What does the harbor/port pilot do?

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332 Posts
Joined May 2004
I admit that I am naive when it comes to boating. At every port a ship docks, a pilot boards while at sea. What exactly does he/she do? When I think of a ship, I think of the bridge officers being able to do everything necessary to drive the ship, including the docking. So is the pilot onboard just to offer help, or does he actually stear the ship into the port?

I also know this doesn't apply only to cruiseships, so at what size is a pilot required, or are they even required at all?

Very confused
834 Posts
Joined Dec 2004
Most large vessels, cargo and passenger and even military, use pilots when in
foreign waters. In many cases, it is a requirement of the government concerned.
Although the Captain remains in command, he almost always follows the pilot's advice
in matters of coastal navigation and harbour maneuevering. The pilot is a fully
qualified master mariner who knows the area in which he works intimately, having
spent many years captaining vessels before becoming a pilot. One of our local public
broadcast TV stations did a documentary on pilots. Appropriately, it is entitled
To Captain's Orders and Pilot's Advice. In the program, it shows the pilot actually
giving the helm and engine orders on the bridge with the Captain looking on. This is
felt to be safer since there is no intermediate step between giving the command and
having it executed. The only exceptions occur when there may be a language barrier.
In my area, the Canadian West Coast, there are 108 licenced pilots covering the area
from the U.S. border to Alaska.
More information at http://www.bccoastpilots.com/default.asp

The system here is very much the same as is found worldwide. I always feel much more
comfortable knowing that there is a pilot with detailed local knowledge on the bridge
assisting the captain get the ship safely into port.

5,332 Posts
Joined Mar 2003
The pilot is sort of like an advisor who knows the local waters very well. I don't know if he actually pilots the ship, but I'd doubt it. Of course, I assume that the Captain doesn't actually pilot the ship to often either, but rather issues commands and let's the crew handle the implementation. On a prior cruise, the Captain told us that the only place in the world where he actually reliquishes command to the pilot is the Panama Canal.

I don't have any idea what size ship requires this, but I'd assume it is set on a per-port basis and might even vary based on what the ship is hauling (i.e. oil tankers might require a pilot sooner due to the environmental cost of an accident).
1,700 Posts
Joined Jul 2001
The men who pilot the ships through the Panama Canal are the highest paid workers in Panama, earning in the six figures.
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492 Posts
Joined Jun 2005
I had never heard of a harbor pilot until ourt last cruise. My DH happens to look out of our cabin porthole & sees a small boat adjacent & a man jumping from our ship to that one. He freaks out, thinking its terrorists or something, until the boat pulls away & we see the words "Harbor pilot" on the back. Oh my gosh, we laughed so hard & again whenever we think about it. Good thing we didn't have a balcony or he would've jumped down and punched the cr** out of them. God bless the USA
50 Posts
Joined Apr 2005
I was born in a "port city"— Saint John where the job of harbour pilot is widely known.
For anyone traveling on Canada's East Coast, the Atlantic Pilotage Authority (the "Authority") was established in 1972 pursuant to the Pilotage Act (the federal legislation that deals with pilotage).

Marine Pilotage involves directing and controlling the movement of a vessel through near-shore and inshore waters unfamiliar to the ship's master or providing navigation advice to the master for this purpose. The pilot is expected to integrate an in-depth knowledge of local geography, climate and traffic patterns with operational information to effect a safe passage. It should be noted that, by law, the master always remains in command and is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel, including the actions of the pilot. Atlantic Canada is regulated and administered, under the Pilotage Act, by regional Authorities.
The mandate of the Atlantic Pilotage Authority is to establish, operate, maintain and administer, in the interest of safety, an efficient Pilotage service within the designated waters of the Atlantic region.


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332 Posts
Joined May 2004
I guess I understand the part about the unfamaliar waters...but when a cruiseship sails into the same port every week, is there ever a time when a pilot isn't used because the captain is himself famaliar with the port?
Palm Harbor, FL
4,680 Posts
Joined Nov 2001
In Tampa, we use the harbor pilots to run the ships into each other and the bridges.
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49 cruises - RCI-22, Carnival-11, Celebrity-2, Princess-2, NCL-5, HAL-7.

We were on the final voyage of the SS Norway.

50 Posts
Joined Apr 2005
As a general rule—no, but it is regulated by the local government. On Canada's east coast the answer is never, a harbour pilot is always required. I am guessing it is the same across Canada.

If you do a shore excursion in Saint John the "Prince William's Walk" self guided walking tour or one of the guided walking tours will take you to see the "Three Sister's" Monument. This is a monument to harbour pilots who have lost their lives performing their jobs. Most often while boarding a ship in "weather" (if you have to talk about it, "weather" can only be bad).

Now a monument the set of 3 lanterns was once the navigation tool for safe passage into the inner harbour. If the ship was headed into shore on a safe route all three of the lights would be visible. If only 1-2 of the 3 lights were visible the harbour pilot would know the ship had steered off course, and could adjust course so all three lights were visible. For more info follow this link, if it is the menu click on "The Three Sisters":

Because of the extreme tides, the highest in the world, and a difficult to navigate harbour a harbour pilot has been required to travel into the Saint John Harbour since the early 1800's. The entrance to the St. John River is so dangerous that to this day it is illegal to travel specific areas outside of the prescribed safe times governed by the "slack" tides. (This is the "Reversing Falls" also a great shore excursion in Saint John).
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8,916 Posts
Joined Nov 2004
we noticed pilots being utilized in Miami and St. Thomas. could have been at the other ports, too, but we were probably sleeping at that time, LOL.
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DC Metro Area
201 Posts
Joined Apr 2005
Pilots have been used for hundreds of years. Waterways change constantly (water has a way of doing that to stuff) and these men were/are the ones who know it best. The most well known I know of were on the Mississippi where some men knew select sections of the river and would pilot vessels down their section to a point where the next pilot would take over. Some or many pilots graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy, which is why you'll never hear anyone from the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, or West Point talking about Merchant Marines; they'll make a hell of a lot more money than they ever would, to quote my brother, lol.

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5,332 Posts
Joined Mar 2003
I've found out the real answer to this question! I was watching "License to Kill" the other day on Spike, and the lady accomplice took over control of the ship as if she was the harbor pilot. So apparently what the harbor pilot does is run the ship into the dock at a high rate of speed in order to create a diversion for James Bond to sneak in and plant evidence to frame a bad guy, who is then killed by the leading bad guy. Hmmm... well maybe not all harbor pilots do that.
Melbourne, FL
8,112 Posts
Joined Apr 2005

A Summary by the American Pilots’ Association


Pilotage of international trade vessels in the United States is regulated by the individual states, each of which maintains a pilotage system that is suited to the particular needs and circumstances of its own waters. In 1789, the first Congress of the United States enacted a law giving the states the right to regulate pilotage in their waters. That created the state pilotage system, which remains in effect today. Every foreign-flag vessel and every United States-flag vessel engaged in international trade moving in the waters of a state is required by the state to take a pilot licensed by the state.

(most countries have similar laws - a vessel, typically over 100 tons - when operating in internal waters must have a pilot from that state on board. Sometimes, you will see a vessel operating with what appears to be 'no pilot'. It may be the case that the master is in fact a licensed pilot for that port as is usually the case with ferrys. Or, the state may have granted a waiver, as is sometimes done for military or other government vessels. State here being either a US state or another country/state. capt_bj)

According to an official statement adopted by the Trustees of the American Pilots’ Association in 1997: Navigation of a vessel in U.S. pilotage waters is considered to be a shared responsibility between the pilot and the master/bridge crew. The compulsory state pilot directs the navigation of the vessel subject to the master’s overall command of the vessel and the ultimate responsibility for its safety. The master has the right, and in fact the duty, to intervene or to displace the pilot in circumstances where the pilot is manifestly incompetent or incapacitated or the vessel is in immediate danger due to the pilot’s actions. With that limited exception, U.S. law (as well as international law) requires the master and/or the officer in charge of the watch to "cooperate closely with the pilot and maintain an accurate check on the ship’s position and movement."

{the Panama Canal is an exception - where the Canal pilot actually does 'take command' from the Master..... 'dems da rules if ya wanna go thru .... capt_bj)
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Capt BJ

Costa (1982), Commodore, NCL, Windstar, Princess,
DCL, RCL, Viking River, Cunard (TA)
50+ cruises
USCG Captain, retired - 6 ships, 2 commands, 12 yrs @ sea
Shellback, Golden Dragon, Bering Sea winter vet
Tall ship sailor
California Central Coast
30 Posts
Joined Sep 2008
Our ship's captain said the 'pilot was about to debark' so I decided to film the process - shortly after we went under the centennial bridge on the canal. To my surprise 19 (nineteen) guys got off and onto the tender - all wearing work clothes, safety vests and hard hats. Most carried a bag about the size to contain a change of clothes - did not appear to be anything like maps or paperwork.

Reading an article about labor mediation from 2008, it then appears that there were 275 full time pilots and 18 trainees. Could this transit have been a 'class' for all 18 trainees and 1 pilot?
Philadelphia area
6,726 Posts
Joined Jun 2009
Originally posted by CruiserBruce
You do know you opened a 7 year old thread...
Obviously he was not aware of the over 6 year old threads are not to be opened rule.
629 Posts
Joined Sep 2005
There are some harbours which issue a "Pilot Exemption Certificate" (PEC) to ship's Masters who have sufficent knowledge and experience of that particular harbour with a particular vessel or class of vessel such that a Pilot is not required.

Typically to obtain a the PEC, the ship's Master must pass an assessment trip (conducted by a Pilot), they must renew the PEC annually, they must regularly visit the harbour, they must keep up-to-date with harbour navigation, by-laws etc. The criteria for issuing a PEC are very strict.


Edited to add: I got some great footage of the Barcelona Pilot leaving M/V Arcadia a few years ago - I might put it on youtube. If I do I'll post a link....
San Jose, Calif
3,674 Posts
Joined Apr 2010
If you watch the Port Everglades web cam for any amount of time http://www.portevergladeswebcam.com/index.html you will see that every cruise ship that leaves ports will have a pilot boat shadowing it until it is in open waters, at which time the pilot boat will return to port. Watch the satellite view at the lower part of the view for the icons indicating each ship and pilot boat.
Upstate NY
8,897 Posts
Joined Aug 2004
Originally posted by Jocia
Some or many pilots graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy, which is why you'll never hear anyone from the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, or West Point talking about Merchant Marines; they'll make a hell of a lot more money than they ever would, to quote my brother, lol.
My oldest DS actually learned of the Merchant Marine Academy from his retired Navy uncle. Son was talking about Annapolis for engineering when his uncle told him that some of the finest ship's engineers he had sailed with came from USMMA. Son looked into it, loved the program, and applied; he's now a junior (second class MIDN). He's literally sailed around the world. Being a marine engineering major he'll never be a harbor pilot, but he has a great career ahead of him.

I love watching for pilot boats on our cruises. I took this photo last summer as the Halifax pilot boat overtook us to starboard to board the pilot:

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