Yesterday, I toured the SF Bar Pilots headquarters. The Bar Pilots are experienced captains who guide large ships into and out of the San Francisco Bay. All major ships need a Pilot to meet them outside the Bay to steer them into port.

We learned that the Bay is incredibly tricky to navigate with a difficult and shifting underwater topography, changing currents, many bridges, and lots of fog.

First we toured the Pilot boats - these sit a few miles past the Golden Gate Bridge for four days at a time and the Pilots can rest there while waiting for the next incoming ship. When a ship comes, they climb up a rickety rope ladder and join the captain on the bridge. They then take command of the ship and carefully guide it under the Golden Gate Bridge and into port.

The whole process seems extremely stressful and plenty can go wrong. Lucky for us it was a calm day in the Bay.

We then talked with one of the Pilots for a while and heard about various aspects of the job. He spoke on the unique challenges of the Bay Area and a bit about how the shipping industry works. Today’s biggest boats have too deep a hull when fully loaded so many drop off cargo in LA first and then head up to SF when they’re sailing higher in the water. Height can be an issue too, some of them come within a meter of hitting the deck of the Bay Bridge.

It was a fun afternoon learning about a part of the Bay Area I knew nothing about. I definitely recommend checking it out!