From San Francisco to Stockton, up the river with styleJan 24, 2011 12:00 AM
It was proving to be a long day for Capt. Rolando Aspacio of Grieg Shipping Groupâs 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. âYes,â 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)|
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 âon the port side one meter above the waterline.â
|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.|
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 âstop engines.â He then gave large rudder commands, asking for 20° to 60° of rudder.
âThis ship has a Becker rudder and the larger helm commands allow the rudder to slow and to steer the ship,â he explained.
|The two captains examine the route on a chart.|
After the ship squeaked by the vessel on the pier, Millerâs 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 pilotsâ policy limits normal air draft to 132 feet. Millerâs attention was directed more to the horizontal clearance. It was a beautiful sunny day with a good ship, but the covers on the shipâs cranes made it impossible to see its sides from the bridge. âOn a ship like this,â Miller explained, âI like to stand behind the helmsman and sight over the helm console to the mast on the bow. This gives me a longitudinal reference.â
|Star Kilimanjaro at its destination, a terminal in Stockton.|
âOn a sunny clear day, I can navigate by eye, but I like to reference points on the radar,â he explained, âso I practice for fog during the good weather.â
The San Francisco Bar Pilotâs operational guidelines manual warns that in fog season, âFrom November to March, frequent periods of severely restricted visibility occur. Considerable delays may be experienced.â
To which Miller added, âWe donât sail in fog, but the problem is fog comes in after we sail and you canât 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.â
|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.|
âHe is a very technical pilot,â Martin had told me earlier, âNot to extremes, but I think he has walked every bit of that river.â
Miller has a special affection for and knowledge of the river. âThe first oceangoing ship to dock at Stockton was the SS Daisy Gray with lumber from the Pacific Northwest in 1933,â he said. âThe waters havenât changed, but the ships have. We are now taking ships up to 750 feet to Stockton.â
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, âI still sing in the shower at 3 a.m. just glad to be going out on a ship.â
|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.|
âYou have to watch the rudder indicator to be sure that he does what you have told him to do,â 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, âThank you so much. Youâve done a heck of a job.â
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.|
At one point a sailboat tacked back and forth against the light winds that were coming from the shipâs direction of travel. As the red sailboat disappeared under the shipâs bow there was a collective holding of breath on the bridge until the sailboat finally emerged in the narrow strip of water off the shipâs starboard side.
Miller recounted his most outrageous pleasure boat encounter: âA 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.â
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 pilotâs judgment of these variables is crucial.
At 1745 as the ship was approaching Stockton, Miller called for âdead slowâ to reduce the shipâs 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 shipâs 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. Edit Module