Grant Livingstone

The Guy Who Can Steer Your 950-Foot Container Ship to Shore


A Restaurant
3334 W. Pacific Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA

The Tab

(1) Johnnie Walker Black, neat
(1) Johnnie Walker Red, neat
(1) Maker’s Mark, rocks
$40.50 + tip
Livingstone’s Tip for the Road: Don’t pull too hard. Don’t pull too weak. Just keep a steady strain at all times.

Dark wood, padded leather seats with brass nail heads, wrought iron, dim lighting: Everything about the interior of A Restaurant in Newport Beach says old school. The watering hole, formerly known as Arches (which opened in 1922), is one of those Southern California spots where something was actually lost when the last whiff of cigarette smoke faded away.

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The low-slung, shingled roof of A Restaurant sits at the entrance to the stretch of PCH known as Mariner’s Mile—about the best place in Southern California to hear tales from the sea. And Grant Livingstone is just the person to tell those tales.

“As a sailor, this is my kind of bar,” the compact 56-year-old Aliso Viejo resident declares, setting down his Johnnie Walker Red, neat. “This place has got a story to tell. It’s got character. It’s got depth.”

Livingstone’s parents are from Scotland, but he was born in Inglewood and grew up in Huntington Beach and Irvine. (He does bust out a perfect brogue when he’s telling the one about almost getting in a bar fight in Glasgow during a family reunion.) The son of a merchant mariner, he’s been at sea his whole life—much of the time thousands of miles from shore. But for the past quarter-century or so, his job has involved getting nail-bitingly close to shore.

Livingstone is a senior harbor pilot for Jacobsen Pilot Service, the private company that holds the exclusive contract to steer massive ships into and out of the Port of Long Beach. All those massive cargo ships and tankers you see anchored within sight of shore every time you go to the Aquarium of the Pacific? They’re waiting for a little pilot’s launch to pull up alongside and deliver Livingstone or one of his colleagues, who steer these 950-foot-long behemoths safely up to the pier.

“Never come back and say, ‘The captain and I got in an argument and we hit the dock.’ It’s your job to get it to the dock, I don’t care how you have to do it.”

“They say that piloting is the second-oldest profession,” he says with smirk. Piloting jobs allow a captain to be based on land and work a fairly regular schedule, making it ideal for sailors with families. (Livingstone and his wife, Alisa, have three adult children, a son, and two daughters.) Combine that with good pay—well into the six-figure range, even on the low end, depending on the port and a given pilot’s years of service—and the posts are not only demanding, they’re in demand. “There’s only about 400-450 pilots in the entire country, and you’ve probably got, oh, 10,000 licensed mariners in the U.S.,” Livingstone estimates. Turnover is low, and competition for openings is “intense.”

His journey to this plum job began when his family moved to Huntington Beach. “We wanted to pick up surfing,” he remembers, but his father put the kibosh on that. “He came down to watch and he wisely said, ‘You could drown out there.’ He said we could surf, but we’d have to wear a life jacket. And that”—Livingstone chortles—“would not fly. ”

But as teenagers, Livingstone and his twin brother, George, could take a boat pretty much anywhere they wanted. “We’d be 15, 16 years old and going to Catalina from Huntington Harbor on a 24-foot single-screw cabin cruiser,” Livingstone recalls. “That made sense to my dad, but not surfing without a life jacket.”

Both Livingstone twins embraced life at sea, attending the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo. Upon his graduation at age 20, Grant signed on as third mate on a ship. “A couple of weeks later, I’m on the bridge of the ship for the first time, approaching Yokohama in the middle of the night with hundreds of ships coming in from all over the world,” he says, “and I’m looking at this radar, thinking, ‘Oh Lord, please don’t let me hit anybody!’”

Once he returned from his first trans-Pacific voyage, his father gave him some sage advice that helped lead him to the closer-to-land life of a harbor pilot. There are traditionally two paths that lead to a piloting job: being an officer on an open-ocean ship or working on tugboats at a port. Livingstone’s dad told him to do both.

“He told me, ‘You go down to that port [Long Beach], and you knock on these tugboats, and you tell them that you want to get a job as a deckhand. Don’t tell ’em you’re an academy graduate. They’ll kick you out.’” And since sailors work day-for-day—i.e., four months at sea, four months ashore—“if you do that for 10 years, at 30 years old, you’ll have 20 years of experience under your belt, and it’ll be unique. And he was absolutely right.” He and his brother both followed their dad’s advice, and now they’re both harbor pilots: Grant joined Jacobsen Pilot Services 22 years ago, and George is now with the Port of San Francisco.

Every port is unique, with its own distinct piloting challenges. Long Beach doesn’t offer many problems with wind, waves, or weather (what pilots call “environmentals”), but the topography is tricky. “We don’t have a lot of clearance between the bottom of the ship and the bottom of the bay, and we don’t have a lot of clearance on the bow or stern, or on either side,” Livingstone says. “It demands a precision and a high level of finesse that isn’t required at every port in the world.”

In the course of his career, he’s seen life at sea change dramatically—and not necessarily for the better. “Everybody on the beach said, ‘Captain, computers are going to make your life on that ship so much easier,’” he says with a rueful grin. “Well, computers have made the workload on the master of a ship go up immensely. Now, it’s not just the agent who represents the ship who wants information. It’s every department in every company that has anything to do with that ship—and they want that information, any time, day or night.”

These many departments and companies have a tendency to make frequent cell phone calls to a ship’s bridge to keep tabs on things—even at inopportune times. “Just recently, I’m sailing a ship out of Long Beach, and they’re having serious mechanical problems,” he relates. “We’re in the middle of maneuvering in close quarters, and the engine keeps stopping. So, the chief engineer is calling the captain, and this stupid bridge cell phone keeps ringing. And this poor captain feels obligated to walk over and pick up this cell phone. I’m trying to be very patient and understanding, but the frickin’ engine’s not running—and we’re not clear of the rocks yet. That phone rang three times, and three times, that captain put the chief engineer’s phone down, and went back.

“The fourth time it rang and he started to walk over—and this is totally non-regulation—I walked over and picked up that cell phone. His face kinda went white, and I said, ‘This is the pilot, we’re in the middle of maneuvering, call back in an hour. Don’t call again.’ And I hung the phone up. I had no idea who it was, but at some point, the nonsense has to stop. And he can blame me: ‘Well, that rogue pilot grabbed the phone!’”

That incident might not have been regulation, but it was in the service of a pilot’s first duty. “Never come back and say, ‘The captain and I got in an argument and we hit the dock,’” Livingstone declares. “It’s your job to get it to the dock, I don’t care how you have to do it.”

And crossing cultural and linguistic barriers—when Livingstone started, most captains were European; now, most are Asian—can add another layer of challenges. “I had a Russian captain one time in the fog,” he remembers, “and I told him to stop the engine because we’re going to let the anchor go—and for whatever reason, he doesn’t stop the engine. Finally, the pilot station’s telling me, ‘You’re going to hit the goddamn rocks, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Look, the captain’s not responding to what I’m telling him, so stop bugging me.’

“I thought, ‘What can I do to get through to this Russian?’ So I told him, ‘Captain, if you don’t obey my commands, the Coast Guard captain of the port will come on this ship and you will be arrested.’ And because he was Russian, he believed that: He reached over and stopped the engine. It was totally made-up!”

In spite—or perhaps because of—such episodes, Livingstone remains enthusiastic about his shallow-water work. “It’s a lot of fun, it’s interesting, it’s great to learn about other cultures, it opens up your own perspective about the world,” he says. “It’s not just driving ships, it’s a lot of relational stuff—I just think it’s a great job.”

As we’re settling up (and voicing our appreciation for A Restaurant’s strong pours—“I’d call that a last one a double,” he declares), Livingstone offers an appropriately nautical farewell. “Keep a steady strain,” he says.

“The old tugboat captains used to tell each other that when they said their goodbyes,” he expands, turning a farewell into a story. “If a tug is towing a barge and the captain puts too much strain on the towline, it can break. Don’t pull hard enough, and your tug and tow might end up being blown onto the beach. But it’s obviously a metaphor for life. Life is a balance. Don’t pull too hard. Don’t pull too weak. Just keep a steady strain at all times.”

Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor in Southern California.

Thinking L.A. is a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo by Ted B. Kissell.
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