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A pilot is a mariner who guides ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbours or river mouths. However, the pilot is only an advisor, as the master remains in legal, overriding command of the vessel.

Pilotage is one of the oldest, least-known professions, and yet it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The economic and environmental risk from today's large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot essential.


The origins of the word pilot probably disseminates from the Latin word pilota, a variation of pedota, the plural of pēdón which translates as oar. There is also evidence the word pylotte was also used, again a variation from pedota. The word originated from around 1520-1530.

However, the work functions of the pilot go back to Ancient Greece and Roman times, when locally experienced harbour captains, mainly local fishermen, were employed by incoming ships captains to safely bring into port their trading vessels. Eventually, in light of the need to regulate the act of pilotage and ensure pilots had adequate insurance, the harbours themselves licensed pilots for each harbour.

Although licensed by the harbour to operate within their jurisdiction, pilots were generally self-employed, meaning that they had to have quick transport to get them from the port to the incoming ships. As pilots were often still dual-employed, they hence used their own fishing boats to reach the incoming vessels. But fishing boats were heavy working boats, and filled with fishing equipment, and so hence a new type of boat was required.

Early boats were developed from single masted cutters and twin masted yawls, and latterly into the specialist pilot cutter. These were effectively light-weigh and over powered single masted boats with large steeply angled keels, making them deep draft under power and shallow draft in lighter sail.

If legend is to believed the first official Bristol Channelmarker pilot was barge master George James Ray, appointed by the Corporation of Bristol in May 1497 to pilot John Cabot's Matthewmarker from Bristol Harbourmarker to the open sea beyond the Bristol Channelmarker. In 1837 Pilot George Ray guided Brunel's SS Great Western, and in 1844 William Ray piloted the larger SS Great Britainmarker on her maiden voyage.

On June 20, 1885, Joseph Henderson was expressly selected to escort the French Steamer Isère, laden with the Statue of Libertymarker into the New York Harbor to Bedloe's Islandmarker. This event and Pilot Henderson's appearance was printed in the New York Times: "Old Pilot Henderson, who jumped from the skylight down on the quarter deck of the Isère."

Duties involved

Boarding is tricky, as both vessels are moving and cannot afford to slow down
Their size and mass makes large ships very difficult to maneuver; the stopping distance of a supertanker is typically measured in miles (kilometres) and even a slight error in judgment can cause millions of dollars in damage. For this reason, many years of experience in an operating area are required to qualify as a pilot.

By far the most challenging part of any ship's voyage is the passage through the narrow waterways that lead to port and the final dock of the ship. The pilot brings to the ship expertise in handling large vessels in confined waterways and expert local knowledge of the port. In addition to bringing local maritime expertise on board, the pilot also relieves the captain from the economic pressures that can compromise safety. Instead of being part of the ship's crew, pilots are employed locally and therefore act on behalf of the public rather than of the shipowners. However, the master of a ship that calls at only a few ports, such as a ferry, may be licensed as a pilot for those ports- such ships do not need to carry a pilot.
Normally the pilot joins an incoming ship at sea via helicopter or pilot boat and climbs a swaying Jacob's ladder sometimes up 40 feet (~12 metres) to the deck of the largest container and tanker ships. With outgoing vessels, a pilot boat returns the pilot to land after the ship has successfully negotiated coastal waters.

Pilots specifically use pilotage techniques relying on nearby visual reference points and local knowledge of tides, swells, currents, depths and shoals that might not be readily identifiable on nautical charts without first hand experience in the waters in question.

Beyond the experience and training of regular ship's captains, pilots also receive special, ongoing training to stay on top of their profession. Pilots are required by law in most major sea ports of the world for large ships.

In popular culture

See also


  1. [*ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times, pg. 1.]

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