What is a Harbor Pilot?

Ken Black

A harbor pilot, often known as a maritime pilot, is a boat pilot with specialized knowledge of a particular port or harbor. The pilot is needed to direct large ships into a port where there are specific deep water channels surrounded by shallower flats. Without the services of a harbor pilot, docking ships would become a big hazard. There would be a real chance of running aground and damaging the ship and the cargo, some of which could be hazardous if released into a water-based ecosystem.

Harbor pilots may be carried out to incoming ships by U.S. Coast Guard boats in restricted waterways.
Harbor pilots may be carried out to incoming ships by U.S. Coast Guard boats in restricted waterways.

In most cases, becoming a harbor pilot requires no specific type of degree, only a great deal of experience and local knowledge that is only gained through practice. Most will start out as assistants, and work their way up to being pilots. Some may be employed by specific companies whose ships regularly go in and out of certain ports. The vast majority, however, are independent contractors. This offers the best chance to gain regular employment.

Harbor pilots often guide large, ocean-going vessels like container ships to intermodal terminals.
Harbor pilots often guide large, ocean-going vessels like container ships to intermodal terminals.

Some harbor pilots may specialize in certain types of ships. For example, some may be more skilled at bringing in large freighters. Others may specialize in helping military ships through treacherous waters. Some may even be employed to help large passenger cruise ships. The harbor pilot, in order to be successful, must be comfortable with whatever ship he or she is operating. Even the slightest mistakes could lead to disastrous consequences.

Pilots can be transported to ships by a tugboat, which may help the larger vessel move through challenging waters, or by way of a pilot cutter.
Pilots can be transported to ships by a tugboat, which may help the larger vessel move through challenging waters, or by way of a pilot cutter.

In addition to the shallow flats, currents are another danger to deal with when bringing ships into port. During different tides, currents may be calm or change from one direction to the other. Understanding how the tide affects these currents is a key in any harbor. The same strategy for docking a vessel during an incoming tide may not work during an outgoing tide. Thus, the harbor pilot must keep this in mind when working in the harbor.

Often, the harbor pilot may have adverse weather conditions with which to deal as well. Just as currents may affect the movement of a large ship, the wind can also significantly alter the direction of the ship and how it reacts. Windy conditions are very common around ports and harbors. Often, the wind will change direction during the course of the day, adding another variable a pilot must deal with.

In most cases, a harbor pilot will also work very closely with the harbor master. The harbor master is in charge of law enforcement and customs issues, as well as determining which ships dock in what locations. Thus, the pilot, seeking the best situation for his or her client, will often try to keep a good working relationship with the harbor master.

A harbor pilot may specialize in guiding large cruise ships to port.
A harbor pilot may specialize in guiding large cruise ships to port.

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Discussion Comments

anon89712

The harbor pilot physically boards the ship and steer her from the bridge in presence of the ship master. However, it is the master's responsibility to carry on his advises.

Flywheel1

The article states, "The pilot is needed to direct large ships into a port..." Does the harbor pilot simply supervise, or physically board and steer the ship into the dock?

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