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The difference between a ship captain and maritime pilot

maritime pilot

While both roles equate in importance, maritime pilot is needed especially for port manoeuvring

At sea, the captain is responsible for the vessel; including sea-worthiness, safety and security, cargo operations, navigation, crew management and legal compliance. However, when the vessel reaches dangerous or congested waters such as harbours and river mouths, marine pilots come in with their niche knowledge through certain waterways. They are the licensed personnel authorised by a recognised pilotage authority to navigate tricky waters safely.

The real role of maritime pilot
When a vessel approaches or departs a harbour, marine pilots are deployed to safely navigate the vessel through local waters. This operation is known as “Pilot Transfer Arrangement”. They are usually stationed at ports, and many have prior experience as a ship’s officer or master.

United States-based Canaveral Pilots Association explains, “Marine pilots are responsible for the safety of the vessel which they are navigating, and also with the protection of the state waters, harbours, ports, the environment, life and property, including effects that ships transiting a harbour may have on other ships moored at the docks and any impact on port facilities.”

The line that differentiates the captain and pilot is the control within crowded harbours or confined waters. Though the captain knows his vessel and crew well, active collaborating with the pilot will enhance safe navigating of the ship. European Maritime Pilots’ Association (EMPA) remarked, “Ship masters cannot be expected to be fully conversant with the special navigational and regulatory requirements of an area.” In other words, marine pilots possess knowledge that enables smooth communication with local services such as tug boats and linesmen.

During the pilotage, though captains retain command of their vessels, marine pilots take on the direction of the vessel movement for smooth transition through the local waters. EMPA added, “Captains and pilots 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.”

Recognising marine pilots
Marine pilots are required to be physically fit to work in waters and at heights. Given part of their work scope is to board the vessel at sea, pilot ladder arrangements have been known to have safety risks – especially under bad weathers or when the vessel is massive.

Therefore, requirements to make this easier are included in Chapter V of the SOLAS Convention, and have also formed the subject of IMO resolutions covering performance standards for mechanical pilot hoists (A.275(VIII); arrangements for embarking and disembarking pilots in very large ships (A.426(XI); and pilot transfer arrangements (A.667(16)). An MSC Circular (MSC/Circ.568/Rev.1) covers required boarding arrangements for pilots.

The International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA) in a 2020 safety campaign contained findings that revealed 12.11 per cent of arrangements were non-compliant with combination ladders, while pilot ladders had the most defects by both number and percentage. The report stated: “Many of the common issues found with securing of pilot ladders are steps taken by crews as a way to work around constraints imposed by deck cargo, loading or other prevailing circumstances”.

Recognising the importance of having qualified marine pilots, International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted Assembly resolution A.159 (ES.IV) Recommendation on Pilotage. This resolution recommends Governments organise pilotage services where they would be likely to prove more effective than other measures, and define the ships and classes of ships for which employment of a pilot would be mandatory.

In 2003, the IMO officially adopted resolution A.960(23) Recommendations on training and certification, and operational procedures for maritime pilots other than deep-sea pilots. This included Recommendation on Training and Certification of Maritime Pilots other than Deep sea Pilots, as well as Recommendation on Operational Procedures for Maritime Pilots other than Deep sea Pilots.



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