Harbor pilots have one of the highest paid — but simultaneously riskiest — jobs in the transportation industry.
The average harbor pilot at the Port of Los Angeles makes $434,000 a year, but also faces a one in 20 chance of dying on the job, according to a new book out Tuesday from The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims. The book, “Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door — Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy,” breaks down the complicated dance that brings a shipment from Asia to US buyers in a matter of days.
Harbor pilots are some of the highest-paid municipal employees and represent a crucial part of a shipment’s journey. Any cargo ship looking to come into a port must pay local pilots to safely bring the ship into dock. The role is highly risky as the pilots face dangers of being run over by a massive cargo ship, pitched overboard in rough waters, or slammed between two boats.
“Despite happening a thousand times a day all across the globe, despite myriad safety precautions, if you’re a harbor pilot, doing your job can kill you,” Mims writes.
The job is also incredibly high stakes and requires hyper-specialized skills. The pilot is responsible for vessels that can weigh over 200,000 tonnes and can be worth over $100 million. A harbor pilot brings a ship in from miles out at sea to within mere inches of its unloading spot alongside the pier.
The harbor pilot first approaches the massive skyscraper-sized cargo ship from a 55-foot long speedboat, according to Mims, who described how LA port harbor pilot Captain John Betz maneuvered the Netherlands, a Chinese-owned ship from Cosco Shipping Lines. From the speedboat, the pilot must climb a rope ladder onto the freighter — often while both boats are pitching in opposite directions. The move represents one of the most dangerous moments during the entire process.
“I’ve been chased up the ladder by the boat,” Craig Flinn, another harbor pilot, tells Mims. “The percentage of survival is minimal if you go in the water in heavy seas, even with a life vest,” he said.
Once aboard the freighter, Mims explains the pilot is given a sheet detailing every little element of the ship and the obstacles it faces on its course into port. Without touching a single control on the ship, Betz directs every movement of the Netherlands via verbal commands to the crew by using his iPad, a combination of GPS and navigational beacons, the ship’s on-board automated system, as well as his own judgement. The pilot also directs the crew operating the tugboats that attach to each side of the ship as it comes into the port.
Once the vessel is close enough, the engine is cut off and the freighter is maneuvered using only its residual momentum and the slow pull of the tugboats.
Mims calls the final steps of turning the hulking ship into its spot on the pier “the equivalent of a stunt driver parallel parking a car in a spot that’s just long enough for it, after coming in at high speed, throwing over the wheel, and skidding sideways to within an inch of the curb, tires smoking.”
Harbor pilots are more important today than ever before as supply-chain snags foster shipping container shortages and delays. In the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, pilots like Beltz and Flinn face record backlogs of ships. On Monday, the locations had 140 ships in port, including 56 waiting off-shore to dock.