Maritime pilotage, where a local navigational expert boards arriving and departing vessels in bays, harbors, rivers, and canals around the world, has been in existence since water borne commerce and travel began, centuries ago. 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 into 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.
There are some ship owners and shipping companies who are critics of the maritime pilotage system from the perspective of saving costs and maintaining full control over their vessels. The following is a list of common criticisms of maritime pilots and the response as to why these criticisms are unfounded and would be detrimental to maritime safety.
Our captains are experienced enough to pilot their own vessels, especially those who regularly call at the same port.
- There is no comparison to the experience and training local pilots have even for captains who call regularly at the port. Before pilots are fully qualified to handle vessels in the port, they must complete intensive training programs under the supervision of fully qualified pilots, which entail hundreds of transits. After completion of the intensive training as well as comprehensive testing requirements, pilots regularly complete hundreds of transits per year, and the cumulative experience over time is well in to the thousands of transits. In many of the busiest ports, rivers, and canals, there is no way the volume of traffic could be handled daily without local pilots. Even in harbors with less volume, the pilot’s integral knowledge of the port officials, procedures, facilities, and authorities, provide for greater efficiency and coordination of vessel traffic.
Our modern ships have so much modern technology such as GPS and radars that they can proceed safely without a pilot.
- The idea that technology is a reason why pilots are no longer necessary is as scary as it is dead wrong. More than a few pilots have experienced ship crews who are so focused on radars and electronic charts that they fail to look out at the real world and understand the effects that wind and current are having on their vessel. Technology is subject to failure and GPS signals are affected by numerous conditions that can affect reliability, not the least of which is jamming. Pilots have been at the forefront of introducing technology in many ports aboard ship bridges but they understand that these are tools to be used, but are no substitution for the experience and local knowledge that pilots provide. Ship size has grown astronomically in recent years and ports have not grown in proportion, remaining at levels designed for much smaller vessels. The margin for error has decreased and the reaction time and maneuvering room needed for a vessel to recover from a failure of technology being relied upon to navigate in a restricted waters is simply not adequate.
Pilots have no accountability and are overpaid.
- These common criticisms are completely unfounded and do not hold up under any reasonable, objective scrutiny. Pilots are accountable to the Board of Pilot Commissioners for their state or local area, to the U.S. Coast Guard, and they are subject to civil penalties and criminal prosecution and imprisonment when accidents result in injury, death, environmental damage and pollution, and harm to wildlife. The Pilot Boards and Coast Guard can suspend or revoke licenses and impose fines when warranted. Piloting is a well-paid profession due to the fact that they are recruited from the ranks of captains and deck officers of the Merchant Marine who are also well paid, due to the serious dangers associated with the job and the high levels of accountability that comes with those dangers. Pilots are subject to business risks associated with the owning and operating of pilot boats and maintaining modern pilotage services as required by law, employing personnel to support those services, and as independent contractors, providing for their own as well as their employees’ benefit and retirement plans. Pilots are not employees of the state or port authorities which means no taxpayer money is needed to support this safety system. All pay is generated by pilotage fees charged to the vessels, which in Florida, are set by the Pilotage Rate Review committee of the Board of Pilot Commissioners. Pilotage fees in Florida are among the cheapest worldwide. Port Canaveral has not had an increase in pilotage fees since 1991!
- It is a shame that a small percentage of ship owners and shipping companies seek to challenge and undermine maritime pilotage safety systems rather than embrace them for the extraordinary benefits the systems provide to shipping. Pilotage fees should be viewed as the most effective insurance a shipping company can buy given that it is a system that is designed to prevent accidents from ever happening in the first place, rather than paying out after the fact.
While some of these companies assert that the main objective to their stance on pilotage has to do with cost containment, it is bewildering that these same companies spend substantial amounts of money through their industry associations, to influence politicians in an effort to reduce pilotage requirements or exempt their vessels from pilotage. These actions seem to indicate that their larger concern may be control over their vessels rather than costs, evidenced by their willingness to spend plenty of money on lobbyists and political contributions rather than pilotage. This seems to be an attempt to undermine the essential characteristic of maritime pilotage which provides pilots who are independent of economic pressures or company interference in making safety assessments. Can you imagine what could happen without maritime pilotage requirements, when multiple ships are approaching a harbor entrance and each is under pressure to get to the dock first? Based on some of the headlines we read concerning accidents and incidents involving vessels at sea and outside pilotage waters, is that really the path we want to follow? Fortunately, many ship owners and shipping companies understand the great benefits of maritime pilotage and work closely with pilot organizations world-wide to enhance the safety of their vessels. Hopefully those few companies influenced by proponents of undermining maritime pilotage, will undergo a corporate culture change and recognize the positive impact pilotage provides.