Take Two

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Alex Cohen & A Martínez

Riding along with the port pilots of Los Angeles (Photos)

by Take Two

Port Pilot Brett McDaniels prepares to get onto a large cargo vessel at The Port of Los Angeles Mae Ryan/KPCC

Nearly everything imported from Asia has to get here somehow, from the iPhone in your hand, to the car you're driving, to the socks on your feet. Often the first US stop in that journey is the Port of Los Angeles.

More than 2,200 ships docked here last year, bringing in over $280 billion in cargo. At the port, you'll find one of the highest-paid LA city employees: port pilots. There are about a dozen port pilots in LA, and on average they earn around $320,000 annually.

Los Angeles is also the only place where these pilots are city workers.; elsewhere, they're usually subcontracted through private companies.

We wanted to know what they do to earn that paycheck, so we hopped aboard a boat carrying pilot Brett McDaniel. He was en route several miles out to sea to greet the incoming container ship the Hyundai Faith.

It was on the last leg on its month-long journey across the Pacific from South Korea, and McDaniel is there to help navigate it in.

LA port pilots must know from memory the entire 6,000-acre complex of the port. McDaniel uses that knowledge as well as his maritime experience to nudge this massive ship into the dock.

Once he boards the ship, he'll talk with the ship's captain and crew about the weather conditions, what the ship is capable, and more in order to assess how to safely bring it in. It's a delicate job, as one wrong move can cost millions of dollars. Sometimes it takes hours to move large ships into the port.

Once it docks, its cargo can be unloaded onto trains and semis bound for the rest of the country -- port pilots are an important link in global trade.

But for Brett McDaniel, continuing his decades-long career being at sea and meeting new people is enough. "I don't care what they pay because I'd be doing it anyway," he said. "But I'm happy to know I'm one of the highest-paid. I just hope my boss doesn't find out."

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