What Is a Harbor Pilot?

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A Harbor Pilot is a mariner who guides ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbors or river mouths. Pilots are expert shiphandlers who possess detailed knowledge of local waterways.

The Canaveral Harbor Pilots are just that, experienced Merchant Marine Master Mariners with detailed knowledge of Port Canaveral’s waters, channels, basins, docking and undocking maneuvers.

Pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel itself, and it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The oldest recorded history dates back to about the 7th century BC. Often, the earliest pilots were local fishermen who knew the shifting sandbars and where the channel openings were that would allow ocean-going vessels to enter and depart the port. Maritime pilotage has evolved in to a modern safety system to provide for safe and efficient passage of ocean-going vessels in and out of the world’s busy ports, often located inside bays, harbors and rivers, as well as for transits through the world’s great canals such as Panama and Suez. Ship captains are usually knowledgeable about their ship and ocean navigation, but they do not have the local knowledge, and the ship-handling training and experience for restricted waters, narrow channels, shallow waters, and in most cases, docking and undocking maneuvers, that pilots possess.  Even ship captains who call regularly at the same port, never come close to matching the level of experience and local knowledge of the local pilots serving the port.

Harbor Pilots protect, to the fullest extent possible, the water, harbors and ports of the State, the environment, life and property, with safety as the promary objective. Their size and mass makes large ships very difficult to maneuver; the stopping distance of asupertanker is typically measured in miles/kilometers and even a slight error in judgment can cause millions of dollars in damage. For this reason, many years of experience in an operating area are required to qualify as a pilot. By far the most challenging part of any ship’s voyage is the passage through the narrow waterways that lead to port and the final docking of the ship. The pilot brings to the ship expertise in handling large vessels in confined waterways and expert local knowledge of the port. In addition to bringing local maritime expertise on board, unlike the vessel’s captain the pilot is insulated from the economic pressures (e.g., getting the ship from point A to point B on time, regardless of weather conditions, traffic, or other navigation issues) that can compromise safety. Instead of being part of the ship’s crew, pilots are employed locally and therefore act on behalf of the public rather than of the shipowners.

The Canaveral Pilots join incoming ships at sea via a Pilot Boat and Pilot Boat Captain. The Pilot climbs a pilot ladder from the Pilot Boat to the ship he or she is boarding to the deck. Climbing the pilot ladder can be dangerous, even more so in rough seas considering that both the ship to be piloted and the pilot’s own vessel are usually both moving. With outgoing vessels, a pilot boat returns the pilot to land after the ship has successfully negotiated coastal waters.

Pilots specifically use pilotage techniques relying on nearby visual reference points and local knowledge of tides, swells, currents, depths and shoals that might not be readily identifiable on nautical charts without first hand experience in the waters in question. Beyond the experience and training of regular ship’s captains, pilots also receive special, ongoing training to stay on top of their profession. Pilots are required by law in most major sea ports of the world for large ships.

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