A maritime pilot assists ship captains in narrow, congested, or tricky waters to help them navigate safely in and out of port or between waterways including river mouths and canals. In many nations, the law requires that for ships over a certain size, a pilot must be on board for safety reasons. Pilots receive training through maritime academies and may need to carry additional certifications to provide piloting services in some nations. This work requires a thorough knowledge of regional waters as well as excellent eyesight and good communication skills.
When a ship approaches a location like a canal lock, river mouth, or harbor, it can request a maritime pilot for assistance. The pilot travels out to the ship, boards, and provides the captain with information about the conditions. Pilots do not control the ship, but do provide advice to the captain to assist with a successful and smooth transit. The captain relies on the pilot's familiarity and experience with navigation in the area.
In busy ports, a maritime pilot can keep operations smooth and orderly. Pilots can guide ships around commonly congested areas and coordinate with each other and other ship crews to keep traffic moving, even when a number of ships are maneuvering in an environment like a harbor. The maritime pilot can prevent traffic jams by looking ahead, considering conditions in the area, and helping the captain make good decisions about when and where to move.
Maritime pilots also help captains avoid navigational hazards. These should be clearly marked on charts, but can shift, and if a pilot doesn't have recent charts, hazards like new sandbars and shipwrecks may not be visible. The maritime pilot is also familiar with any temporary obstacles or issues, as for example if a military ship is in port and needs to maintain a perimeter for security reasons, which would force traffic to deviate around it.
Ports hire maritime pilots and provide supplies for them, including offices on shore and boats to use in the harbor to access ships that need assistance. The law may mandate that a set number of pilots be on duty at all times and could also have other measures in place, such as a limit on working hours to prevent fatigue. Ports may bring in extra pilots for major events, to ensure that ship traffic will not be held up by a lack of pilots when boats may need to get into or out of a harbor as quickly as possible.