Mark Barnum is a tugboat captain on the San Francisco Bay, but when his ship comes in he’ll be a bar pilot.  

Any vessel entering or departing the Bay with 5,000 long tons of cargo must be escorted by a tugboat, and Barnum is often the one at the helm. His employer is Baydelta Maritime, a privately owned company berthed part time in Benicia’s port, specializing in tanker escorts and assists. The company is known for its high kip rating (a kip is 1,000 pounds of braking force) and bollard pull (a way of measuring towing power). “Ships play such a huge part in our lives that we don’t even know. About 90% of everything that passes through your hands has been brought here on a ship,” he says.

It’s been 6 ½ years since Barnum first started as a deckhand. He worked his way up from there, taking classes and passing exams to become a captain. “When you start from the bottom without a formal education, you’re called a ‘hawsepiper,’ and then there are the ‘academy guys,’” he explains.

Barnum is one hawsepiper who loves his job.  

“I get to see a part of the world people don’t see. It’s pretty sweet out on the water,” said Barnum, who works seven days on, and seven days off. His shifts are 12 hours. “I’m awake at really odd hours at night so I get to see totally amazing celestial formations. I’ve seen any kind of wildlife—whales, porpoises, fish, birds—owls.”  He also sees people swimming and kayaking.

Barnum is working towards becoming a bar pilot like his father-in-law, whom he calls his “ship handling guru,” and who has been serving as a bar pilot for a record breaking 33 years. The highly paid position guards the safety of the Bay and requires years of command time, sharp navigation skills and extensive maritime examinations.

This work is a far cry from Barnum’s literature studies at UC Davis, where he was also an active member of the cycling team. He met his wife on that team before he got more serious, eventually touring Europe on a professional team based in Luxembourg. Love pulled him back to California where he got married and settled down in Benicia. His wife, Brooke, works full time as a lawyer in San Ramon. And when he’s not on the Bay, Barnum is a stay-at-home dad for their two year-old daughter, Maude. For fun, he rides his BMX bike at the Benicia skate park and loves to read books about California history. 

What is a Bar Pilot? According to, “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. 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, 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.”