What is a Maritime Pilot? From "Crossing the Bar, The Adventures of a San Francisco Bay Bar Pilot" by Captain Paul Lobo

by Capt. Paul Lobo - published on 22 September 2020 763 -

Chapter 3 from the book "Crossing the Bar, The Adventures of a San Francisco Bay Bar Pilot" by Captain Paul Lobo, available on Amazon (link below)

"He who commands the sea has command of everything" Themistocles 514-449 B.C.

When I first met my wife, Carol, on a passenger ship no less, she asked me what I did. Instead of saying, “I’m a Bar Pilot," I said, "I'm a valet parker for ships." Normally if I mentioned I was in the merchant marine someone might ask, "What airline do you fly for?" Carol understood right away.

English Law Article 742 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 defined a pilot as "any person not belonging to a ship who has the conduct thereof," or in nautical parlance someone other than a crew member who has the "Conn,” or control over the speed, direction and movement of the ship. The pilot speaks through the ship’s master who is ultimately responsible. If he’s not content he may assume it himself which is rare and never happened to me.
Maritime pilots have years of sea going experience, are specifically trained to maneuver ships and are local experts. To get to work he or she (For brevity I will only use he in my book) climbs aboard vessels using a “Jacobs’s ladder.”

Pilots are mandatory in most ports and all U.S. states with sea ports have a state pilot authority that selects, disciplines and sets pilotage rates. This has worked well for hundreds of years because State pilots are not obliged to the ship, but to the State. Therefore, pilots are more likely to make decisions based on safety considerations rather than monetary ones. A State pilot relieves the master of economic pressure that can compromise safety. Because pilots aren’t employees they can make independent decisions without fear of losing their job.

Pilots have captains’ licenses but only act as pilot, not captain. To differentiate the two, sometimes we are called "Mr. Pilot." Captain Nancy Wagner, America’s first female ship pilot said crews often call her Mr. Pilot!

The origins of the term "Pilot" probably comes from the Dutch where he is a piloot, Only Spanish speaking countries call us "El Practico.” Everywhere else in the world we are pilots.

The Pilot is a Mighty Man

"The Commandant [1] has cited the following cautionary language: 'Piloting requires the greatest experience and nicest judgment of any form of navigation. Constant vigilance, unfailing mental alertness and thorough knowledge of the principals involved are essential. Mistakes in navigation on the open sea can generally be discovered and corrected before the next landfall. In piloting there is little or no opportunity to correct errors. Even a slight blunder may result in serious disaster involving perhaps loss of life...It’s the proximity of danger which makes piloting so important. The question of avoiding collision in the heavy traffic of harbors essentially a problem of keeping his ship in navigable waters.'" 

[1] From the transcript of United States Coast Guard vs. Merchant Mariner's License 713 770. See Chapter 19 for the full story.


The World's Second Oldest Profession

Archeologists have found evidence of maritime activity from over 7000 year ago so pilots have been around in one form or another since biblical times. When ships in ancient times first ventured offshore in the Mediterranean they no longer hugged familiar shores so they didn’t know the particulars of strange ports, depths of water or the currents. Professional mariners entering a strange foreign port, even with the proper charts, will be tested without a pilot. Experts were needed to guide vessels into port. So resident fishermen with "Local knowledge” sold this information to visiting ships thus acting as the first pilots. This system evolved over centuries. Today there are highly trained, extremely regulated, local specialists handling ships worldwide. Most ports have pilots standing by 24/7 to board vessels whether required by port authorities or states. There are no pilot holidays. I piloted every holiday including many New Year’s Eves. One New Years, not only was it blowing like hell, but it was also foggy. No party hats that night!

Even the Bible mentions pilots so we like to say we are the world’s second oldest profession, right after prostitutes! The Jacob’s ladder, the rope ladder used to board ships, is almost the same as in ancient times. The Bible references it in Genesis 28:10-12: "Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway (ladder) resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

"Pilot" is also mentioned four times in Ezekiel 2. This makes perfect sense because some pilots think they are Gods on the water.

My Dad

I first learned about pilots from my dad who worked thirty-five years for the American Can Company in Brooklyn, New York. One reason I went to sea was because I didn’t want to commute to work like he did. Every day, no matter what the weather, it took him over an hour to get to his plant by public transit. When I went to sea, I only walked up a few decks to the bridge to go to work.

Sometimes my family visited his big factory located near the Bushwick docks. It was exciting seeing all those monstrous machines mass producing hundreds of items out of metal that are now made with plastic. This is probably the reason American Can, once a Fortune 500 company, was swallowed up by Dart Industries and is no longer. American Can’s distinctive logo CANCO affixed on a landmark water tower is long gone, just like my dad.

I remember one day driving into Brooklyn from our home on Long Island with my dad to visit his plant. We passed by Fort Hamilton. That fort once guarded the Verrazano Narrows just as Fort Schuyler, up the East River from Manhattan in the Bronx, guards the east entrance. New York Maritime College, my Alma Mata, the nation’s oldest nautical school is located there. In fact, I attended classes inside the old granite fort. In 1964 the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was erected right over the top of Fort Hamilton, just as the Throgs Neck Bridge spans Fort Schuyler.

As we passed The Narrows, a massive black hulled freighter was slipping out of Lower New York Bay with a white bone in her teeth. My old man told my brother and I that the men who moved those ships were called pilots. He said they were members of a guild that was impossible to join unless you were the son of a pilot. I’m not sure why he knew anything about pilots other than that his plant was near the docks. I didn't give his words much thought because back then, I couldn’t imagine going to sea, much less becoming a sea pilot. When I was in high school I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and to be an airplane pilot. I didn’t do either, and I’m glad I didn’t.

 Piloting was briefly discussed at my college just as being a judge might be discussed at law school. At Fort Schuyler, where I studied to be a Third Mate, becoming a captain was like a dream. Most of us were just trying to graduate. Eventually, I did become a captain, but the sweetest day of my life was when I beat the odds and became one of only about one thousand American pilots that are both state and federally licensed.

 In 1992 my friend, Captain Bob Dean, President of the New York-New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots Association (est.1694), invited me to celebrate Columbus' 500th anniversary with his pilots. Many Sandy Hook Pilots are New York Maritime graduates like me, but I was the first alumnus to become a San Francisco pilot. Two other Alumnae later joined me.

That morning, Pilot Boat New York lead a spectacular parade of tall ships up the Hudson River. Cadets from around the world stood in the rigging of their square riggers that formed a long line astern of us. As they came under the Verrazano Bridge fog horns from a thousand smaller boats blew in greeting. The parade ended at the George Washington Bridge. On our starboard side we passed Fort Hamilton where my dad first mentioned our pilot hosts so long ago. I had come full circle. 

As the New York passed Manhattan’s west side passenger ship berths I laughed thinking back to a memory of my old maid Aunt Lillian. One day she invited our family to a bon voyage party aboard the Queen of Bermuda.  In 1955 farewell parties were a tradition, but after 9/11 lavish parties before sailing are for passengers only as no guests are allowed on board anymore. Well-wishers must wait on the dock for the ship to sail.

My parents, grandparents, Aunt Betty, Uncle Gene, my brother Peter and my cousin Susan were stuffed into my aunt’s stateroom drinking, smoking and having a fine time celebrating her one-week cruise. The thing I remember most, other than being confined to that small room, wasn’t the massive white ship, rather a black porter. I can still see him wearing a white cut away jacket contrasting with his shiny black face. After a few hours aboard, he came through the passageway hitting a big brass gong crying out like Jack Benny’s Rochester, "All visitors ashore! All visitors ashore!" He returned several times and each time his pleas grew louder and more urgent. The adults ignored him as they grew happier drinking Manhattans and whiskey sours and smoking up the room. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world. They also didn’t seem the least bit concerned about the continuous announcements on the ship’s PA system: “Now hear this, now hear this. The Queen of Bermuda is about to sail for Bermuda. ALL visitors kindly disembark!” Everyone acted like they were going to Bermuda along with my aunt and her traveling companion Leddy.  Thinking we were going to be trapped I started to sweat and fidget. In my mind’s eye I saw the crew lowering the gangway onto the dock stranding us. I didn't want to go to Bermuda on that giant ship, even if my parents went with me. I panicked and starting balling, begging my folks to save us from a week of luxury at sea! Eventually I happily made my escape down the gangway with a Furness Lines banner draped over it. By some miracle it was still attached to the ship. On the pier we joined thousands of New Yorkers waiting to send off my aunt’s enormously white ship.

As I looked at the ship’s three big red and black striped funnels I noticed an old man in a business suit leaning over the bridge’s dodger holding a walkie-talkie pointing at something. Next to him stood the captain. He was magnificently dressed in a stiff white dress uniform wearing a high-pressure hat ablaze in gold embroidery. I didn’t know it then, but the man in the suit was the pilot.

As the crowd waited impatiently for something to happen, the ship's big steam whistle blew a thunderous notice that all of Manhattan, and probably half of New Jersey could hear. The pilot was warning everyone that the ship was about to back out of her slip into the mighty muddy Hudson. As the cloud of white whistle steam swiftly drifted away the liner’s crew started loosening the ship’s mooring lines. One by one, the line handlers muscled them off their rusty bollards dropping them into the water. When the last line was aboard the ship was free of her grip on New York and underway. Two smoke puffing McAllister tugs, with their distinctive big white stripes on their stacks, pushed on the ship’s bow. I watched in awe as the pilot slowly backed the biggest thing I had ever seen in my entire life into the middle of the Hudson. Soon the Queen, and my Aunt disappeared behind the pier and were gone.

Little could that small, upset boy, ever have imagined that someday he would be standing on the bridges of passenger ships looking down as people waved goodbye to their friends and loved ones. As multi-colored confetti floated down from the ships’ decks, I piloted over 119 passenger liners from the tiny Enna G to the 92,627-ton Coral Princess.

Why Be a Pilot?

Captains want to be pilots for numerous reasons. Some for the money, and some to be with their families. For me, it was all about handling ships. I knew from own experience when I handled my own ships that I had the feel. One of my college classmates quit our pilot apprentice program because he never felt comfortable handling ships in confined spaces. So no matter how much more he might have earned as pilot he returned to something he was comfortable being, an APL master.

We had at least one pilot (if not several) who was often seasick, but toughed it out to be with his family. If you have ever been seasick you know how hard that must be.

One nice thing about piloting, there is no paperwork other than filling out a simple form about the ship for billing purposes. All the paperwork I needed was already in my head. I spent hundreds of hours riding on ships for experience, and then an equal amount of time studying for my pilot exams. But to me, the most difficult part of becoming a pilot was convincing the State you were qualified.

In general, we were left alone to execute ship moves. This meant putting all the pieces together to successfully move something as large as 1200’ long and 180’ wide with a 50’ of draft. Every time I moved a ship I had do it perfectly, there was never any room for error. But, I didn’t need to be told I did a great job, the ship in the right spot with no damage was immediate proof. There aren’t many professions that give job satisfaction like that. Handling all the different varieties of ships from around the world always made me feel great. Mark Twain thought few people had more power than a ship pilot. In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote, “Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses that of kings.”

If a vessel floated, I probably piloted it. I moved car and crude oil carriers, wheat and Petcoke bulkers and ships carrying live animals, like pigs and cattle that smelled to high heaven. I piloted cable layers such as SS Long Lines, paper carriers, passenger ships of all sorts and sizes. I also piloted ships filled to the gunwales with munitions, ones with 100% liquefied ammonia and one Polish fishing boat. The largest ship I ever moved was the Alaska Frontier (110,693 GRT) while the smallest was the 160-foot Mexican yacht New Century. I also handled every class of naval ship from submarines to supply vessels to research ships to aircraft carriers. Every job was interesting, some much more than others for many reasons, including the danger of certain jobs.

One of the most exciting jobs I ever did was piloting the semi-submersible, Sedco 708 constructed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. She just fit under our highway bridges. She was one of the most massive vessels I ever piloted. She towered hundreds of feet above the water despite the fact the rig was lying on her side.

On May 7, 1977 she was sitting in Anchorage #5 near Richmond Long Wharf. There I climbed aboard an ocean-going tug from the PV Drake. The biggest tug I was ever on was going to tow the rig to Santa Barbara once I got her out to sea. I had to direct, not only the sea tug, but six other tugs assigned to work with me. After the rig’s crew heaved up her anchors I got the rig moving. I had to be very careful to have all my tugs pull with just the right amount of tension. If they didn’t, the rig could have drifted off course or gotten out of my control as I maneuvered her around Angel Island. After we safely passed under the Golden Gate, and I no longer needed a tug for stability, I radioed that particular one to cast off their tow line. Everything was going along smoothly until I dismissed the Sea Robin. When I did, her towing hawser jammed on her winch. This put her into “Irons.[1]  Luckily, her tow line was under such strain that Robin’s line parted setting her free, much to my relief.  If not, she might have rolled over and sunk. There was no way for me to stop the rig with all the momentum we had on her by then. After I disembarked the sea tug towed the rig south where she was sunk and drilled for oil.

I never wanted anyone injured on my jobs and thankfully none ever were. Sailors on ships, and deck hands on tugs, get injured or killed far too often. I saw tug tow lines part as well as ships’ mooring lines. Seeing a mooring wire part and whiplash is a frightening experience.

[1] When a vessel cannot control herself

Pilots in Literature

Pilots are often mentioned in literature. The Mariner was met by a pilot boat near the end of his voyage in Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In James Clavell’s, Shogun, John Blackthorn is Erasmus’ pilot although he is more like a navigator than a present day pilot. Like a modern pilot he has more local knowledge than his captain. Rodrigues, another pilot, said this about Blackthorn, “He is a pilot before everything else!”

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance, Frederic's father directs nursemaid Ruth to apprentice his son to be a pilot. She mishears her master. Instead indentured the son to be a pirate until his 21st birthday. Sometimes I think steamship companies also get the two confused.

Ever since reading Mark Twain’s’ Life on the Mississippi, I knew I wanted to be a steamboat pilot like him. He glowingly wrote about his apprenticeship. How demanding and exciting piloting was, and how much respect pilots commanded on the river. Twain earned the same as the Vice-President of the United States before the Civil War! On my travels across America I have visited his boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri and his stately home in Hartford, Connecticut. His home looks like the wheelhouse of an old steam boat. I also visited his final resting place in Elmira, N.Y.  I know when he quit piloting he missed being up in the wheelhouse as I do. There is nothing like it.


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Ricardo Caballero Vega Panama Canal Pilots Association, Panama
on 14 July 2021, 20:44 UTC

Already read it. Good reading.

"Captains want to be pilots for numerous reasons. Some for the money, and some to be with their families. For me, it was all about handling ships. I knew from own experience when I handled my own ships that I had the feel. "

I see Captain Lobo's mention of the "feel" as key to having a successful career. I agree.
[show more]

River Pilot Kris De Decker DAB Loodswezen, Belgium
on 23 September 2020, 19:12 UTC

"Crossing the Bar" is an excellent read. As an active pilot I can easily relate to the scenarios and stories. Highly recommended.


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