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A Harbor Pilot’s Perspective-By Captain Daniel Blair

June 1, 2011

A Harbor Pilot’s Perspective

By Captain Daniel Blair

Editor’s Note: The author has worked as a Harbor Pilot in the northeast US for 40 years. He holds a First Class Pilot of Any Gross Tons license for New York Harbor, Hudson River, Delaware Bay and River, Long Island Sound and all ports, Narragansett Bay, Mt. Hope Bay, Cape Cod Canal, Boston Harbor, and the NYS Barge Canal System-Champlain Division. As a college student Captain Blair worked part-time on tugboats and commercial ships. After graduating from Long Island University he crewed full time on tugs, and attended Seaman’s Church Institute where he received his Master of Oceans degree in 1981. Dan developed and facilitated the Bridge Resource Management curriculum at the Marine Safety Institute in Newport RI. He is a partner at Interport Pilots Company.


Photo taken by Captain Blair approaching Port Newark aboard a 45,000 “dwt” (deadweight tonnage; the sum of the weight of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers and crew) ship loaded with vegetable oils.


Imagine what it’s like to be 18 miles off shore, looking at the entrance to New York Harbor.  The Verrazano Bridge rises off in the distance, and the skyline of Manhattan is barely seen poking over a Brooklyn shoreline.  You’ve just finished climbing up a Jacobs’s ladder, and scaled several flights of stairs to arrive at the ship’s bridge, 75 to 85 feet above the water.

In front of you lies 1.5 acres of steel decking. You feel the pulsation of engines beneath your feet, and are about to assume command of a ship bound for New York Harbor.

One word describes the feeling of standing as a Harbor Pilot, on a ship’s bridge, en route to a harbor- awesome.

Inside New York Harbor there are two distinct types of maritime pilots responsible for moving ships, Bar Pilots and Docking Masters. Bar Pilots board commercial vessels three to four miles outside of the Ambrose or Scotland sea buoys.  Once they are onboard they initiate what is known as a “Master Pilot Exchange” with the ship’s Captain.  Within minutes this exchange will relay to the Pilot any pertinent information concerning the vessel.  This will include the draft of the vessel, its length over all, its air draft (the ship’s height above water) if bridges will be encountered, and any unusual ship handling characteristics.  At this point the Pilot will assume control (the “con”) of the vessel from the ship’s Master.


The Pilot Aboard

The author climbing Jacob's ladder en route to the bridge

Contrary to popular belief, Pilots do not actually steer the vessels they control. Rather, they give commands to the quartermaster who actually steers the vessel, and to the Mate on watch who controls the vessel’s throttle and plots chart positions. The Captain monitors all activity on his bridge during the transit.

Approaching New York the Bar Pilot will navigate the vessel to its anchorage area off St. George, Staten Island or Perth Amboy, NJ via either Ambrose Channel or Sandy Hook Channel.  Once the vessel is anchored, the Bar Pilot’s duties are completed. If the vessel is bound for a dock rather than an anchorage, then at St. George or Perth Amboy the con will be transferred to the second type of Pilot, the Docking Master (Docking Pilot).

Docking Pilots are usually associated with a particular tugboat company.  In New York Harbor there are two predominant tug companies, Moran and McAllister.  Once the Docking Pilot has relieved the Bar Pilot he/she directs the vessel much like the Bar Pilot did, but in very confined waters. Eventually the ship will be berthed at her assigned terminal, using tugs to assist in the process.


Encountering Pleasure Craft

There are a few things pleasure craft captains need to know about shipping lanes. The first is that an approaching ship cannot stop in time to avoid a collision. According to Captain Blair “A ship doing ten knots in a channel can require as much as three miles to stop”.  According to Rule 9 of the US Coast Guard’s International Navigation Rules:

  • All vessels must keep as far to the outer starboard side of a channel as possible
  • A vessel involved in fishing cannot impede the passage of any other vessel navigating within a channel
  • A vessel shall not cross a narrow channel if such crossing impedes the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within the channel
  • All vessels should avoid anchoring in a narrow channel, if circumstances permit

These rules mean that vessels under sail do not have the right of way over powered vessels if the powered vessel is constrained by its draft and can only maneuver within the confines of a channel.

Captain Blair reports, “The most important thing for us is if a small pleasure boat is directly ahead and doesn’t seem to be making way. This situation makes Pilots extremely nervous. As far as too close, if a small craft passes a ship by fifty yards or more, then everyone feels comfortable.”

It should also be noted that, while damage or injury to small craft and their crew are avoided by Pilots to the greatest extent possible, a Pilot’s liability for environmental damage caused by an oil spill resulting from an intentional grounding is extremely problematic. Suffice it to say, pleasure craft should stay well out of the way of ships in transit to and from harbors.

Vessels in the vicinity of shipping traffic should take full advantage of their VHF radios by advising Pilots on Channels 13 and/or 16 of their intentions and/or any problems that might be anticipated during a close crossing (see Avoiding Close Calls with Channel 13, NFTB June, 2010



Excitement and adrenalin levels begin to build as a Pilot ascends to the bridge.  A Harbor Pilot’s job is not only loaded with responsibility, demanding schedules, hefty training, oversight, and awe, it is also fun! A Pilot’s day is filled with on-call schedules, often challenging small boat to large vessel transfers, engine controls and the directing of large vessels. It also provides a unique opportunity to learn about foreign ports, practice different languages, taste traditional foreign foods, and share stories not often heard or read about with foreign Captains and crew. When the job is done, the very least a Pilot can take off a ship with him/her is a feeling of accomplishment. It is said that the position of Harbor Pilot finds mariners. For me, I don’t think there exists a more satisfying job to be had.

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