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San Francisco Bar Pilots

Pier 9 East End
94111 San Francisco



For more than 160 years, the San Francisco Bar Pilots have been guiding the world’s largest ships through some of North America’s most difficult waterways. These highly skilled professionals are maritime experts who utilize navigational experience, ship-handling skills and local knowledge to perform a critical public service.

Every day, the state-licensed Bar Pilots navigate commercial ships to and from the nine ports within San Francisco Bay and the Port of Monterey. These vessels include oil tankers, container ships and cruise ships, many of which are much larger than the 853 foot tall Transamerica Building. With extreme care, the Bar Pilots deliver passengers, agricultural products, manufactured goods and hazardous materials throughout the Bay as far south as Redwood City, and as far inland as the Ports of Stockton and Sacramento.

Conditions on the San Francisco Bay change frequently: limited visibility, strong winds and currents, and high concentrations of vessel traffic present challenging circumstances. The average depth of the Bay is only 12 feet, not much deeper than a swimming pool. Through extensive experience and training, the Bar Pilots guide ships as deep as 50 feet through very narrow channels, avoiding recreational vessels and hazards like submerged rocks, all while being mindful of strong shifting currents and tides.

Foremost in every Bar Pilot’s mind: a single accident could paralyze commerce and tourism, devastate marine life, and do irreparable damage to the environment.


The San Francisco Bar Pilots were established and placed under State authority in 1849 during the first legislative session of the new State of California. Today, the Bar Pilots are licensed and regulated by the Board of Pilot Commissioners. With few exceptions, California requires all commercial ships calling in the Bay to have a Bar Pilot in control of navigation. The vast majority of these ships are registered in other countries with foreign crews who have no experience navigating in the San Francisco Bay.

The Bar Pilots’ profession is highly specialized and highly regulated. Years of maritime experience and extensive state-monitored training are required prior to licensing. Throughout their careers, the Bar Pilots are also required to undergo intensive advanced training at regular intervals. Strong regulatory oversight ensures that operational decisions are driven by safety. The Board of Pilot Commissioners ensures that safe navigation of the Bay is never compromised by commercial or other outside pressures.


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