The Secret Lives of Pilots

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There has been a lot of hand twisting on “supply chain” issues during the pandemic. The average reader on this website is probably already aware of the important role the shipping industry plays in this supply chain, but the general public seems blissfully unaware of how this big screen TV (they are considering buying) at local big box store got to the shelf. “In fact, it’s truly a compliment to all of us in the supply chain that we’ve pulled off the most unlikely feat: being both ubiquitous in the global economy and invisible to consumers around the world.”1

All recent supply chain reviews have shed light on the maritime sector, and not always in a good way. I am of course thinking of the M/V EVER GIVEN, stuck aside for six days in the Suez Canal. Alas, the 24-hour news cycle and our ever-shortening attention spans2means that the focus on ships and navigation will disappear too quickly from “front page” news.

But while ships and crews have always featured prominently in mainstream literature (Moby Dick, The Caine Mutiny), Hollywood movies (Titanic, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Phillips), and popular media (Love Boat, Gilligan’s Island), pilots, and the important contribution they make are largely ignored.

Typically, when the occupation of “pilot” comes up in polite conversation, it’s clear that airline pilot is what most people think of first. But in fact, when you look up “pilot” in the dictionary, the first of the five definitions is “a person duly qualified and generally authorized to operate a ship in and out of a port or in special waters , often for fixed purposes”. royalties, and who, while she is in charge, has all the conduct of her navigation. The modest airline pilot comes in fifth, behind “a guide who leads along a difficult or invisible course”, a “fish” (Menominee Whitefish) and a “Cowcatcher on a train locomotive” (also called pilot) .

The relative obscurity that surrounds the profession of maritime pilot is not due to the fact that it is a new profession. Quite the contrary, it is one of the oldest professions in the world, with mentions of piloting in Homer’s “Iliad” (8th century BC) and in the Old Testament. While pilotage has existed in one form or another for centuries, the first “organized” pilotage service appears to have originated in the Netherlands in the early 1800s. A Dutchman named Frans Naerebout is generally recognized as the father of the modern piloting as a profession, and he is credited with developing piloting into the art and science that it is today.

The fact that piloting is “off the radar” of the general public could be attributed to the profession having its roots in the “guild system”. Guilds were benevolent societies, usually made up of artisans or merchants, who found the key “guild principles” of cooperation and solidarity to promote the common goals of their profession. Piloting was one such profession that adopted this format, and vestiges of the guilds can be seen in modern piloting associations. The characteristics of the corporations, which make them even today well suited to pilot organizations, are a basis of voluntary association, a fraternity of membership, a high degree of interdependence of its members, an organization based on democratic principles, joint determination of working conditions and remuneration, common funds for the common good, regulation by a sovereign body, common ownership of assets and common effort for the common welfare and protection of its members3.

Typical of guilds of the time, pilots elected their own officers, admitted desirable members, established apprenticeship programs, and looked after the general welfare of their members. The guilds fiercely guarded their knowledge and passed it on through apprenticeships, reinforcing the impression of the guilds as “secret societies”. The practice of apprenticeship within the guild system resembles the pilot training programs that exist today, with the possible exception of the ban on marriage, which many guilds categorized as equal with the haunting taverns or the game of dice.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the benefits and reliance on guilds declined, but piloting remained well suited to this structure, as pilots relied on the training, knowledge, and skill of a individual. This structure evolved into the pilot associations prevalent in the profession today.

Further adding to the mystery of piloting is that it is practiced out of sight of the public. The fantastic feats of skill and bravery exhibited in embarking and disembarking ships are only visible to the crews of the pilot boats and those aboard the ship, as it occurs well offshore in many regions.

This sea boarding usually involves a transfer between a (relatively) small pilot boat and a huge ship, or in some jurisdictions, from a helicopter to a ship. When earthlings first learn how pilots board ships at sea, they find it hard to believe that in modern times pilots still jump from the deck of a pitching and rising pilot boat to clinging to a rope ladder hanging from the side of a large ocean-going cargo ship or tanker. Because this transfer takes place out of sight of all but the ship’s crew and the crew of the boat- pilot, this highly dangerous and somewhat heroic activity remains unknown to the public.

Even more spectacular is the process of disembarking from a ship at sea, particularly at night and in heavy weather, when the pilot, halfway up the tiny rope ladder, grabs a “manrope” (a rope that hangs from side of the rope ladder) and rappels down the side of the ship, hoping to land on a small part of the deck of the moving pilot boat waiting below.

If that sounds dangerous, that’s because it is! In one year, not so long ago, six pilots in the United States lost their lives boarding or disembarking from ships. Quoting (a huge understatement) from IMO4 website: “One of the problems pilots have is getting on board the ship – especially when the weather is bad or the ship is very large.” In an effort to address this issue, the IMO has adopted safety standards for pilot ladders to encourage international cooperation in the implementation of safe practices with respect to pilot ladders.

Finally, piloting is made more mysterious since, in most cases, pilots work alone. By this I mean that when they board a ship, they enter a world inhabited by the crew of the ship, where they are a stranger, an outsider, who may or may not share a common language. Often the captain and officers of the ship speak one language and the crew another. When the pilot gives helm or engine speed orders, it can be repeated, to those actually executing the orders, in a language he does not speak, trusting (but verifying by watching the instruments) that the order is transmitted correctly. After boarding, a pilot ascends to the bridge where, after greetings and a short conference with the captain on details of the ship, crew and voyage plan, takes command and, working somewhat autonomous5, maneuvers the vessel safely to its destination. In most cases, a pilot is a stranger on every ship he boards, but he must display the kind of confidence and poise that builds the confidence necessary for the captain and crew to follow his orders.

If all this mystery, darkness and danger didn’t scare you away, maybe a career as a pilot is right for you. Pilotage is considered by many to be the pinnacle of maritime employment. Overall, the salaries for the pilot profession are among the highest of all maritime careers, and you share in what is arguably the best part of working on ships, arriving and leaving port!

If you think a career in piloting is right for you, the Board of Pilot Commissioners of the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays is seeking candidates for training and will hold an exam in June to select trainees for state licenses. in San Francisco Bay. Visit https://bopc.ca.gov/application/ for more details!


1 “The Goods Won’t Move By Themselves”, Mike Jacob, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association West Coast Trade Report, October 2021, page 13.

2 “Our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. Here’s what we can do about it, Jill Ebstein, Commentary, Orlando Sentinel, July 6, 2021

3 “State Pilotage in America”, Clothier and Lowe, 1979. Published by the American Pilots’ Association

4 International Maritime Organization

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