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



Marcello De Lio

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.
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One of my favorite parts of cruising is watching the pilot climb on board the vessel.

On a past cruise, you may have seen the small boat or tug boat make its way alongside the vessel before the cruise ship pilot climbs the wooden ladder into the vessel.

Watching the pilot climb aboard the vessel had me wondering, what is a cruise ship pilot? And what do they do?

What is a Cruise Ship Pilot?

a pilot boat comes out to meet the cruise ship Seabourn Quest at the entry to the port of St. Johns.

Pilots are trained mariners licensed by the port. They have detailed local knowledge of the port and experience maneuvering.

A port pilot’s primary responsibility is to advise the ship’s captain and officers about the conditions of the port.

Think tides, sand bars, changes in the canal, etc.

Additionally, they often speak the local language. This is handy when communicating with tug boats, harbor masters, or local authorities who may not speak English.

What Are A Port Pilot’s Duties?

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

The pilot is an advisor to the cruise ship’s captain and ship’s officers.

It’s a common misconception that the pilot takes control of the vessel. The captain is always responsible for the operation of the entire ship.

Marine pilots may conduct the vessel only when the cruise ship captain permits them.

Port pilots have detailed knowledge of navigating the port. Cruise ship navigation teams rely on pilots’ expertise and experience to navigate the harbor and dock the ship.

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

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 any 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. They dictate the speed, thrusters, position of tug boats, etc.

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

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

Why Are Pilots Necessary?

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

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

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

Pilots and bridge teams work together for the safe navigation of the vessel.

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 side of the vessel and makes their way onto the ship.

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

There are two crew members 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 ladder

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 facing backward down the ladder 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 Canada

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

The captain always remains in control of the vessel. Though pilots play an essential role in navigating port areas, the captain holds the ultimate responsibility of 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 $107,626. Some ports, such as L.A.’s port, pay harbor pilots as much as $400,000 annually.

Final Thoughts

Port pilots play an essential role in the safe navigation of cruise ships. It’s a dangerous job performed by highly trained mariners with years of training and experience.

Next time you’re on a cruise ship, look out for the pilot boat as you approach the next port of call.

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About the author

Marcello De Lio

I’ve been cruising since I was 11 years old. I love the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. I love to share my passion for cruising and travel with readers.

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