Cat Engines Power San Francisco Pilot Boats in Challenging Waters


Cat Marine Engines Power Pilot and Station Boats

For a century and a half, the San Francisco Bar Pilots have scaled rope ladders to board oil tankers, huge cargo ships and just about every other large ocean-going vessel to guide them in, out and around one of the most treacherous ports in the North America.

San Francisco Bay’s topography, strong currents, high traffic volumes and rapidly changing weather make it one of the most challenging pilotage waters in the United States.


Legendary mariners


San Francisco Bar Pilots are experienced master mariners with specialized training and education that qualifies them to direct the navigation of the multi-million dollar vessels that enter San Francisco and Monterey Bays each year. They service over 200 docks and maritime facilities located throughout the Bay, including the ports of San Francisco, Richmond, Benicia, Redwood City, Stockton and Sacramento.

Bar Pilots take their name from silt deposits that created a bar located about six miles outside of San Francisco Bay in the shape of a half-moon crescent that faces the Golden Gate Bridge.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots are one of the oldest maritime organizations on the Pacific Coast. In the early 1800s, ships from around the world began arriving in the San Francisco Bay in large numbers. In 1850, due to the treacherous bar and navigational hazards throughout the Bay, the California Legislature recognized a great need for expert mariners to provide safe passage through the waters of the Golden Gate as the population swelled with the Gold Rush.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots protect the waterways, marine life, shoreline and economic vitality through the critical public service they provide. Conditions on the water are frequently hazardous and often come with dense fog, strong winds and dangerous currents amidst high concentrations of vessel traffic of all types in constrained areas.

With some 9,000 ships arriving at the port of San Francisco each year—that means 18,000 ship transfers per year (inbound and outbound)—during which the bar pilots must brave perilous weather conditions, rolling seas, high winds and rapidly changing tides. No matter the weather conditions, the pilots guide the ships safely into and out of the harbor.

Highly skilled and experienced captains operating the pilot boats must maneuver the run boat alongside the large ships to a narrow, four-foot window for Bar Pilots to reach the rope ladders dangling down the side of the ocean-going ships. The Bar Pilots then climb the ladders, without safety lines, to reach the decks of these giant ships that can be as high as 30 feet above—while roiling seas make the process a significant challenge.

Successful efforts by the Bar Pilots to board the ships requires extraordinary skill and seamanship by the run boat captain. The boat must have powerful, responsive engines to ensure the power and precise maneuverability in seas that can be very rough.

After boarding the huge, ocean-going vessels, the Bar Pilots steer the ships through a 2,000-ft. wide channel that was dredged through the sand bar. The channel is 50-ft. deep, but on either side of channel it’s only 24-ft. deep—too shallow for the draft of loaded, deep sea vessels. Precisely maneuvering a deep-draft ship safely through the shallow channel requires the Bar Pilots to accurately determine the ship’s height, the tide and the clearance beneath the ship.


Cat Marine Power


To ferry and lodge their 60 Bar Pilots, the San Francisco Bar Pilots maintain a fleet of four vessels—the 67-ft. Golden Gate run boat is powered by twin 850 hp Cat C32 marine engines running at 1800 RPM. Plus, three 104-ft. long station boats—the Drake, San Francisco and California—each powered by twin 1100 hp Cat 3508C marine propulsion engines operating at 1600 RPM.


“For us, the most important thing is the reaction time of the Cat engines,” says Jason Covell, marine superintendent with the San Francisco Bar Pilots and run boat operator.


“Just having that speed and being able to get out of dangerous and stressful situations safely. We’re coming alongside huge, powerful ships, boarding our pilots—sometimes in dangerous, heavy seas—so we need all that power and the quick response time the Cat engines deliver.”

The station boats maintain four-man crews of bar pilots and are literally stationed 12 miles offshore outside the bar 24/7/365 to greet and board the more than 9,000 vessels visiting San Francisco every year.


Dealer delivers engine support


Peterson Power is responsible for the maintenance of the Cat Marine Engines that power these Bar Pilot boats on their critical missions.

“The response time that we get from Peterson is pretty amazing,” Covell says. “If I make a phone call, it’s usually within an hour or two that we have a technician on site. 

“Whenever there’s an issue on board any of our vessels,” says Covell, “the operator will usually notify me and I will reach out to Peterson Power for a service call. My experience here at San Francisco Bar Pilots is that Cat engines are very reliable. The service department at Peterson Power is great.”

San Francisco Bar Pilots maintain a Customer Value Agreement with Peterson Power for their three station boats. Peterson travels to the San Francisco Bar Pilot’s operating docks to provide preventive maintenance services every 1,000 hours on the main engines. 

Peterson Power also provides S•O•Ssm Fluid Analysis to San Francisco Bar Pilots’ Cat powered fleet.

“From my experience with the Peterson oil samples, the analysis is very concise and easy to read, and the support staff is available whenever I have any questions,” Covell says. “It’s pretty easy on my end. The techs come out, change the oil, take the samples and send them in, and I receive an e-mail containing the reports.”


Excellent parts availability


“We haven’t experienced any extended periods of downtime waiting for parts,” Covell says. “Whenever there’s a need for parts, Peterson will deliver the parts to our facility and we’re open 24 hours a day so even if there’s no one here to accept the part, they can drop it off in our shop area.”

As long as the magnificent San Francisco Bay remains a port of call for thousands of ocean-going vessels, the San Francisco Bar Pilots will continue to safely guide the ever-larger giants into port and their boats powered by Cat engines will reliably deliver them to the larger ships.




San Francisco Bar Pilots rely on Cat Marine Power to overcome challenging waters



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