. “After all, the guys we replaced had also 30 years on the job.”


If all goes well, they will retire in the spring. In the meantime, their sea duties remain round-the-clock responsibilities in a port that never sleeps. On alternating day and night shifts, Hansen, Maher, two other boat operators, five deckhands, six dispatchers and 13 port pilots serve the thousands of vessels that berth at the Port of Los Angeles each year.

Container ships are on tight schedules, anxious to unload as quickly as possible. But before they can enter or leave the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex -- gateway for 40% of the nation’s imported goods -- they must take aboard a port pilot.

Morning rush hour for Maher and Hansen lasts from about 4 to 8 a.m., when container ships begin queuing up for entry or departure.

The Los Angeles Port Pilot service, established in 1907, is among the few municipally run pilot operations in the United States. It charges shipping companies roughly $4,000 per port call, generating about $8 million a year.

“Man overboard” rescue training goes with the territory. Port pilot boat operators are required to pass a challenging physical examination each year and train weekly in rescue techniques. Their boats are stocked with medical equipment.

“There’s more ways to get in trouble out there on the water than you can shake a stick at,” said chief port pilot Michael Rubino. “We haven’t lost a guy yet, although we’ve had a few get wet.”


They still talk about the winter of 1983, when El Niño-driven waves cue-balled 40-ton breakwater boulders into the sea, destroyed oil islands, damaged piers and sent anchored container ships sliding around the harbor.

One night that year, “I was trying to climb down a rope ladder dangling off the side of a . . . diesel vessel in 40-mph winds and 15-foot swells,” Rubino recalled. “Somehow,” he said, shaking his head, “Marty Maher managed to get me off that ladder and onto the deck of his boat.”

Rubino subsequently wrote Maher a letter of commendation -- a high point of Maher’s career.

A decade later, Maher rescued one of two men who had fallen off their sailboat in stormy seas off Long Beach. In that incident, a port pilot he had taken to a cargo vessel was climbing up a rope ladder when he heard the man’s yells and called the harbor station for help.

Maher went out to look, and in his boat’s searchlight he saw the man’s arm sticking out of the water. Maher and his crewman pulled the man aboard. “The guy had taken off all his clothes down to his skivvies,” Maher recalled. “He was a big fella, and slippery as a fish.”

Maher and Hansen, who served as a Navy riverboat deck man during the Vietnam War, have witnessed dramatic changes in port operations over the last three decades. New generations of cargo ships carry the equivalent of 6,600 20-foot containers -- enough to stretch 25 miles.


“They are powered by engines three stories tall with pistons so big you could park a car on one of them,” Maher said.

Improved water quality has allowed for greater diversity of sea life. “There’s more kelp in the water and starfish on the breakwater,” Hansen said. “There’s more harbor seals than ever, and we’ve been seeing a lot more blue whales.”

Looking back, however, it’s the storms that stick out in their minds.

As the third in a series of rainstorms pounded Southern California on a recent Saturday night, Hansen and deckhand Robin Craig, 38, maneuvered the Phineas Banning against powerful surges on all sides a mile outside the breakwater to catch up with the outbound Chinese container ship OOCL America and pick up a port pilot.

“Storms, swell, rain and darkness, bouncing off the side of a huge ship -- it’s an adrenaline rush,” Hansen said, pulling up alongside the freighter at precisely the right angle and velocity for the port pilot to step safely off a rope ladder and onto the deck of his boat. “I love this job, and I’ll miss it.”