Cruise Ship Pilot: What is their Role and Responsibility?

Cruise Ship Pilot: Any cruiser who has ever been on a ship of any size has undoubtedly seen pilot boats come alongside the ship and perhaps even watched with interest as one or two people ascended the rope ladder to board. Have you ever pondered about these individuals’ backgrounds and actions once they join the team?

They are ship or marine pilots, knowledgeable about the ports and waterways you are approaching or departing from. They board the ship to steer it out of the harbor and into it securely.

TPG spoke with two industry professionals to find out more. Pilots from the American Pilots’ Association, whose executive director and general counsel is Clayton L. “Clay” Diamond, operate over 90% of the larger ocean vessels in international waters. We also had a conversation with Edouard Petitson, the port captain director of Norwegian Cruise Line. Petitson is based at Norwegian’s Miami headquarters and oversees a variety of port-related activities, including pilotage.

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We learned firsthand from Diamond and Petitson about the experiences of cruise ship pilots and how they work with the captain and crew to properly steer the ship into or out of port.

What does a pilot on a cruise ship do?

A pilot boards the ship using a pilot boat, which can range in length from 65 to 100 feet, in ports both domestically and internationally, 10 to 20 miles offshore. Once on board, the pilot directs the captain or helmsman on how to best manage the ship through the rivers and offshore channels until the cruise liner docks.

From the pier to a “pilot boarding area,” when they change to the pilot boat, marine pilots also operate boats. The duration of the pilotage might range from two to three hours to eight to ten hours.

In Alaska, however, the situation is different because cruise ships spend almost all of their time sailing quite close to the coast and icebergs. Generally, a vessel operating in these waters will have two pilots on board for the duration of the pilotage. Places like Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve are common places to find this kind of piloting arrangement.

The duties of a pilot aboard a cruise ship

(Credit: US News Travel)

A cruise ship pilot’s job becomes crucial when the vessel approaches a harbor. The port pilot meets with the bridge team and then delivers their passage strategy.

They talk about the path, the weather, the tides, the wind, the visibility, the traffic, the risks, and other pertinent details. When deciding on the optimal course, the pilot and captain review plans. “Master Pilot Exchange” is the term for the procedure. It could need to be adjusted on the fly, just like any great plan. Because port circumstances are ever-changing, port navigation is a dynamic exercise.

The pilot communicates verbally while performing a maneuver. To help the captain navigate the waterway, the pilot directs the tug boats’ position, speed, and use of thrusters. The captain and crew always dock and undock the boat, even though pilots may navigate the route. Ports that have extremely challenging mooring situations may use “docking pilots” to help with the maneuver.

The duties of a cruise ship pilot go much beyond straightforward navigation. They also guarantee that the ship enters and safely exits the port. Working seamlessly with the crew and captain of the ship is a requirement of this job.

Here, communication is essential as the pilot gives specific instructions suited to the particular conditions of each port, including maneuvers, speed modifications, and course corrections.

To dock and undock the vessel, close coordination with tugboats and the dock staff is also necessary. The pilot, who must have a thorough understanding of both the ship’s capabilities and local maritime laws and procedures, orchestrates this intricate dance.

After releasing the cruise ship pilot at Juneau, Alaska’s Serenade of the Seas, a pilot boat departs.
The weather is another factor that the cruise ship pilot takes into account. Unexpected changes in the weather and strong winds can have a big impact on a ship’s actions. They employ advanced navigational instruments to help alleviate these issues and ensure the safety of both the ship and its passengers because they are up to date with modern technology.

In busy port regions, preventing collisions with other vessels is another crucial duty. When navigating the cruise ship through these crowded areas, the pilots need to be extremely alert and constantly modify their tactics to stay clear of other boats and keep a safe distance from the ship.

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What gives a pilot the authority to command a ship into port instead of the captain?

They are experts in their ports, having trained in the waterways they work on and working in the marine business for many years as pilot apprentices. Ship captains are required to be able to memorize the pilotage ground, including the channel, landmarks, docks, buoys, and any potential navigational dangers.

“A pilot also has comprehensive knowledge of the local environments such as the hydrographic, wind and currents and tidal conditions,” Petitson continues.

Ship captains that visit many ports across the globe lack the in-depth expertise and training that marine pilots receive in a single port. Marine pilots are experts in their field and are essentially maritime professionals.

Is there a pilot in every port?

Cruises from U.K. Ports, Cruises in U.K. Ports, U.K. Ports, U.K. Ports cruise departures
(Credit: Expedia)

In the world, there are very few ports where pilotage is not required. Pilotage is required in Miami and all other U.S. ports for all ships, both arriving and departing. Local pilots supply this service.

The quantity of pilots required in any port is regulated by a state regulatory board. Based on the amount of shipping and cruise traffic at the port, the board decides on the number. Enough pilots operating is the aim in order to prevent delays.

What takes place at foreign ports? Should pilots speak English fluently?

English language proficiency is a requirement for all pilots worldwide.

“In certain destinations where English is not the primary language,” Petitson clarifies, “the pilot can communicate in their native language with other ships in the channel, traffic control and other pilots to eliminate possible misunderstandings, especially in an emergency.”

Who gets the last word in case the captain and pilot disagree?

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When navigating the cruise ship into or out of port, the captain is always in command of the ship and the crew and guests’ safety. In the event of a disagreement, the captain will lead the ship until the issue is settled.

Is it a dangerous job?

(Credit: Cruise Hive)

You may have asked how safe it is for pilots to join ships using a ladder or to leap from a moving ship to a pilot boat next to it if you’ve seen films of the procedure.

According to Diamond, boarding and disembarking ships via the ladder has been determined to be the safest method. The American Pilots’ Association prioritizes safety and regularly collaborates with the International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Coast Guard to strengthen and optimize the rules about pilot transfers and ladders. But since 2006, eight marine pilots have lost their lives.

How many women pilot marines?

No. Overall, there are 0.01% of female pilots holding an unlimited tonnage master’s credential. In the APA, there are four to five percent female pilots. According to Diamond, the figure is far greater than in most other nations, but the APA would want it to be lower.

Why Do We Need Pilots?

A tugboat that transfers pilots to the Serenade of the Seas cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska
Navigating the conditions of the port might be challenging for captains. Pilots are expert navigators with extensive knowledge of harbors and rivers.

For the safe navigation and maneuvering of the cruise ship, a pilot’s expertise is essential. Captains and ship officers know the boat, whereas port pilots are acquainted with the port.

Research on current marine mishaps emphasizes how crucial pilotage is to preventing mishaps. Data demonstrate how pilotage significantly lowers the number of maritime mishaps, highlighting the importance of cruise ship pilots in upholding safety regulations.

How Can Someone Become a Pilot on a Cruise Ship?

The pilots drive a small boat next to the cruise ship. When the pilot boat approaches the cruise liner, the pilot boards the boat by climbing a ladder on the side of the ship.

Pilot boats are capable of 30 knots of speed. Additionally, they can accelerate quickly to get out of trouble when necessary. The pilot boat has a deckhand and a cockswain as crew members. The pilot’s safety is the cockswain’s responsibility. The cockswain decides to go to sea or not if the weather is bad.

Cruise ships may slow down to 8 to 15 knots so that the pilot can board without incident. After coming alongside the vessel, the pilot ascends the “pilot ladder” and enters the ship via a hull aperture, occasionally referred to as a shell door.

Incident Type Number of Incidents Percentage of Incidents
Vessel Without Pilotage 300 62%
Vessel With Pilotage 150 31%
Vessel With Pilotage Exemption Certificate 32 7%

The pilot is greeted by a licensed deck officer who also uses a radio to contact the bridge.

Who is in charge of the ship—the captain or the pilot?

Only the captain’s consent is required for a marine pilot to operate the ship from the bridge.

The ship is always under the captain’s command. While pilots are crucial for maneuvering through ports, the captain is in charge of the ship.

The Panama Canal is the lone outlier. When a ship is traveling through the Panama Canal, the pilots are in total command and control of the vessel.

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