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Maritime Pilots

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Today most people associate the title of 'Pilot' with someone who is in charge of an aeroplane. However the title far pre-dates the first flight of the Wright Brothers.

James Fenimore Cooper published his novel The Pilot in 1823. The story tells us about a shadowy figure who guides a pair of American ships at the time of the American Revolution. Speculation is that the Pilot described in the book was actually based on the famous American captain John Paul Jones. He guided ships along the treacherous rocky coast of England.

Royal History

In 1514 King Henry VIII granted Trinity House (incorporated by Royal Charter) authorisation to provide pilot services to London and the River Thames, South Hampton and several other ports, although Liverpool, Bristol and other ports along the northern Irish Sea were excluded. The Trinity House was granted exclusive rights to authorise pilots on the Thames in 1608 to ensure safe passage and in the hope that they might prevent others from learning the secrets of the river's navigation.

What does a Pilot do?

Although most fictional accounts deal with the dangers faced by a ship at sea, the truth is the dangers are far greater when they approach land. Rocks, reefs and shallow areas hide beneath the water's surface. Although these are marked as well as possible with buoys, markers and lights, the skill of someone with 'local knowledge' is invaluable, especially in conditions of reduced visibility and in high traffic areas.

Any time a large commercial ship enters a port, canal (such as Panama or Suez) or other confined area, she is required to surrender command to a local Pilot who has been trained about local obstructions. In some areas, such as the US controlled sections of the Great Lakes, Pilots are required to be aboard and on duty any time the vessel is underway.

At some ports such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Tampa, Florida, the channels are long enough to require the Pilot to remain aboard for several hours. In other places the cruise docks are close enough to open water that the Pilot may only be needed for 15 minutes or less (Cozumel, Mexico comes to mind).

What are the Requirements to Become a Pilot?

Because a pilot must be able to take command of the next vessel to arrive they must hold an 'Unlimited Masters License'. This requires many years of experience, training and skill. Additional training is required for a Pilot's License.

When are Pilots Required?

Pilots are usually required by vessels over a certain size, measured by tonnage. There are exceptions for military ships due to the classified equipment they use. In a few strategic places, such as the Panama Canal, Pilots are required for all vessels wishing to pass through. Even the smallest yacht transiting under her own power must have a Pilot, feed him a hot meal and certify that they can travel at a minimum speed.

The Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, usually referred to as 72 COLREGS, is the international set of rules for ships. Many countries have their own rules for their local waters. In the US there are three sets of local regulations:

  • Inland (which is an imaginary line a certain distance from the coast, even if the waterway has direct access to the open ocean.
  • The Great Lakes, which have many areas of restricted movement due to narrow channels.
  • The Western Rivers - even though many rivers are well over a mile wide, the depth available to traffic is much narrower. In his novel Life on the Mississippi  Mark Twain tells us about his training as a river pilot.

Intracoastal Waterway

There is also an Intracoastal Waterway (with some of its own rules) that runs from Maine to Texas along the US east coast, located for the most part behind barrier islands. As the depth and width of the channels restrict its use to small vessels, it does not have a place in this Entry.

When Things go Wrong

Here are a few examples of disasters that occurred without a Pilot aboard, and a couple of incidents with an experienced, licensed Pilot aboard.

Andrea Doria vs Stockholm 1956

On 25 July, 1956, the Italian cruise liner Andrea Doria was headed into the the busy port of New York in the United States. At the same time the Swedish ship Stockholm was departing that same port headed for her home.

The two ships approached each other at about 11.00pm. They were both clear of the harbour, well beyond the pilot zone, but in an area where dozens of ships meet to pass just south of Long Island. Both had standing orders to alter course when approaching another ship to pass at least a mile apart. Although the standard was to pass port1 to port, if there was sufficient clearance they could also pass starboard to starboard. Due to reduced visibility they were relying on their radar to locate each other.

The Andrea Doria turned south (to port) with the intention of passing starboard to starboard. The Stockholm also turned south (to starboard) with the intention of a standard port to port passing.

The Swedish ship rammed into the side of the Italian ship, sinking her within 11 hours and the loss of 46 lives. The Stockholm lost five people and was forced to limp back to New York with the front section missing. One of the most amazing stories of this incident was that a young girl who had been sleeping in her bed on the Andrea Doria was found alive on the deck of the Stockholm. She had been tossed out of her bed and landed on the other ship with only minor injuries.

It is impossible to know if the presence of a Pilot on each ship would have made a difference; the case was settled between the two companies before any finding of guilt could be established.

USCGC Blackthorn vs Capricorn 1980

On the evening of 28 January, 1980, the Blackthorn had just completed a major overhaul in Tampa, Florida, and was headed back to her home port of Galveston, Texas. As he was a Coast Guard Buoy Tender captain, her commander declined the use of a local Pilot.

At the mouth of the Tampa Bay all ships must pass under a high automobile bridge, the Sunshine Skyway. Shortly before she reached the bridge a Russian cruise liner requested the Blackthorn to move over and allow her to pass. As they approached the bridge a large freighter, the Capricorn, was headed into the bay. The Blackthorn's officer of the deck (the captain himself was off the bridge inspecting the repairs) somehow got confused by the clearance light of the bridge, the navigational lights of the Capricorn and possibly the lights of the cruise ship.

The port (left) side of the Blackthorn scraped along the port side of the incoming Capricorn. Normally this would have been a minor incident with some scraped paint and maybe a sprung plate or two. However the Capricorn had her anchor slightly lowered in preparation for entering port. It tore into the Blackthorn's side, ripping it open. The ensuing motions of the ships caused the Blackthorn to capsize and sink, taking 23 of her 50 crewmen with her.

Summit Venture vs Sunshine Skyway Bridge 1980

On 9 May, 1980, the freighter Summit Venture was approaching Tampa Bay. Only four months after the Blackthorn sinking, it was inconceivable that another disaster was about to occur only a few hundred yards away from the last accident.

There is a large island (Egmont Key) at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The channel requires ships to pass Egmont Key well to the north of the channel under the bridge. They then turn south east for a while before making a 13° turn to the east to align themselves with the narrow, safe passage under the bridge.

It was a dark and stormy morning as the ship approached the bridge. Just as the Pilot was about to reach the critical turn, not only did the ship's radar fail, but they were also engulfed by a white squall (in which the rain is so strong that you can't even see the front of your own ship and the winds increase to tropical storm strength).

The two main pilings of the bridge were protected by large rock barriers to deflect any ship that might hit them. The adjacent piers did not have this protection. Having missed the critical second turn, the Summit Venture slammed head-on into the column south of the main span at 7.25am. Within seconds the bridge was down and 35 people died, many of them on a cross country bus.

Was this an act of God, or pilot error? This Researcher cannot say, but he did see the white squall a few minutes later, before hearing the news report.

Exxon Valdez vs Bligh Reef 1989

One of the largest oil spills caused by a ship occurred when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran upon a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA.

On 23 March, 1989, the ship left the port of Valdez (the terminus of the Alaska Oil Pipeline) with a full load of crude oil bound for Long Beach, California (also a part of the USA). The ship departed her berth at 9.12pm with a local harbour pilot aboard. At 11.24pm the Pilot left the ship as it was clear of the harbour. There were still many miles of ice and reefs to be negotiated, but the captain was qualified to take his ship through this area.

The captain ordered the ship to steer well south of the normal course to avoid the ice, with an instruction for her to turn north at a specific time to avoid the reef. He then retired to his cabin leaving the ship under the command of her third officer. Questions have been raised about the sobriety of the captain at the time, but were not proven during the inquiry.

At midnight the ship had not returned to her intended northerly course. Still under the command of her third officer she slammed onto the rocks of Bligh Reef, slicing her bottom open and spilling some 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Sound.

Hoegh Osaka vs Her Own Cargo 2015

Often the presence of a Pilot can do much to avoid disaster, as shown by the Hoegh Osaka that departed from Southampton, England, on 3 January, 2015. She was carrying a partial cargo consisting of luxury cars, construction equipment and armoured military vehicles. Shortly after the ship got underway the cargo shifted and tilted the ship into a 45° list. The ship was in danger of capsizing and sinking in one of the busiest harbours in the United Kingdom.

Fortunately the Pilot was familiar with the Brambles Sandbank, a shallow area that locals know well. Although it is normally considered a hazard to navigation, the Pilot ordered the ship to run upon it – grounding the ship on the sand prevented her from sinking and blocking ship traffic to and from the port.


The inspiration for this Entry was the story of a recreated Viking Ship that wanted to tour the Great Lakes. An explanation about who Pilots are, and what they do, seemed to be some needed information.

1The left side of a ship while facing the front is called 'port', the right hand side is 'starboard'.

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