Ship Pilot

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Ship Pilot


Before there were buses, before there were planes, before there were even bicycles, there were boats. Huge Viking vessels and tiny birchbark canoes braved the waters around the world for a number of reasons. Those sailors were delivering cargo, transporting travelers, and adventuring around the world.

Everyone knows that boats don't propel themselves. Even today, where computers and engineering take care of a lot of the more arduous tasks associated with sailing, the officers on board those boats are the real ingredient that keep those ships afloat.

While the boats are out at sea, or traveling across a lake, the main authority is the ship's captain. But once a boat wants to stop at a port, the ship pilot, who works only within that harbor, takes over. The pilot climbs onto each vessel that enters their territory. Cruise liners, tankers, car carriers, livestock carriers, large fishing vessels, and cargo ships, the pilot works with them all. They not only know how to get the ships through difficult local waterways and navigate small or crowded harbors to a mooring place, but they can also explain harbor and port rules to the captain and crew of the visiting vessels.

There is a lot involved in piloting ships. As well as paying careful attention to weather, tides, and wind, they must work with international crews, local tug crews, and onshore workers. There is a lot of careful orchestration and organization that can go into a day's work, especially if a number of larger ships are looking to dock in a smallish port.

Ship pilots don't take ships around the world, they stay close to home. By working in one place, they become experts on the natural and human elements that make their harbor unique and special. They are necessary to the visiting ships' crew members, who are unfamiliar with each new port. By being efficient, generous leaders, ship pilots make travel by boat all the more enjoyable.
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  Interests and Skills  
Ship pilots are avid sailors, who enjoy spending time on the water. They should be healthy, with normal color vision. They need to be mature, responsible, and organized, with strong skills in math, computers, map reading and navigation, as well as communication skills, both written and oral. They have a vast knowledge of tides, coastlines, and marine hazards. They should be adaptable, and have respect for others, the law, safety, and the environment. They are natural leaders who work very well in a team environment, yet are secure enough to make decisions on their own. They need to be disciplined and driven to do well in this field. Finally, ship pilots should be able to work well under pressure.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Board ships by boat or by helicopter
  • Advise ship's officers on harbor or port rules and customs procedures
  • Direct the course and speed of ships while they are in the harbor
  • Guide ships in and out of the port
  • Help ships to berth and unberth with or without the assistance of tugboats
  • May take part in maritime rescue operations
  • Keep regular reports on everything that occurs in port and harbor, including weather conditions and the ships that dock
  • The ship pilot's day is full of important and varied tasks. From ensuring that the cargo ships are respecting the harbor rules to guiding a cruise ship out of crowded and tricky waterways, ship pilots work long hours on board other people's vessels, guiding crews that are not their own. The work is done on the ship or in an office, filing reports or meeting with senior officers. They of course do a lot of traveling, but only within short distances of their harbor.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Ship pilots work on board boats in harbors, ports, and difficult waterways. They can be found working on large pleasure cruise boats, cargo ships, tugboats, ferries, tankers, and search and rescue vessels. They work long hours, often in the middle of the night. The work can be cold and damp, as much of it is done outside on deck. They also work in an office during times when there are no ships to guide.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Ship pilots can work with search and rescue, cruise lines, or start up a tourist boating service. They can work as ship's captains, or as tugboat captains. They can become travel writers, and write down tales of their adventures at sea after years of world travel, or they can write about their times spent combing the seas for fish with Maritime fishers. They can apply their knowledge to the navy, or become a sailing instructor at a private sailing school or community college.

  Educational Paths  
In order to work as a ship pilot it is neccesary to obtain a marine careers certificate. There are programs offered by private sailing and marine colleges, as well as at community colleges. These courses include things like first aid, firefighting, and survival at sea, meteorology (studying weather patterns locally and globally and how they affect ships), seamanship, ropework, handling deck machinery, coastal navigation and celestial navigation (navigating by the stars). The courses vary in length, any where from six months to two years.

Ship pilots spend years working as third, second, and first mates, and, after that experience and additional training, they may advance to the position of ship pilot. Some work as ship captains or tugboat captain first, and then advance to ship pilot from those positions.

It is a good idea for prospective ship pilots to look for a summer or weekend course in sailing. Often, these are good introductions to the world of boating, and will give them a good idea about whether or not it's the world for them.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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