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What is a Pilothouse?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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A pilothouse is an area on a ship housing the steering controls, with shelter and room for at least one member of the crew who can control the ship while it is in motion. On small crafts, the pilothouse is usually limited in size and has few amenities. On big boats, it is typically part of a larger bridge, housing multiple personnel and equipment like radar, radio, storage cabinets for charts, and so forth. This structure may be eliminated entirely on very small craft, where the crew doing the steering stand in the open air.

Typically the pilothouse is located on the upper deck of the ship. This provides personnel with an excellent view of the ship's progress so they can identify navigational hazards. It is also conveniently located for communications, allowing sailors to easily access the pilothouse and related facilities, such as the chart room. In port, when a pilot has control of the ship for safety reasons, the central location is convenient, as she can easily see what she is doing and issue orders as needed.

In addition to the wheel or other steering mechanism, the structure may have other tools for navigation, including electronic charts, radar to identify hazards, and communications radios. There may be a chair for comfort. Glass or heavy duty plastic encloses the structure to provide an unimpeded view of the surrounding area while keeping the weather out. Lower-ranking sailors typically have the task of periodically cleaning it to make sure it stays clear.

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Visitors to a ship may be taken to the pilothouse or bridge to see how the ship operates while underway. It is also usually subject to inspection by government officials, who may check for issues like noncompliance with laws, unsafe equipment, or signs of smuggling and other illegal activity. Sailors must keep the area neat and organized to make it easy to access and to increase safety for all personnel.

On a small boat where the wheel is left exposed to the elements, the owner can retrofit the boat to provide more shelter, such as a glass or plastic windscreen to protect sailors from wind and spray. A small roof can offer some protection from the rain, although the back of the pilothouse may be exposed. Any retrofits must weigh the uses of the ship and the need to keep it properly balanced for safe sailing. A bulky shelter on the deck could create a hazard in harsh weather conditions.

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