What Does a Ship Pilot Do?

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Being a ship pilot isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. A marine pilot spends a great deal of time at sea. Thus, marine pilots need to enjoy navigating through open waters and traveling to different ports, like San Francisco or New York harbor.

There is a vast amount of education and skill required to do this job. Those that are properly trained can make a good living. Plus, it is in high demand.


Marine pilots make between $36,810 to $153,070. The salary is largely determined by experience and education. The average pay is around $89,740 USD.

How to Become a Ship Pilot: Education and Experience

To become a ship pilot, you will require experience working as a professional mariner. You may begin by going to a trade school or maritime academy. Pilots are required to have an associate degree or vocational training. You must be licensed by the Coast Guard to work on water vessels registered in the United States.

What Does a Ship Pilot Do?

A marine pilot tends to be an adviser to the captain and crew when a cruise ship is coming into a port. Contrary to popular belief, marine pilots are not in command of the captain. Captains are always in command as they are responsible for the entire ship.

Cruise Ship Pilot Vessel
Cruise Ship Pilot Vessel (Photo Credit: GEORGE STAMATIS / Shutterstock)

Marine pilots can assume the ship’s conduct, but it is only through the permission of the captain. Both pilot and captain are responsible for the safety of the ship.

What Is the Typical Day of a Pilot?

This is a list of what pilots do daily:

  • Work as a docking master when a ship arrives at a port or berth
  • Prevent cruise ships under their navigational control from participating in operations deemed to be unsafe
  • Plot courses that avoid hazards like outlying shoals, reefs, etc. while using navigational aids
  • Steer a ship out of or into a berth
  • Direct the speed and course of a ship based on their specialized knowledge

Monthly and weekly tasks involve providing help to ships leaving or approaching seacoasts, docking/undocking, and navigating harbors. They will also oversee cargo storage below deck and on deck.

Required Skills

Pilots are licensed master mariners with many years of experience guiding ships in and out of a port. They have a vast knowledge of local currents, docks and piers, communication procedures/regulations, water depths, charts, weather reports, and navigational equipment. Pilots use these tools to plot and direct the course of the ship.

Pilot boat alongside cruise ship
Pilot boat alongside cruise ship (Photo Credit: Lflorot / Shutterstock)

A pilot determines the course and speed of the cruise ship depending on currents, water depths, weather, local winds, and tides. Aside from steering the cruise ship, they may also serve in the position of docking master when arriving at various harbors and ports.

As no port is the same, their extensive knowledge of their particular port comes in handy to the captain, who may be a first-time visitor, or if there are harsh weather conditions.

Pilots skillfully set a cruise ship’s course, keeping safety and timelines in mind. They want to avoid and be familiar with where outlying shoals and reefs are located. This is done by utilizing their navigational skills, lighthouses, and buoys to guide their path. They also direct the crew when assistance is required.

Departure and Entrance

When cruise ships arrive at a fairway buoy or breakwaters, they are met with a pilot boat. The ship’s speed goes up to 21 knots and is reduced to 8-15 knots depending on what the pilot boat is capable of.

Sometimes, course alterations are necessary to provide a good lee against seas and wind. This ensures an efficient and safe pilot transfer from the pilot boat to the cruise ship.

Pilot vessel
Ship Pilot (Photo Credit: Stories In Light / Shutterstock)

Pilot boats match the cruise ship’s speed and come alongside it near its pilot ladder. The ladder is connected to the hull’s opening, which is referred to as the shell door. The pilot is then met at the top of the ladder by the licensed deck officer. The deck officer communicates via radio with the bridge.

Once the pilot’s ID is checked, they are escorted to the bridge. After they reach the bridge, a pilot is introduced to the ship’s captain and discusses the arrival plan of the ship.

When departing, the procedure goes in reverse.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of this Job?

The pros are that it is great if you enjoy hands-on, practical work, or if you enjoy working in supportive work environments. If you like working both indoors and outside, you will enjoy this job as well. The demand for the vocation is quickly growing.

Passengers Waving at Pilot
Photo Credit: AlCabri / Shutterstock

The cons are that it is not ideal for those who like design work, and there are long hours spent working. You may be working over 40 hours per week.

The best personality type for this position is a thinker or a builder. They enjoy work that involves hands-on solutions and working through problems. They enjoy working with ideas and places where there is an extensive amount of time thinking. This person enjoys mentally mulling and figuring out problems. They also enjoy working with facts.

Why Are Pilots Necessary?

Pilots are trained mariners and sometimes former ship captains. A maritime pilot is licensed by different ports. Their role is to advise a ship’s officers on weather conditions at that port, including the tides, locations of any sand bars, differences in a channel, etc.

A maritime pilot works collectively with their officers to bring ships into port or out into open waters. Pilots contain local knowledge of a port. Captains and the ship’s officers are familiar with the ship.

Ship Pilot on Bridge
Photo Credit: Fotos593 / Shutterstock

As to who controls the vessel, it is up to the people involved. Whoever is in control will provide orders to a helmsman. Sometimes a pilot will give orders while other times they merely offer suggestions.

It Isn’t a Job but a Lifestyle

This job isn’t just a career but a way of life. Anyone working on a cruise ship spends their time on various-sized vessels and on the water. Life on a cruise ship means that one should be in good physical condition. A maritime pilot must be able to tolerate weather extremes, irregular hours, and be alert to imminent or impending danger.

Read Also: Port and Starboard – Which Side Is Which?

The ship pilot navigates ships based on knowledge of the sea and of various ports. They work in conjunction with the captain and crew to ensure that all safety protocols are maintained, and they are a valuable asset to any cruise ship.

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