Marine transportation faces serious navigational challenges every day: dangerous weather, treacherous tides and currents, underwater hazards, congested waterways, and narrow channels.
Stacked against this list of hazards is the accumulated experience and knowledge of the marine pilot. Pilots are seasoned mariners who use their knowledge of local waters to safely guide vessels to their destination.
When pilotage services are required, marine pilots are dispatched to meet and board vessels as they enter designated compulsory pilotage areas. According to local regulations, no person shall have the conduct of a vessel within a compulsory pilotage area unless that person is a licensed pilot or holds a pilotage certificate allowing him to operate in that area.
Qualified pilots provide their services to ships for a fee, calculated in relation to the ship's tonnage. The importance of employing qualified pilots in approaches to ports and other areas where specialized local knowledge is required was formally recognized by the International Maritime Organization in 1968, where recommended Governments to define ships and classes of ships for which employment of pilots should be mandatory.
Pilots with local knowledge have been employed on board ships for centuries to guide vessels into or out of port safely - or wherever navigation may be considered hazardous. In addition to local knowledge and expertise, pilots are able to provide effective communication with the shore and with tugs, often in the local language. They also bring highly developed shiphandling skills which are necessary with ever-larger ships.
Pilots come aboard vessels by small boat at the most critical phase of a vessel’s voyage to assist with the conduct of navigation in waters with limited draught, widths, variable currents and other traffic competing for space. Ship’s masters cannot be expected to be fully conversant with the special navigational and regulatory requirements of an area.
Pilots usually board the vessel by means of ladder, often climbing the side of the vessel for up to 9 meters, an embarkation procedure which is always risky, and even more so under inclement conditions. Once the pilot is aboard, he goes to the vessel's bridge area where he will stay, guiding the vessel until it has transited the area. These transfers can be particularly dangerous when the weather is bad. Requirements to provide minimum standards for pilot transfer are contained in SOLAS -Chapter V and on Resolution A.1045(27) "Recommendation on pilot transfer arrangements".
The Master and Pilot relationship is an intriguing balance of mutual trust and respect, largely unwritten, which provides an unrivalled level of safety in a society that expects, and receives, the highest of standards from the shipping industry.