Port pilots: experience and poise in all conditions

An early morning job done, a Puget Sound pilot descends an outbound ships accommodation ladder.
An early morning job done, a Puget Sound pilot descends an outbound ships accommodation ladder.
An early morning job done, a Puget Sound pilot descends an outbound ships accommodation ladder.

Every day, professional mariners may work with pilots, but many may not know the level of expertise that goes into their 24/7 work of safely guiding vessels of all sizes and types in and out of the nation’s ports in often hazardous conditions.

Their’s is a unique role that requires an incredible depth of knowledge of both the local waterways and a variety of vessels with varying characteristics and individual quirks and melds challenging, precise work with a challenging schedule.

And becoming a pilot is no small accomplishment. 

According to the American Pilots Association (APA), 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. By law, “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.”

The typical state-licensed pilot in the U.S. “is the most highly trained mariner in the world,” according to the Washington, D.C.-based organization. 

A Puget Sound Pilot guides a bulker to its berth at the Port of Tacoma’s Hylebos terminal.
A Puget Sound Pilot guides a bulker to its berth at the Port of Tacoma’s Hylebos terminal.

“Pilots have either extensive deep-sea or tug experience before they enter pilot training programs or they go through a lengthy apprenticeship program.”

In addition to extensive prior experience and detailed instruction in basic shiphandling, “pilot trainees undergo long periods of region-specific training under the guidance of experienced pilots. This hands-on training is supplemented with the latest in classroom instruction and simulator training. 

Once a pilot receives a license, he or she undergoes regular continuing training, including training in bridge resource management, emergency shiphandling, and new navigation technology, as well as other types of instruction and practice on full mission bridge simulators and manned models. 

Every licensed pilot “is expected to be comfortable with the latest in navigation technology and ships’ systems,” according to the APA.

Capt. Ryan Hopkins of Hawaii Pilots Association backing a containership down the Kapalama Channel.
Capt. Ryan Hopkins of Hawaii Pilots Association backing a containership down the Kapalama Channel.

Basically, the role of a maritime pilot “is to direct the safe and efficient navigation of commercial vessels to and from ports,” said San Francisco Bar Pilots President, Capt. John Carlier. 

“Navigating complex harbors is one of the most difficult parts of a ship’s voyage. Pilots not only navigate vessels through constricted, highly trafficked waterways but we also dock and undock the vessels at the terminals, directing both the tug boats and vessel crews,” he said. 

“We also manage vessel traffic, anchorages, and assist vessel owners with planning transits to ensure they can safely maximize their cargo capacity.”

Established in 1886, the Tampa Bay Pilots Association has a roster of seventeen pilots and two deputy pilots in training who have the responsibility for piloting vessels along the 70 miles of navigable commercial ship channels leading to and from the ports within Tampa Bay, Florida. 

The channels they guide ships through vary in width and depth and have numerous bends and turns that require significant knowledge and skill on the part of a pilot, especially if inclement weather is added to the mix, according to Association Executive Director Terry Fluke.

Tampa Bay, he said, “is the toughest of all the ports in Florida to navigate with waters that are extremely shallow,” he said, adding that the channels that lead into Port Manatee, St. Petersburg, and the Port of Tampa “are also well-marked, but extremely narrow. Ships must pass through each channel in the Bay within feet of each other day and night with no room for error.” 

In addition, the deeper drafts of the newest generation of ships means that, with a 40-foot deep channel, “there are times some ships have just three feet of clearance to the bottom of the Bay.” 

The Tampa Bay pilots also have to factor in the region’s well-known tide fluctuations and “if there’s not enough water to maintain that clearance, then it’s a no-go situation,” Fluke said. 

“Our pilots utilize the latest navigation technology in many ways including the Portable Pilot Units they carry on board vessels during transits. This advanced software enables them to plot a course and ‘see’ other vessel traffic in and along the Bay’s channels.

The San Francisco Bar Pilots service nine California ports over 160 miles of waterways, so they also encounter a wide variety of vessels with container ships, tankers, vehicle carriers, cruise ships, bulk carriers, and military vessels all common on the Bay. 

Currently, the pilots serving the Bay Area carry-out approximately 7,700 ship assignments per year, he added, noting that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number reached as high as 8,800. 

Both the weather and rough water come into play when piloting in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, Carlier noted. 

“We board vessels in the open ocean, 11 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, so we have to master maneuvering ships in large swells as well as having the agility to climb the pilot ladder while the ship is rolling and pitching in the swell,” he said. 

“We also have large tidal ranges, strong currents, and fog-navigating in these conditions which can be challenging, particularly because, in addition to other ships, we often have a lot of ferries and recreational vessels all converging in the same place.” 

In addition, the San Francisco Bay Pilots also serve ships transiting the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, Carlier added, so pilots need to precisely navigate in very narrow channels. 

A Columbia River pilot boards an outbound containership on the Columbia River.
A Columbia River pilot boards an outbound containership on the Columbia River.

The work of a pilot “is unique in the field for several reasons,” said Capt. Jeremy Nielsen, president of Columbia River Pilots. 

“Chiefly, they’re experienced, expert navigators. While vessel crews are adept at crossing oceans, they’e generally unfamiliar with the waterways, environmental conditions, local customs, and traffic patterns of a specific port,” he said.  

“Additionally, pilots are highly skilled ship handlers able to dock, undock, turn, anchor, back-up, and otherwise maneuver vessels with extreme precision, all while simultaneously coordinating engine and rudder commands, assisting tugs and monitoring other vessel traffic, port personnel and line-handlers,” said Nielsen. 

A Columbia River pilot boards an outbound containership on the Columbia River.
A Columbia River pilot boards an outbound containership on the Columbia River.

Navigating narrow waterways is an issue on the Columbia River, which serves as the border between Washington and Oregon, particularly as recent ship-building trends show tremendous growth in the size of vessels transiting the river, so much so that its infrastructure has failed to keep pace, said the Columbia River Pilot’s Nielsen. 

The Columbia River’s “modern” deep draft channel was actually laid out in the late 1960s with a width of 600 feet in order to accommodate the larger classes of vessels that then routinely called at the port terminals along the river.

“Currently, the average length of vessels arriving at the river is over 660 feet – longer than the 100-plus mile channel is wide – prompting efforts to expand anchorage areas, turning basins and investment in new technology,” said Neilsen.

In 2023, the Columbia River saw several ships that set records – the longest and heaviest was the containership MSC Katie, which measures 1,197 feet in length and 154,792 dwt. and called at the Port of Portland in April, while the previous record holder was the 1,100-foot-long, 90,389 dwt. containership Navios Unite, which called at the port the previous month. 

“The growth in vessel size without commensurate growth in infrastructure has reduced safety margins and increased reliance on technology while further cementing the value pilotage service provides to the public and industry in the Columbia River System,” said Neilsen, adding that an average of 1,400 ships arrive each year at the mouth of the Columbia River.  

In Washington state, Puget Sound Pilots also play “a significant role in ensuring the efficient flow of cargo through the Salish Sea in British Columbia, essentially acting as de facto harbormasters,” according to Capt. Travis McGrath of Puget Sound Pilots. 

According to McGrath, “Pilots navigate ships, coordinate one-way tanker traffic in Rosario Strait, time ship arrivals and departures to avoid conflicts due to tug availability or waterway congestion, and ensure that container cranes which obstruct federal navigation channels are raised when appropriate,” he said.

In addition to Seattle and Tacoma, Puget Sound also serves as the primary waterway for some of the country’s ‘boutique’ ports, including Anacortes, Everett, Port Angeles, and Olympia.

Like virtually all of the nation’s ports, those on Puget Sound handle a diverse mix of cargo and ship types from containerships and chemical carriers to cruise ships and private yachts, all guided to and from their berths by 55 Puget Sound Pilots who carry out more than 7,000 vessel assignments per year. 

In terms of raw economics, their work on Puget Sound equates to facilitating the shipment of more than $80 billion in cargo annually, he added.

“Most of the transits occur at night, and we board or disembark vessels in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Port Angeles in all weather conditions,” McGrath explained, noting that each season brings a distinct set of challenges.

“Heavy weather in the winter includes hazardous transfers on the pilot ladder and severe crosswinds when navigating large ships in very narrow channels,” he said. 

“Our gorgeous summers bring out thousands of recreational boaters, fishing boats and sailboats, all with varying degrees of competency when boating near large commercial vessels.”

In order to navigate the changing environment, he said, “pilots need to have an extensive knowledge of the depths and currents along Puget Sound’s 2,000-plus miles of shoreline. We’re familiar with weather patterns and tidal currents in the various harbors, including about 50 marine terminals.”

Three new container cranes aboard a heavy-lift ship arrive at the Port of Charleston.
Three new container cranes aboard a heavy-lift ship arrive at the Port of Charleston.

The Port of Charleston, South Carolina, is served by the Charleston Branch Pilots Association.

The Association owns the Charleston Navigation Company, which provides technical and administrative services such as boat operations and radio communications. 

Those critical support services are required by State Law to ensure the reliability of pilotage in South Carolina.

Charleston Branch Pilots operates six Gladding-Hearn-built boats – a pair of 75-footers, one of 64-feet, and one of 40-feet – and has 20 pilots on staff, each of whom have completed a 3-year apprenticeship and attained the rank of Full Branch Pilot, which authorizes them to pilot vessels of any size. 

Each pilot also holds a first class pilot endorsement from the U.S. Coast Guard that is applicable to vessels of any size.

“We have to go pretty far off-shore to board incoming vessels,” says Association President, Capt. Crayton Walters, who underwent a three-year training program before receiving his license as a Charleston pilot in 1991. 

The Charleston pilots currently handle upwards of 4,500 ship movements per year. Because of their increased drafts, pilots at the port need to meet incoming ships almost 20 miles offshore.

“There’s a narrow open ocean channel that’s been dredged that we have to bring the ships through before we get to Charleston Harbor,” says Walters. “It’s an enclosed port with very strong currents caused by the two major rivers that flow into it, so we have some real challenges getting ships to and from their berths.”

Pilots also provide a vital safety element to the maritime transportation sector, said Capt. Ed Enos of the Hawaii Pilots Association.

Exactly how they accomplish that “depends on the specific port they work in,” he said. 

“Every waterway is different with work that often includes managing vessels in extremely tricky conditions.” 

In short, concluded Tampa Bay Pilot’s Terry Fluke, “the bottom line is we have to be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time.”