Sunday, September 27, 2009


Having recently conned a vessel over the Columbia River Bar, I am frequently asked if I took on a pilot to assist in the transit. The questioner is often surprised to that I “acted as” pilot, but there is nothing particularly mysterious about being a pilot. “Pilotage” is simply navigation using local knowledge. A person who does this is a “pilot.” On the other hand, when we refer to a pilot in the modern maritime industry, we are probably talking about a professional mariner who specializes in guiding ships through a particular area. It is the difficulty some of these areas present — like the Columbia River Bar or, in a different way, the Panama Canal — that lend a mystique to the job.

The only real qualification you need to be a pilot is local knowledge that a captain from outside the area — called a “stranger” — doesn’t possess. And that knowledge can be very localized indeed. For a time early in the decade, the port at Cabo San Lucas, Mexico required ships to take on a harbor pilot. He came out in a water taxi, shook hands with the captain, and sipped a cup of coffee while he yelled at charter fishermen to get out of the way. The whole trip was a straight line less than half a mile long from the “pilot station” to the dock. Between the short trip and the yelling, he didn’t even have time to finish his cup of coffee. Compare that to the Chesapeake Bay pilots, who have to learn 200 miles of some of the most traveled waterway in the Americas. Pilots who have to deal with large areas may work in teams, with one on the bridge while the other one sleeps.

In the United States, most areas require a pilot to have a Coast Guard license and hold a First Class Pilot certification for the area in which he — or in many instances she — will be sailing. This usually means logging a certain number of trips through the area and then taking a written test, which includes hand drawing relevant landmarks, aids to navigation, danger areas, and so on on a blank chart.

Pilots frequently have several decades of experience at sea — the average age of a Puget Sound pilot is 55 years old. While this experience is valuable, it can also be challenging for middle-aged and older pilots to meet the physical demands of the job, like climbing up a long pilot ladder after jumping onto it from the deck of a pilot boat (like one picture above, stationed in Astoria, Oregon near the mouth of the Columbia River) heaving in the surf. Pilots also face the same medical issues we all do as we get older, including ever more crowded medicine cabinets. In fact, use of medications by the pilot on the Cosco Busan (see my post May 30 post) was taking were cited as a root cause of resulting oil spill.

For Professional Mariner's report on Chesapeake pilot Lynn Diebert's 2007 death in the line of duty, see The journal's report report on the 2006 death of Columbia River Bar pilot Kevin Murray, see

Filed from M/V Spirit of Discovery in Portland, Oregon


  1. Good Post about Pilots. It is indeed a misunderstood position. As you describe in some Ports it is just a name in others a highly skilled position. Of great assistance to the 'first time in the Port' Master one has to assess the country, port and the person who boards.
    Good Watch.

  2. As a master, you'd be a fool to follow the advice of some pilots and a fool not to follow the advice of others. The pilot is not replacing the captain, just providing another tool for safe navigation. The right tool for the right job, as the cliche goes.