East Coast docking pilots increasingly coming under state regulation

When a foreign ship arrives at the sea buoy of a West Coast port, direction of the vessel passes to a state-licensed pilot who navigates the vessel into the harbor and then brings the vessel alongside the dock with the assistance of tugs. In most cities on the East and Gulf coasts, however, federally licensed docking pilots take the conn for the final approach as the tugs come alongside and prepare to assist the ship to its berth.

Proponents of each approach believe theirs is the best, the safest and the fairest. Docking pilots, typically tug captains with additional specialized training in ship handling, assert that their greater knowledge of handling tugs enables them to more fully appreciate the limits and capabilities of the smaller vessels. They also argue that only they, as essentially tug people, fully appreciate the effects that pilot orders have on the tug crews themselves, who are called upon to blindly follow orders from the bridge and may be asked to perform tasks with their vessels that could endanger their and their tugs’ safety.

State-licensed sea pilots, on the other hand, cite their extensive ship-handling background as evidence of their abilities to provide the safest approach. Many ports require each sea pilot apprentice to have an unlimited ocean master’s license. They then undergo training that provides intimate specialized knowledge of the area’s currents, nav aids, weather patterns and geographic anomalies.

In recent years, the West Coast model has begun to take hold in some Eastern ports. In the Port of New York/New Jersey, docking pilots are now required to have state licenses. In Baltimore, docking pilots have joined the ranks of the state-licensed bay pilots. Similar changes may be on the way in Boston.

Caught in the middle of what is essentially a turf battle over lucrative piloting contracts (and a desire on the part of each pilot association to preserve its occupation) are the ship owners and operators, who pay considerable port fees to pilot associations and regulating agencies that attempt to use licensing requirements to ensure safety, as well as the ship masters, who depend on the pilots for guidance in inshore waters.

The Port of Baltimore recently implemented a program that phases out the use of a distinct group of federally licensed docking pilots. Both the docking pilots and the bay pilots now belong to the Association of Maryland Pilots. That organization has responsibility for taking ships from the sea buoy up the Chesapeake Bay right to the docks in Baltimore, including maneuvering with tugs. The Association of Maryland Pilots will maintain two separate lists for assigning jobs to its members: one for qualified docking pilots and one for bay pilots. Eventually all the pilots will be trained to dock ships as well as guide them up and down the bay. Apprentices now receive training in ship handling, local knowledge and tug handling, which will include considerable time spent on the tugs themselves.

“Nothing in life is perfect, but what we have here in Baltimore is pretty close. The port is a happy place, and we have what I think is an excellent model for other ports,� said Kevin Gugliotta, a docking pilot who has worked in the port since 1972 and is now a Maryland state pilot, holding both state and federal licenses.

Gugliotta conceded having to participate in considerable training programs that weren’t required when he was a federally licensed docking pilot. “I do find myself having to take more training than I ever have before. Does it make me a better pilot? Who knows? Experience is the best teacher, but now we know that all Maryland state pilots receive the diverse training required to serve the industry.�

Tug companies themselves no longer control who becomes a docking pilot, but they have to comply if they want the contracts, since there is now only one pilot group.

Gugliotta said the process now molds bay pilots into docking pilots and vice versa.

By Professional Mariner Staff