Top Menu

Knowing how much of a nail-biter taking our boat into a strange harbor can be, I find it fascinating to watch huge ships manage the task. I have come to learn that the captains of these ships are most often assisted in this task by a pilot, a professional who has intimate knowledge of the harbor.

When first studying my “rules of the road” and memorizing the special light combinations that different types of vessels displayed, I read that a pilot boat is signified by a white light over top of a red light. That was all well and fine but I didn’t really know what a pilot boat was. Now, after having spent time observing the comings and goings of large ships, and listening to their radio traffic, I’ve learned that a pilot typically meets an incoming ship while it is approaching the harbor and while it is still underway, boards the ship to lend assistance to the captain and crew. The reverse of this procedure occurs when the ship is leaving port, the pilot, after having ensured that the ship is safely back in open waters, is picked up by the pilot boat and returned to shore or shuttled to his next duty.

Cool job? Yes, and one that, according to wikipedia, is well compensated. It comes with a fair degree of responsibility though so I guess they earn it.

A pilot was “on the job” just astern of our boat this morning.

Now caught up on our internet responsibilities, and having enjoyed ourselves on a great hash last night, Rebecca and I plan to head back to our island hideaway later this morning. You know what that means… another break in posting. Sorry guys, I promise to do better next week when we’ll be stuck in Chaguaramas.


  1. Yes, Pilots are incredible. I realise you are largely in reasonably flat water with only gentle tidal problems round there and that’s bad enough. But elsewhere in the world, where seas are wild and tides are severe, just imagine the problems!

    Every ship behaves differently, turns at different speeds, stops/goes with different difficulty and response depending on shape, size, loading and windage. The Pilot has to get it right, EVERY time.

    Throw in the sheer difficulty of getting on board one of these ships, in a seaway, from a tiny boat, onto a swinging rope ladder, climbing over the gunwale with heavy waterproof clothing on, then scaling 4 or more flights of stairs up to the bridge which is equipped with different types of equipment on different vessels. etc etc

    I see them frequently. I admire them hugely.


  2. I almost, within a hair, took a job as a pilot boat captain. Basically the guy that pilots the pilot boat. It pays pretty good as well.

  3. They are very much needed here as the coastline is very rocky and and there is constant worry of a major oil disaster:

    Simulator training helps:

  4. I would love to have been a Pilot Captain…but my father didn’t work there. I hear it’s quite an exclusive club.

  5. That’s some really interesting stuff! Thanks Mike, you just ‘made me’ spend an hour reading Wikipedia…going from link to link to link. 🙂


  6. That is nothing.
    In South Africa (Durban and Cape Town) the pilot is taken to ships and off ships by helicopter!
    This is an old helicopter, they have an even fancier one today.

  7. A few years back, I took the cruise ship out of Mobile, AL. Being familiar with the bay, we were out on the observation deck and I was Mr. Knowledgely pointing out points of interest. After we exited the bay we noticed the PILOT boat and the accompanying Coast Guard escort. We had a good position on the portion of the deck that actually overhung the starboard side. We were able to watch the PILOT boat come along side and see the pilot make the jump back to his boat.
    This was made easy by the fact that seas were calm and the PILOT boat actually made contact with the cruise ship, and the PILOT boat had to be a 30+ footer.

    I capitalized PILOT to be funny because the side of the pilot boat had it painted in HUGE letters.

  8. Mike: Normally when a merchant ship has a pilot onboard they fly the “Hotel” flag a red/white vertical stripped flag, when the flag is halfway up they are requesting a pilot, all the way up to the yardarm, one is aboard. Also the pilot boats usually uses channel 68 in the US. Pilots also will do a lot of the radio communication on the vhf as they “speak the local language”

    Keep up the great website and continue having fun!

    • Thanks John. I did read about the flags online. We frequently here ships hailing the port looking for pilots over and over!. Sometimes it takes a long time for them to reply and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with VHF range.

    • Thanks John. I did read about the flags online. We frequently hear ships hailing the port looking for pilots over and over! Sometimes it takes a long time for them to reply and I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with VHF range.

  9. Mike & Rebecca: we were truly grateful for the pilots provided by the Moorings at Oyster Pond (St. Martin)–the day we departed, there were 10-20 foot swells with winds gusting to 30 knots–the entrance to the marina is tricky on a good day, and I felt alot better with a person who had local knowledge taking us out! I was NOT prepared for how rough a ride it was to get out to open water. I wish I had a picture of myself looking like a rookie, in the main salon with my arms around several bottles of wine that I rescued from tumbling to their demise! Catamarans are as bad as monohulls when it comes to pitching over giant waves (but that’s a fact I learned the hard way)!

  10. Why? Jon and I used to wait for small craft warnings to sail his Catalina 22 on Lake Erie because we like an exciting sail! But mainly because we were on holiday from the states-4 boats, 26 people…we had spent alot of money and effort to get there from Arizona, Utah, California and Colorado.

    There were squalls all week long, but the sailing was great!

    My point was that I agree with you on the excellent service that pilots can provide!

    • I hear ya, Barb. I was just kidding. With us though, if we knew it was going to be rough, we would have stayed put. That is the luxury we have of not being on a timetable. I can totally see how those on a charter would feel differently.

Comments are closed.