Puget Sound pilots are the 52 elite mariners who guide vessels around local waters. Pilots, who each made about $340,000 last year, say they're underpaid; shippers who pay their salaries disagree.

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In the inky darkness of 5 a.m., John Harris takes command of the freighter APL Commodore and eases it away from a dock into Elliott Bay.

Harris choreographs the Commodore’s slow dance with two tugs below. Accounting for wind, tide and current from the nearby Duwamish River, he spins the 902-foot ship around and past ferries carrying the day’s first commuters.

It’s like backing your car out of a garage, Harris says — if your car weighed as much as 300 blue whales, the garage floor was moving, and your view was blocked by 2,000 stacked cargo containers.

Crew members from Greece, Ukraine and Tanzania obey Harris’ every word. But he isn’t captain of the big ship bound for Japan. He is a Puget Sound pilot, one of the 52 elite mariners who guide vessels around the Sound because of their knowledge of local waters and skill in maneuvering big ships.

At the pinnacle of their profession, pilots are the princes of the port, paid far more than captains of tugs, ferries and freighters. And that’s become a problem for shippers who pay the pilots’ salaries.

Local pilots say they made about $343,000 last year, leaving them well below the national average of $407,000 and seeking a raise.

Shippers say total compensation was $467,000 per pilot when you include benefits, putting them in the top 1 percent of U.S. income earners. In an unusual bit of class warfare, shippers portray pilots as monopolists trying to pad their lavish wages.

“The rest of the 1 percent doesn’t get up at 3 a.m.,” counters Andy Coe, president of Puget Sound Pilots, “get on a little launch, climb up the side of a ship and take it to dock.”

And mistakes on the job can be costly.

Pilot Rolf Neslund hit the old West Seattle Bridge in 1978, ruining it and his career. San Francisco pilot John Cota spilled bird-killing oil in the water in 2007 and went to prison.

Just getting to work can be life-threatening for pilots, who use rope ladders to board ships moving at up to 10 knots in rough seas. Columbia River Bar pilot Kevin Murray fell from a ladder in 2006 amid 40-knot winds and 20-foot waves. His body was found three days later, 75 miles away.

The squabbling between shippers and pilots has prompted top port chiefs to wade in, with a letter to state regulators saying they’re “increasingly concerned” about the acrimony between key players on the waterfront.

“It’s a big Kabuki in every port,” said Port of Seattle Chief Executive Officer Tay Yoshitani, referring to the drama around pilot pay. “Every port.”

Ancient trade

Pilots have been plying their trade since there was trade. Ancient Phoenicians used pilots, usually local fishermen. Sam Clemens, a steamboat pilot before the Civil War, took his pen name Mark Twain from a navigational term referring to minimum depth for safe passage.

Washington state regulates pilots through an obscure nine-member Board of Pilotage Commissioners, and requires pilots on the bridge of every large ship sailing in Puget Sound.

Every year the board sets a tariff for fees pilots charge different-size ships. The 52 Puget Sound pilots then pool that money, which totaled nearly $31 million last year. After subtracting operating expenses, they divide what’s left among them as income.

Pilots tend to have experience captaining tugs, tankers, freighters and ferries. Coe, 59, began his career as a toilet-cleaning deckhand on Seattle harbor cruises, while still at Lakeside High. He eventually moved up to captaining small freighters hauling supplies to Alaska, where he learned to dock in extreme wind and waves — work fraught with what seamen call a “pucker” factor.

Even for the saltiest captains, becoming a pilot is a years-long process of training and testing. One exam requires candidates to draw from memory 26 different charts of the Puget Sound waterway, including every buoy.

Most of the pilots’ 7,600 assignments last year required a trip to Port Angeles — either getting off an outbound ship or boarding an inbound ship in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

On those jobs, a pilot’s smaller boat bounces out from Port Angeles and pulls along side a big ship, which drops a rope ladder over its side. Timing the swells just right, a pilot grabs the dangling ladder and climbs up the side of an inbound ship; on an outbound ride, the pilot climbs down.

No Puget Sound pilots have died in the act. But Gary Hurt had a close call in October when the ladder he stepped on gave way. An alert crewman yanked him back onto the pilot boat’s deck.

Once they reach the ship’s bridge, pilots confer with the captain about the course to port. Pilots do not physically take the helm, but give all sailing commands.

Chief among piloting skills is the ability to dock ships as long as three or four football fields. “It’s like maneuvering the Space Needle, laid on its side,” Coe said. If a pilot miscalculates by 3 feet, it can mean serious damage.

Local pilots have maintained a good record since Neslund’s infamous mishap. That’s fortunate because the consequences of an error have become severe.

On a foggy morning five years ago, the freighter Cosco Busan clipped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, ripping a gash in the ship’s hull, spilling 50,000 gallons of oil into the bay and killing an estimated 2,400 birds.

Impaired by prescription drugs, pilot John Cota did not properly read radar, according to a federal investigation, while traveling with a quarter-mile of visibility. Cota spent 10 months in prison.

“If you spill oil in the water, you’re a criminal,” Harris said.

Adding to the pilots’ stress is their schedule. In Puget Sound, pilots work 15 straight days, on-call at all times. Then they take 13 days off.

Potential fallout

Piloting that protects the environment and promotes commerce is best accomplished, say heads of the state’s biggest ports, by peace between shippers and pilots.

Bickering and escalating pay could lead cargo — and related jobs — to go elsewhere, such as British Columbia, says Yoshitani, the Port of Seattle CEO.

Pilots are “an important part of the bundle of costs” shippers face, Yoshitani explains. And unlike fuel and steel, pilots are one of the few costs the industry has some say in controlling.

“One change (in cost) can cause the cargo to be diverted,” Yoshitani says.

Pilots here and in San Francisco dispute that, saying their fees aren’t enough to influence trade. Shippers are just trying to drive down pilot wages, Coe says, because they’re an easier target than railroads or longshoremen, which account for a bigger share of shipping costs.

In Puget Sound, pilot pay was long determined by a formula tied to inflation. All was calm.

But pilots wanted out in 2006. The economy was rolling, trade booming. Pay in San Francisco soared to nearly $500,000. (When it comes to their earnings, Bay Area pilots have compared themselves during rate hearings to surgeons and ballplayers.)

The Washington state commission granted a 24 percent increase in Puget Sound tariff rates, which pilots say shows just how underpaid they were.

Shippers see the future as a dangerous game of leapfrog. Pilots in Hawaii want Puget Sound wages; Puget Sound wants San Francisco pay, and so on.

To pilots, it’s parity. And, Puget Sound pay should be at, or near, the highest because of the region’s bad weather and large area. In sunny Los Angeles, pilots board ships just three miles from the dock, notes Harry Dudley, chairman of the state commission.

“I want the reputation as the best,” Coe says.

But shippers say there’s already an abundance of aspiring pilots in the local talent pool. Higher pay isn’t needed as a sweetener.

Since the formula was cast aside, tariff hearings have been emotional affairs packed with pilots and shippers.

The chief adversaries are Mike Moore, former Coast Guard captain and vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, and Walt Tabler, a former state assistant attorney general and executive director of the Puget Sound Pilots.

Each side says the other is being unreasonable. Moore says pilots got stubborn when they hired Tabler, a litigator. Coe says Moore, a former college quarterback, is hypercompetitive.

They’re not even close to agreeing on what pilots are paid.

Moore argues that pilots determine the level of their benefits, so money they steer to pension and health insurance is all a form of compensation.

Tabler maintains that the pilots’ $343,000 net income — not what they put toward benefits — is really what should be counted as salary.

There’s no simple verdict, says Neil Bruce, a University of Washington economics professor. Benefits “are most certainly compensation,” Bruce said. But they’re not considered income or salary for tax purposes.

Rate hearing

At the last annual rate hearing, Moore characterized the pilots’ proposal as inappropriate demands. State ferry captains — part of the pilots’ job pool — had taken a 3 percent pay cut, he noted.

Regulators rejected the proposal for more money.

Commissioner Elsie Hulsizer said it was “disrespectful to the general public, 99 percent of whom don’t begin to get near them” in salary.

We get it, says Coe. “We understand we make a lot of money. We’re very much aware of what is going on in the economy.” Yet pilots still contend higher pay is in the public interest.

It’s up to the state commission, Yoshitani says, to come up a with peaceful solution.

Dudley, the commission chairman, says regulators are doing what state law requires. “Any changes to the tariff will be rational and reasonable and the result of careful analysis,” said Dudley, a former Coast Guard captain.

Back on the Commodore, Harris completes another assignment, as the pilot boat bobs in the swells below, preparing to retrieve him from the freighter almost a mile from shore.

His heartbeat will finally relax, he says, when he gets to land. Harris, who woke up at 2:30 a.m., will stay in Port Angeles, trying to get some sleep, while waiting for an assignment back to Seattle or Tacoma that night.

“Nothing’s routine,” Harris said just before climbing down the rope ladder. “When you get complacent, that’s when you make a mistake.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com