What is the role of the pilot?
Above: A pilot boat approaches the Zuiderdam.
Below: A pilot (seated) advising the officers on the bridge of Explorer of the Seas.
Often when a ship is coming into port you see a small boat pull up along side. While the cruise ship is still moving, an intrepid individual climbs up a ladder and through a door in the side of the ship. Much the same drama takes place in reverse when a cruise ship is leaving a port. The individual making the leap between the cruise ship and the small boat is the pilot.
Pilots are trained mariners, often former ship captains, who are licensed by the various ports. Their primary role is to advise the ship’s officers regarding conditions in the port - - tides, the location of sand bars, changes in the ship channel etc.
In addition to providing local knowledge, the pilot has other uses. As Captain Gerry Larsson-Fedde of Celebrity Cruises explained: “He speaks the local or native language. So if you are or somewhere and maybe the tug boats, the harbor master or the local authorities does not speak English, it is good to use the pilot for communication.”
Usually, the pilot and ship’s officers work in a cooperative effort to bring the ship into port or to take her out to sea. The pilot has the local knowledge of the port. The captain and ship’s officer know the ship and how she handles.
It is usually up to the individuals involved to decide who will control the ship and give orders to the helmsman. Sometimes the pilot makes suggestions and sometimes he actually gives orders.
Captain Christopher Turner of Holland America gave some illustrations of the variations that take place. “As we approach Fort Lauderdale, I’ll pick up the pilot and tell him what the ship is doing. He will then con the ship through the breakwaters, maybe start the turn and then I’ll take the con again and maneuver the ship and put it along side.”
In places like Aruba, normally when the pilot comes onboard, he’ll be in communication with the berth, and we will just continue to do the whole thing. ourselves..”
“In other ports, it depends on the port rules. In Alaska, the pilots con the ship so they are giving helm orders and engine orders until the maneuver is such that they cannot steer the ship towards the berth then we take over.”
The actual docking and undocking of the ship is always done by the ship’s officers. However, in places where docking can be particularly difficult (e.g. the piers on the Westside of Manhattan) there are “docking pilots” to assist in that maneuver.
“The pilot never takes command of the vessel. They are an advisor for the captain and the bridge team - - except for one place: The Panama Canal. In the Panama Canal, the pilots take command of the vessel, they sign a big pile of papers and have a huge insurance.” Captain Larsson-Fedde explained echoing what many captains have said.
While acknowledging that the pilot has control of the ship and liability for damage, Captain Turner feels that it is not quite accurate to say the pilot is in command of the ship. “The liability is on the pilot’s side for the Canal. The Canal will cover that. But people’s lives and the ship itself are my responsibility.”
Cruise ship FAQs - - pilots