From San Francisco to Stockton, up the river with style

Jan 24, 2011 12:00 AM

It was proving to be a long day for Capt. Rolando Aspacio of Grieg Shipping Group’s Star Kilimanjaro. As he paced the starboard bridge wing looking almost directly down at the levee of the San Joaquin River he was asked if he felt nervous. “Yes,” was the reply.

Not a lot of things worry a man like Aspacio. He had just brought the nearly new 684-by-106-foot Norwegian-flagged ship from calls at several European ports through the Panama Canal and up to visit Californian ports prior to continuing his voyage to Canada and on to China. However, like most deep-sea people, he experiences strong discomfort in shallow waters. He was now not only in shallow but also very narrow waters.

The view ahead as the ship makes its way up the San Joaquin reveals a sinuous waterway charterized by narrow dredged channels and repeated tight turns. The distance from Suisun Bay to Stockton is about 36 miles. (Alan Haig-Brown photos)
Star Kilimanjaro had begun the day at anchor in the relatively open waters of San Francisco Bay south of the Bay Bridge. There, at 0845, San Francisco Bar pilot Carl Martin boarded from the pilot boat. Under way a little after 1000, Capt. Martin piloted the ship northward across the vast sweep of the bay. While much of the northern part of the bay appears broad, ships must follow a narrow dredged channel up through the Richmond-San Rafael, Carquinez and Benicia bridges into Suisun Bay.

With the mothballed ships of the U.S. National Defense Reserve Fleet well off to port, Martin gave one course command after another. Wiggling the ship between the red and green buoys required numerous helm moves of 5° or 10° to port or starboard. The ever-alert helmsman displayed his tension as he wiped the palms of his hands on the seat of his pants. By 1320 the ship was passing some munitions loading docks at the naval weapons station on the right bank with the reserve fleet now directly astern. Two minutes later the pilot asked that the pilot ladder be prepared “on the port side one meter above the waterline.”

On the bridge of Star Kilimanjaro, the pilot, Capt. Tom Miller, guides the ship up the San Joaquin River, while the master, Capt. Rolando Aspacio, looks on.
The handoff was efficient and smooth, with Martin leaving on the same pilot boat that had brought Capt. Tom Miller out from the pilot station at New York Point. It was now 1345, six hours since Martin had boarded the ship off San Francisco. New York Point, which is 45 miles from the Golden Gate near the town of Pittsburg at the east end of Suisun Bay, is near the estuaries of both the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. At this point both rivers’ channels parallel each other in a northeasterly direction, but some way along the course the Sacramento swings towards its northern source, while the San Joaquin snakes its way through the delta and eventually bends south and east to the city of Stockton.

Within minutes of boarding Star Kilimanjaro, Miller was focusing his attention on passing a ship moored in New York Slough along the right side of the narrow channel. He would have to pass within 150 feet of the vessel, only slightly more than the beam of his ship. Miller was concerned that the hydraulics of his ship could break the lines and pull the moored ship off the pier. As he came abeam of the moored ship, he directed “stop engines.” He then gave large rudder commands, asking for 20° to 60° of rudder.

“This ship has a Becker rudder and the larger helm commands allow the rudder to slow and to steer the ship,” he explained.

The two captains examine the route on a chart.
Once clear of the ship, Miller patiently went over the navigational charts showing Aspacio the 36 miles of channels that would be transited between New York Point and Stockton. The ship’s master had once been up the river as a junior officer, but now in command of his own vessel, he examined the charts intensely. Miller also went over port plans with the captain regarding any crew changes, bunkers and the like. He described shore visit limitations to the captain, who told of his crew having to be accompanied on shore visits at their last port of call, San Diego. Miller, who is the epitome of courtesy, apologized for the restrictions placed on foreign crews of ships visiting U.S. ports in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These can restrict crews to their ships even after 25-day ocean voyages.

After the ship squeaked by the vessel on the pier, Miller’s next point of attention was the Antioch Bridge. The bridge has a 400-foot horizontal clearance with an air draft of plus or minus 140 feet, depending on water levels. With an air draft of 126 feet, the ship would have about 13 feet of clearance. The pilots’ policy limits normal air draft to 132 feet. Miller’s attention was directed more to the horizontal clearance. It was a beautiful sunny day with a good ship, but the covers on the ship’s cranes made it impossible to see its sides from the bridge. “On a ship like this,” Miller explained, “I like to stand behind the helmsman and sight over the helm console to the mast on the bow. This gives me a longitudinal reference.”

Star Kilimanjaro at its destination, a terminal in Stockton.
For the river Miller keeps one of the ship’s two radars set on the 1.5-mile range and the other on the .75-mile range. When he first boarded, he had the mate take the rings off the radar screen as he finds them unnecessarily confusing on these short ranges. In poor visibility, he reduces the .75-mile range to half a mile.

“On a sunny clear day, I can navigate by eye, but I like to reference points on the radar,” he explained, “so I practice for fog during the good weather.”

The San Francisco Bar Pilot’s operational guidelines manual warns that in fog season, “From November to March, frequent periods of severely restricted visibility occur. Considerable delays may be experienced.”

To which Miller added, “We don’t sail in fog, but the problem is fog comes in after we sail and you can’t anchor a ship in these narrow channels. There are many ship captains who have sailed in the fog once but very few to none who have done it twice. The fog up here in the delta is very heavy. It comes out of the ground after a rain.”

At the east end of Suisun Bay, Capt. Carl Martin descends the pilot ladder to board the pilot boat Pittsburg. The bar pilots maintain a pilot station at New York Point, 46 miles from San Francisco, near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
Among the pilots, Miller has a reputation as a cool operator whose 24 years as a pilot has given him detailed knowledge of the whole Bay Area. He is also noted for his intense interest in the San Joaquin.

“He is a very technical pilot,” Martin had told me earlier, “Not to extremes, but I think he has walked every bit of that river.”

Miller has a special affection for and knowledge of the river. “The first oceangoing ship to dock at Stockton was the SS Daisy Gray with lumber from the Pacific Northwest in 1933,” he said. “The waters haven’t changed, but the ships have. We are now taking ships up to 750 feet to Stockton.”

The Antioch Bridge is also the first check in for the Port of Stockton so that the pilot can maintain the two-hour notice required for tugs and line handlers. It was 1535 and Miller ordered one Brusco tug for 1800 and linemen for 1830.

As are a number of the San Francisco Bar Pilots, Miller is a home-grown mariner who power-boated on the bay with his parents before attending California Maritime. He takes pride in piloting large ships like the 1,131-foot Queen Mary 2 and the historic battleship USS Iowa, which he piloted as a dead ship into the Suisun Bay reserve fleet. After all these years he said, “I still sing in the shower at 3 a.m. just glad to be going out on a ship.”

As Star Kilimanjaro crossed Suisun Bay, it passed by the battleship USS Iowa, mothballed as part of the U.S. National Defense Reserve Fleet. Capt. Miller served as pilot when the battleship was delivered to the reserve fleet.
Miller delights in the subtle intricacies of narrow channels and bank effect. Approaching a starboard turn in the twisting channel, he gave the helmsman a command that might seem counter intuitive. Rather than the 10° of right rudder that the helmsman might have expected, he set the ship a little to the left bank and then ordered “midships,” so that the bank’s cushioning effect would push the bow around the bend while the suction aft tended to pull the stern around.

“You have to watch the rudder indicator to be sure that he does what you have told him to do,” Miller said.

This time the helmsmen did as he was ordered. At the same time, the tension and concern of Capt. Aspacio pacing the bridge wing were mirrored in the alert bearing of the helmsman. After a four-hour watch, the helmsman was relieved and Miller made a point of saying, “Thank you so much. You’ve done a heck of a job.”

There is no question that for one accustomed to open water there is something eerie about the fields with rows of crops and cows that slide by just off the end of both bridge wings. Even the occasional horsefly finds its way into the wheelhouse. While much of the river follows a natural course through a maze of islands, there are parts such as Mandeville Cut and the Venice Cut that have been dredged on a straight line through the islands.

It is on the Venice Cut that the expansive Hilton (of the hotel family) Duck Club is located. But the straightened cuts are far outnumbered by the natural twists and turns that the dredged channel follows. This is in contrast to the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel, where there are only three course changes in 21 miles.

The tugboat Angie Brusco comes alongside Star Kilimanjaro to assist that ship in docking at Stockton.
On a beautiful summer afternoon such as this August day, myriad small pleasure boats found it exciting to circle a huge deep-sea ship. As in many other places, they often have no real idea of the ship’s speed or length, or of the area ahead of the ship in which they are invisible from the ship’s bridge.

At one point a sailboat tacked back and forth against the light winds that were coming from the ship’s direction of travel. As the red sailboat disappeared under the ship’s bow there was a collective holding of breath on the bridge until the sailboat finally emerged in the narrow strip of water off the ship’s starboard side.

Miller recounted his most outrageous pleasure boat encounter: “A guy on a jet ski came up the port side of the ship and leapt onto the pilot ladder. He then climbed to the pilot door a few meters off the water and dove back into the river.”

The pilots try to plan voyages to maintain a minimum of 24 inches of water under the keel, but the transition from salt to fresh water can reduce that. Then the squat effect in shallow waters can reduce this even farther. On occasion they will try to ride the high water up to Stockton, but that will require some speed to keep up with the tidal surge and again squat can be a problem. When there is virtually no room for error, the pilot’s judgment of these variables is crucial.

At 1745 as the ship was approaching Stockton, Miller called for “dead slow” to reduce the ship’s speed to only 4 knots. By 1800 the Brusco tug was made up on the port shoulder.

The Port of Stockton extends along a curve on the right bank of the river and includes extensive warehouses and grain elevators. The longshore crew and the line handlers were waiting on the dock along with the ship’s agent and a police cruiser.

Miller brought the ship slowly up alongside the warehouses and then, with the aid of the tug and both bow and stern thrusters, brought her smartly up to the sign marking the designated location of the bridge. Lines were made fast and Miller turned to Aspacio, who looked relieved to have his ship secured, and thanked him for his hospitality and again he thanked the helmsmen for their good work.

Miller knows how to dock a ship in good form and how to exit the bridge in a respectful manner.

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