Shortly before a 752-foot oil tanker collided in the fog with the Bay Bridge last week, the pilot of the huge ship changed course in a risky maneuver that placed the vessel into a difficult turn even as strong currents swirled around the bridge towers.
The new information, revealed Monday in interviews with the Bay Area News Group, points to pilot error, although thickening fog, a faulty beacon and dangerous currents also appear to have contributed to the accident that raised fresh questions about oil tanker safety in the bay.
Just why 61-year-old pilot Guy Kleess changed course as the Overseas Reymar neared the bridge Jan. 7 is still unclear. With limited visibility amid shifting fog, Kleess set course to sail between two towers near the middle of the bridge as the tanker headed to sea.
But then -- like a truck driver switching lanes while coming into a toll plaza -- he maneuvered the tanker into a last-minute turn and tried to go through a different opening.
"He originally reported to go through Charlie-Delta and then changed," said Capt. Peter McIsaac, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots. "The Coast Guard is doing a full investigation. I can't speculate why."
The towers of the Bay Bridge are identified by letters on nautical charts. Kleess, a former Exxon oil tanker captain who has sailed professionally for 36 years, including 1,200 trips on the bay with large ships, had planned to go through the opening between the "C" and "D" towers, but then for reasons still unknown, veered east as he approached them, and tried to sail between the "D" and "E" towers instead.
"You are going across at a fairly acute angle. It's not an easy maneuver to do," McIsaac said.
The ship, the Overseas Reymar, sideswiped the "E" tower at 11:18 a.m., causing a large scrape down the ship's hull and several million dollars damage to the bridge and the ship.
On Monday, Coast Guard officials said Kleess, along with the Overseas Reymar's captain and crew, passed drug and alcohol tests. Also Monday, Kleess' attorney refuted that fatigue was a factor.
Kleess, who rents a home in San Francisco but also has homes in Wyoming and Maryland, had been in the Bay Area since New Year's Day and had not been on duty for 39 hours, according to pilot records.
"He was well rested," said his attorney Rex Clack, of San Francisco.
The accident was the second time a large ship collided with the bridge in the past five years. In 2007, the cargo ship Cosco Busan hit the "D" tower, spilling 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay, oiling 69 miles of shoreline and killing thousands of birds. The Overseas Reymar was empty, having unloaded millions of gallons of crude oil at the Shell refinery in Martinez the night before, but the accident has raised major concerns among environmentalists, the shipping industry, marine safety officials and the Coast Guard. Had the ship been full of oil, it could have created an ecological disaster.
"Any time you take a large ship like this in tricky currents and make last-minute, unplanned changes in course, that's a recipe, potentially, for trouble, particularly when you are close to a bridge," said Bob Bea, a former Shell oil tanker captain and engineering professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.
Worse, the ship went under the Bay Bridge as currents quickly accelerated due to a falling tide in a condition known as a "maximum current." In 2007, Bea said, he nearly crashed his 34-foot sailboat into the same tower during similar conditions.
"It's like encountering black ice on a roadway," said Bea. "Suddenly you change direction and velocity quickly and have to recover equally quickly. If you are hemmed in by two big trucks, well, we've got a problem, Houston."
A critical part of the investigation by the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board, Bea said, will be learning why Kleess changed course. It could have been a mechanical failure on the ship or its radar, he said, or miscommunication with the crew and captain, who are based in the Philippines, or simply a mistake in judgment at a time when the Coast Guard said visibility was only a quarter mile because of fog.
A radar beacon on the bridge that shows sailors the midpoint between towers "C" and "D" was discovered not to be working after the accident. The $45,000 device, known as "racon B," is one of three such beacons on the bridge, and is owned by Caltrans.
"These things last for many years but not forever," said Caltrans spokesman Will Shuck. "When they do break down, we replace them. That's what we are doing now."
Asked whether the broken beacon might have caused Kleess to become confused, or concerned enough by the fog to change course, Kleess' attorney, Clack, said he didn't know.
"We're looking at the effect of navigational aids being out," he said. "But at this point it would be premature given the level of our investigation to speculate."
Shipping pilots are experts who help captains bring large ships into the bay and negotiate local conditions. They typically work one week and have the following week off.
Kleess had not sailed for 39 hours before boarding the Overseas Reymar at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, McIsaac said. The ship sat at "Anchorage 9," an area just south of the Bay Bridge where oil tankers and other large ships often park while refueling and taking on food for crews, when Kleess sailed up on a small pilot boat. He relieved another pilot who had sailed the ship late Sunday night and early Monday morning down from the Shell Martinez dock to Anchorage 9.
Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell said Monday the investigation could take months.
"The Coast Guard and NTSB investigators are looking into all possible factors that might have contributed to the accident," he said. "We're trying to determine what happened and how to avoid a recurrence."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.