By Jaxon Van Derbeken
San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco — The California commission that polices bar pilots who navigate ships through San Francisco Bay has gone nearly a year without acting on an extraordinary complaint against a captain lodged after his loaded oil tanker nearly ran aground off Richmond – an incident that could have caused an environmental disaster.
The California Board of Pilot Commissioners’ handling of the allegation against Capt. David Chapman – made by the then-head of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association – has come under scrutiny because of the contrasting treatment for another pilot in an accident that attracted far more publicity, an empty tanker’s sideswiping of a Bay Bridge tower Jan. 7.
The pilot in that accident, Capt. Guy Kleess, was promptly put on paid administrative leave by the bar pilots association and remains on dry land. Chapman, on the other hand, is still piloting ships, and the state commission has yet to decide what it should do about the complaint against him.
Chapman, a 15-year veteran bar pilot, already had an at-fault accident on his record when he nearly grounded a tanker filled with 35,000 barrels of diesel fuel last February off Richmond.
Within days, Capt. Bruce Horton, then the president of the bar pilots association, wrote to the state commission, saying Chapman had a reputation for “excessive risk-taking” and urging the panel to perform a formal evaluation of him in response to complaints about his “questionable” and “unusual” ship-handling.
Oil firms drop him
Oil-shipping companies, whose cargo is carried to and from refineries in ships under the control of bar pilots, were already alarmed by Chapman. Within days after the incident off Richmond, three of them – Chevron, Tesoro and the management of the Overseas Shipping Group vessel he had been commanding – told the commission they were barring Chapman from boarding their tankers. They have not lifted the ban, but Chapman is able to pilot other vessels.
The commission – consisting of seven members appointed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown – received Horton’s letter in March but didn’t take it up for discussion until this month. By then, without considering the bar pilot chief’s concerns, commissioners had already found Chapman to be at fault for the incident and decided to send him a letter of reprimand and have him undergo remedial training.
When they finally took up Horton’s letter this month, one commissioner expressed concern that taking any further steps against Chapman would amount to “double jeopardy.”
Chapman’s attorney, Forrest Booth, told the state commission that far from being blameworthy, Chapman was the hero in the incident and had saved the ship from being run aground. Booth declined a request to comment for this story, and efforts to contact Chapman were unsuccessful.
Chapman and Kleess are among the 60 or so bar pilots who by state law control commercial vessels wherever they navigate in San Francisco Bay. The captain of a ship is still in command of the crew, but takes orders from the bar pilot until the vessel is out of the bay.
The incident that soured oil companies on Chapman happened off the Richmond Long Wharf, which serves the Chevron refinery. The 600-foot-long tanker that Chapman was piloting, the Overseas Tampa, had just taken on its load of diesel fuel from Chevron and was setting out for Hawaii when something went wrong.
The preferred method for Chevron pilots pulling away from the wharf, the state commission found, is to use two tractor tugs to help a ship make a pair of 180-degree turns and head to open sea.
On Feb. 18, however, Chapman persuaded the tanker’s captain to agree to an alternative plan: The tugs would pull the tanker backward and north, then position the ship at an angle that would, with the force of the maximum ebb tide, swing it toward the Golden Gate. Chapman called the move a “patient departure,” telling the ship’s master and tug pilots that it would work “as long as we’re patient.”
Just missed shoals
When it left its berth, however, the Overseas Tampa began moving more swiftly than expected, complicating its ability to reach an intended 45-degree angle from the wharf. Chapman ordered the engines to run at full power in reverse, and the tanker narrowly missed shoals north of the wharf that could have damaged or even ruptured its double hull.
Two days after the incident, two captains onboard of one of the tugs wrote up a near-miss report and warned: “We should slow down the pace of the jobs. The tugs should never be forced to operate in survival mode or extremis during a routine ship assist.”
Chevron officials forwarded the report to the state bar pilots commission, saying in an e-mail that they were “extremely concerned” about the incident and had barred Chapman from the wharf.
In its final report on the incident in November, the state commission found Chapman at fault and said he should never have attempted the maneuver because the ebb tide was too strong. It said Chapman had sent the ship “speeding backwards to the north, coming to an emergency stop at the limits of the maneuvering area, nearly aground, then speeding forward in a wild ‘S’ turn” before heading toward sea.
The commission concluded that Chapman’s maneuver was “inconsistent with prudent seamanship, violated public policy and the public’s perception about how any ship should be handled on the bay, let alone a loaded oil tanker.”
Blaming tug pilot
In his defense, Chapman not only denied being reckless but also blamed the event on the failure of one of the tug pilots to obey his orders at a critical point. That pilot, he said, still resented that Chapman had passed the bar pilot test more than a decade earlier and that the tug pilot hadn’t.
The commission provided another possible explanation for the near-grounding: At the crucial moment of the maneuver, Chapman radioed for help to the tugboat pilot, Jim Halloran, calling him “Vince.”
“Vince … isn’t there anything you can do to make the bow go to port?” Chapman asked.
After not responding for several seconds, Halloran finally said: “I don’t know.”
The communication breakdown, the commission found, may have happened because Halloran didn’t realize Chapman was talking to him.
Halloran declined to be interviewed for the probe, agreeing to talk only if he was first provided Chapman’s version of events. He did not return calls seeking comment.
It wasn’t the first time Chapman had been blamed for an incident on the bay. In 2008, he was piloting an auto carrier when it rammed a pier in Benicia, causing $185,000 in damage to two concrete pilings and the dock, the state commission found.
In finding Chapman at fault, the Board of Pilot Commissioners said he had disregarded a warning that the ship had been having engine problems, and that those problems had contributed to the accident.
The February 2012 near-grounding off Richmond made Chapman one of only a handful of bay pilots to have more than one at-fault accident on their record, state commission records show. Kleess, the bar pilot whose empty tanker sideswiped the Bay Bridge on Jan. 7, is another.
After the February incident, Horton, the then-president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, wrote to the state commission that Chapman’s seamanship had earlier been called into question.
“During my tenure as port agent, I have received informal and anecdotal reports from other pilots and customers of excessive risk taking and unusual ship-handling practices by Capt. Chapman,” Horton wrote. “I have also personally observed some of these aspects of his work.”
He said he was “sufficiently concerned” about Chapman’s performance that the commission should evaluate him. If nothing else, he said, a positive conclusion could put Chapman back in the good graces of the oil companies that had banned him.
Although he passed along his concerns, Horton put Chapman back in pilot service one week after the incident. He declined to be interviewed for this story. The current head of the bar pilots association, Capt. Peter McIsaac, issued a statement on behalf of the group.
“Our association believes pilots should be subject to strong oversight by the pilot commission, and Capt. Horton’s letter is consistent with that belief,” he said.
He added that Chapman has “moved dozens of vessels without incident” since the near-grounding and that he “remains a bar pilot in good standing.” The remedial training he must undergo, McIsaac said, will help “assure that his future performance is in keeping with applicable standards of excellence.”
No action on letter
In the 10 months since Horton wrote his extraordinary letter – the only such missive from a bar pilots association leader in more than a decade of documentation with the state commission – the panel has yet to decide how to react.
At the commission’s regular monthly meeting Jan. 17, its executive director, Allen Garfinkle, suggested that the panel order a senior pilot to monitor Chapman’s performance for 10 trips. “We have a duty to the people of California to make sure the waters are safe,” Garfinkle said.
However, some commissioners said any monitoring should be conducted on the orders of the bar pilots association, not the state commission.
“I think we’re putting the pilot into double jeopardy if we do this evaluation,” Commissioner John Brooks said, stressing that the board had already acted to sanction and train Chapman.
Ultimately, the panel told Garfinkle and McIsaac to come back with a recommendation at its next meeting Feb. 21 – three days after the one-year anniversary of the near-grounding.
Mike Jacob, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade group representing shipping companies and terminal operators, said dealing with Chapman is the state commission’s job.
“That is precisely why we rely on the state and the board of the pilot commissioners to regulate the licensees and ensure the safety of the ships that come into the bay,” Jacob said.
He called it unsettling that the commission had done nothing in reaction to Horton’s letter raising doubts about Chapman’s seamanship.
“For them to sit there and not even ask, as far as we can tell, ‘What does he mean by that?’ That’s pretty astounding,” Jacob said.
Commission President Knute Michael Miller said the board was drawing up a reprimand letter for the February incident and that Chapman would probably have to undergo monitoring beyond his remedial training.
As for Horton’s letter, he said, “I think we proceeded with all diligence and proceeded appropriately. … We have never done this before, we have never been asked to do it – we have no precedent, we don’t have a regulation, we have nothing. Now we have to decide what to do.”
Steve Knight, political director for the environmental group Save the Bay, said the commission’s handling of the incident and the questions about Chapman’s seamanship raise “serious concerns” about “the systems in place to protect San Francisco Bay.”
“The public relies heavily on these pilots to keep our bay safe,” he said. “Why we are reading about all this nearly a year later?”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Kevin Fagan contributed to this report.