For centuries, pilots have steered ships into and out of ports in difficult waters, through traffic, rocks, reefs and narrow channels. The work of a pilot has its roots in ancient Greece (pedon= steering oar), when local fishermen were employed by trading vessels to guide them into port safely. It is said that the riskiest part of an ocean voyage is when a ship nears the congested port area. Expert ship handlers with extensive local waterway knowledge, the danger in a pilot’s job begins as his tender nears the ship he will bring to berth.
Boarding a massive ship in rolling open seas takes determination and nerve. Once alongside, the pilot must climb a ladder up perhaps three stories, to enter the ship. Timing his jump onto the moving ladder while both the ship and boat are also moving is impressive -- and dangerous. Adverse weather situations can multiply this danger. As reported by NPR, since 2006, four American harbor pilots have been killed on the job.
Pilots may transfer to ships from helicopters, too, where they are lowered down on a tether. This can be tricky in good weather but in rough weather it is dangerous.
Once at the bridge, the pilot supports the master of the vessel, utilizing modern VTS and navigational technology in addition to his personal knowledge of the local geography, climate, tides, current charts and harbor traffic patterns. As well, pilots must remain aware of temporary harbor situations, such as a military ship requiring a safety perimeter. By law, the ship's master remains officially in command with ultimate responsibility for the safety of the vessel and the pilot is an advisor.
As ships slow to maintain safety in harbor areas, maneuverability suffers. The pilot must deal with this as well as making sure to remain aware of other ships in the restricted harbor area and avoiding natural and man-made obstacles. He must also be familiar with the various ships that need his help; tankers, bulk-cargo ships, container ships, and cruise ships all make use of pilots.
For the largest ships, a second pilot might come aboard to handle global positioning technology while the first pilot takes control of the navigation.
In the USA, oversight of pilot activity is typically monitored at the state level by an appointed Pilot Commission. In recent years, there has been growing controversy in some regions, with industry stakeholders growing more vocal about increasing tariffs for pilot services. Much of the root cause of this sentiment appears to stem from the fact that most pilot organizations operate as regulated monopolies without competition, and industry perception is that pilot compensation is in excess of other maritime and land-based roles that also require highly trained personnel in dangerous working conditions.
The American Pilots’ Association summarizes requirements for the two types of pilot licenses -- state and federal: Each state pilot holds two pilot licenses. One issued by the state and one issued by the federal government (Coast Guard). The federal license is set as a minimum standard. State licenses require more experience and training. Some states call for prior oceangoing officer experience; some do not. Many states rely on hands-on-training while others require that training is supplemented with classroom and simulation instruction. Years of training and testing may be asked for as well as continuing education in new technology and new vessel types.
Although state requirements vary, generally pilotage is regulated by the 24 coastal states for both foreign-flagged and US-flagged vessels. This originated with a law passed in 1789 giving states the right to regulate pilotage in their waters. In the Great Lakes, pilots of international trade ships are regulated by the Coast Guard because Canada also fronts on the lakes.
The piloting profession requires training in using advanced navigation technology in addition to traditional printed charts, compasses and radar. Pilots are conversant in using high-integrity electronic positioning systems, electronic nautical charts (ENC) and related display systems, AIS, VTS, and marine radar fitted with ARPA. Data from all of these sources can be digitally integrated in a bridge's system, and a pilot must be adaptable in using a variety of these dashboards.
PortVision regularly works with pilot organizations, providing AIS based ship tracking and historical analysis of vessel movements and activities. Some pilots use PortVision to support scheduling and operations, receiving automated alerts when vessels arrive at a sea buoy, when a pilot boat passes a key point-of-interest, or to view real-time status of harbor tugs, line handlers, and dock availability.
A dangerous, highly trained, and technological job, marine and harbor pilots guide thousands of ships around the world to safe harbor every day.