Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A View From the Bridge—a career as a ship pilot

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine.

Full article by Mr. Paul G. Kirchner, Executive Director and General Counsel, American Pilots’ Association, available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings/fall2008.

What is a Ship Pilot?
There are many uses of the term “pilot,” even within the maritime industry. The type addressed here is an individual who is not a member of a vessel’s crew, but one who comes aboard to help navigate the vessel in or out of port.

Pilots are independent contractors, but belong to an association with other pilots in the port or pilotage region and earn fees paid by the vessels that use them according to published tariff rates.

Pilots are highly trained experts whose role is to protect the people, economy, and environment of their area by guiding ships safely and expeditiously through the waters of their regions. This is a difficult, demanding, and dangerous job with heavy responsibilities. It is, however, rewarding and highly respected.

A pilot can be dispatched to a job at any time of night or day. This means that pilots work irregular hours, often at night and on weekends and holidays. The pilot typically boards an inbound vessel by transferring from a pilot boat and climbing a ladder rigged over the side of the vessel. In some places, pilots may use a helicopter for boarding and disembarking, so the pilot transfer can be a dangerous operation, particularly in severe weather.

The pilot then directs the navigation of the vessel, typically giving helm and engine commands directly to the bridge crew. Pilots often serve on vessels they have never encountered before and must work closely with foreign crews with cultural differences and limited English language skills.

Despite those challenges, pilots must quickly establish a smooth, cooperative working relationship with the people they encounter on the bridge and must project a calm, reassuring command presence. This is considered part of the “art” of piloting.

How to Become a Pilot
Each state maintains its own process for soliciting and accepting applications for new pilot positions and selecting among the applicants. In addition, each state limits the number of pilot positions so that all pilots get sufficient experience, and the pilot association can be assured of the revenues needed to maintain a modern public service pilotage operation.

Pilot trainees learn in a traditional apprenticeship-type format with hands-on training under the direction of senior pilots. A trainee may make hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of instructional trips before being allowed to pilot “solo.”

The length and content of the training program varies from state to state and, in some places, from pilotage area to pilotage area within a state. Some states require prior experience as an officer—or even as a master—on oceangoing vessels. Some states require service on a towing vessel or allow that as an option. Some states will accept individuals without any prior mariner experience.

The time it takes to complete a state training program and become a full pilot may range from one to two years in areas with considerable prior vessel experience requirements. In places that train pilots “from the ground up,” this process may take up to nine years.

About the author:
Mr. Paul Kirchner is the executive director and general counsel of the American Pilots’ Association in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent speaker and writer on various aspects of the piloting profession.

For more information:
American Pilots’ Association
499 South Capitol Street, SW
Suite 409
Washington, D.C. 20003
(202) 484-0700; Fax: (202) 484-9320

Full article and 124-page “Focus on the Mariner” edition of USCG Proceedings is available at www.uscg.mil/proceedings/fall2008. Subscribe online at www.uscg.mil/proceedings.

Direct requests for print copies of this edition to: HQS-DG-NMCProceedings@uscg.mil.