What is a Cruise Ship Pilot? And What Do They Do?

google news icon 150px
google news icon 150px
a pilot boat comes out to meet the cruise ship Seabourn Quest at the entry to the port of St. Johns.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. We may receive compensation when you purchase via my links at no cost to you. See my disclosure for more information.

When a majestic cruise ship approaches port, you might see a smaller boat bringing a person on the vessel. The person in question is the pilot. Who guides the captain and the ship through the port.

To learn more, I spoke with Captain Nik Antalis on my Serenade of the Seas cruise to learn more about what happens when a cruise ship pilot boards the ship.

These pilots are the unsung heroes of the seas, adept at navigating through congested waterways and guiding behemoth cruise liners to their berths. It’s a high-stakes ballet performed between ships of vastly different sizes, and it requires nerves of steel. In this article, we’ll dive into the world of these fearless mariners, exploring what it takes to be a cruise ship pilot and why their role is indispensable for every port of call.

What is a Cruise Ship Pilot?

A cruise ship pilot serves as the maritime guide for vessels entering ports or complex bodies of water. A pilot takes command of the cruise ship during one of the most critical times of any voyage: entry and departure from port.

It’s a role defined by precision, nerve, and unerring skill, ensuring the safety of massive ships and the protection of local environments and infrastructure.

Maritime pilots board the ship while in motion on a smaller boat known as the pilot ship.

Once on board, the pilot becomes the ship’s guiding intellect. Pilots collaborate with the captain and crew to maneuver through tightly packed port areas.

Pilots have immense knowledge of the port, almost like a local tour guide. The captain relies on the pilots’ knowledge to navigate currents, water depths, weather conditions, local winds, tides, and port traffic. This specialized expertise is critical in safely guiding massive vessels to their berth without incident.

At the helm, the pilot often assumes dual responsibilities, becoming a docking master when the ship reaches the harbor. This means they’re tasked with navigating and expertly docking the vessel—a task that demands a synergetic effort with ground crews and tugboats, if required.

Responsibilities of a Cruise Ship Pilot

cruise ship EMERALD PRINCESS of the company PRINCESS CRUISES, departing from the port of Piraeus, escorted by tugboat and pilot.Pin

When a cruise ship approaches a harbor, the role of a cruise ship pilot becomes pivotal.

After meeting the bridge team, the port pilot presents their plan for the passage.

They discuss the route, weather conditions, tides, wind, clearance, traffic, hazards, and other important information.

The captain and pilot compare plans to determine the best course. The process is known as the “Master Pilot Exchange.”

Like all great plans, it may need to change on the fly. Navigating a port is a dynamic exercise as conditions are constantly changing.

During a manoeuvering, the pilot relays verbal instructions. The pilot dictates the speed, thrusters, position of tug boats, and any other vital information to guide the captain through the waterway.

While pilots may conduct the ship through the passage, the captain and team always dock and undock the boat.

In ports where mooring is particularly difficult, the port may employ “docking pilots” to aid the maneuver.

A cruise ship pilot’s responsibilities extend well beyond simple navigation. They also ensure that the ship’s entry and departure from the port are safely conducted. This job involves a seamless collaboration with the ship’s captain and crew.

Communication here is critical as the pilot advises on maneuvers, speed adjustments, and course-setting, providing specialized guidance tailored to each port’s unique environment.

Close coordination with tugboats and the dock crew is also essential, as these elements work together to dock and undock the vessel. The pilot orchestrates this complex dance, which requires a firm grasp of local maritime regulations and procedures and the ship’s capabilities.

A pilot boat sails away after dropping off the cruise ship pilot to Serenade of the Seas in Juneau AlaskaPin

The cruise ship pilot also considers the weather conditions; strong winds and unforeseen weather changes can significantly influence a ship’s behavior. Being up to date with modern technology, they use sophisticated navigational tools to help mitigate these challenges, ensuring the ship’s and its passengers’ safety.

Avoiding collisions with other vessels is another critical responsibility in bustling port areas. Pilots must be hyper-vigilant when guiding the cruise ship through these congested areas, frequently adjusting their strategies to avoid other boats and maintain a safety perimeter around the ship.

Why Are Pilots Necessary?

A tugboat used in Skagway Alaska to transfer the pilot to Serenade of the Seas Cruise ShipPin

The conditions of the port can be difficult for captains to navigate. Pilots are highly trained mariners with in-depth knowledge of ports and waterways.

A cruise ship relies on a pilot’s knowledge to navigate and maneuver the vessel safely. Where port pilots are familiar with the port, captains and the ship’s officers have experience with the boat.

Studies of recent maritime incidents highlight the importance of pilotage in avoiding accidents. Statistics show that pilotage dramatically reduces the occurrence of marine incidents, underscoring the cruise ship pilot’s role in maintaining safety standards.

Incident TypeNumber of IncidentsPerecentage of Incidents
Vessel Without Pilotage30062%
Vessel With Pilotage15031%
Vessel With Pilotage Exemption Certificate327%
Marine Accident Data Study 2012 by Pilot Skill and Safety

In addition to preventing accidents, pilots also serve as environmental stewards, actively working to minimize the environmental impact of ship movements. This involves carefully planning routes that avoid sensitive marine habitats and remaining vigilant for wildlife, helping preserve coastal regions’ ecological balance.

How Do You Become a Cruise Ship Pilot?

Becoming a cruise ship pilot takes years of training and experience.

The pilot hiring process varies by port but typically includes an interview and completion of a knowledge test.

Training takes around six years but may take longer if the pilot works with larger ships. The training helps pilots become familiar with the port area.

Many ship pilots are former ship captains. They may be former container ship captains, coast guard, military officers, or cruise ship captains.

How Does a Pilot Get on the Cruise Ship?

Marlborough Sounds Pilot transfer to the cruise ship Insignia

Pilots take a small boat to drive alongside the cruise ship. Once the pilot boat is alongside the cruise ship, the pilot climbs a ladder on the vessel’s side and makes their way onto the boat.

Pilot boats can travel at speeds of up to 30 knots. And they have powerful acceleration to escape trouble when needed.

Two crew members are on the pilot boat: a cockswain and a deckhand.

The cockswain is responsible for the safety of the pilot. If the conditions are unfavorable, the cockswain decides whether or not to go out to sea.

Cruise ships may slow to 8 to 15 knots for the pilot to climb aboard safely.

Once alongside the boat, the pilot climbs the “pilot ladder” and makes their way onto the ship through an opening in the hull (sometimes called a shell door).

A licensed deck officer greets the pilot and communicates with the bridge via radio.

Do Pilots Ever Fall?

A pilot climbs from the pilot boat to the crusie ship ladderPin

Climbing aboard a moving vessel is extremely dangerous. While not common, pilots can fall into the water.

Pilots risk being swept under the cruise ship or pilot boat if they fall into the sea. And in cold climates, such as Alaska, there’s the risk of hypothermia.

Ship pilots have a dangerous job. And pilot teams regularly train for man overboard drills.

Disembarking the ship is a dangerous operation. While descending, pilots climb down the ladder, facing backward, before jumping onto the pilot boat.

Is the Pilot or Captain in Control of the Ship?

A pilot boat drives towards a cruise ship near Vancouver CanadaPin

A maritime pilot may conduct the vessel on the bridge only with the captain’s permission.

The captain always remains in control of the vessel. Pilots are essential in navigating port areas, but the captain is responsible for the ship.

The one exception is the Panama Canal. Pilots have complete control and responsibility of the ship in transit of the Panama Canal.

How Much Do Port Pilots Make?

According to Salary.com, US port pilots have an average annual salary of $107,884. Some ports, such as L.A.’s port, pay harbor pilots as much as $400,000 annually.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.