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Pilot: what does it mean?

This one screws nearly everyone up, year after year after year……is it even possible to confuse people further? We can only hope.

In most of the United States, and the entire rest of the world for that matter, pilots are specially-licensed masters who board the ships outside of the sounds, bays or harbors and guide them into port or through a waterway using their expert local knowledge. Licensed by either the U.S. Coast Guard (federal first-class pilots), the state pilot commissions of the state or states they operate in (state pilots), but more often both, they’re often referred to as harbor pilots, sea pilots or bar pilots. All foreign-flag ships and American ships sailing under registry are required by state and/or federal law to use their services.

For tugs with barges carrying petroleum or hazardous materials the breakpoint is 10,000 gross register tons (domestic regulatory tonnage) for the barge: from that size and under a tug captain or mate can “act as pilot” as per 46 CFR § 15.812 (b)(3) if they have a dozen self-certified round trips (with at least three at night for a nighttime transit) on that particular pilotage route. If the object being towed isn’t a tank barge then only four round trips (with at least one at night for a nightime transit) are needed as per 46 CFR § 15.812 (b)(2). In 1994 the Coast Guard published Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) No. 8-94 which may answer many other questions that you might have about the twists and turns of pilotage regulations.

In a few U.S. ports on the East and Gulf Coasts there exists another “unofficial” category known as docking pilots, whose function is to take over the conning of the ship from the sea pilot as the final approach to the berth is being neared and handle the docking evolution, often utilizing two or more assist tugs to accomplish the evolution. They may also handle the getting-underway maneuver as well, handing it off to the sea pilot once the ship is turned around, clear of the dock area, and moving ahead. As it happens, docking pilots are almost always former tug captains themselves and are in the employ of the tug companies supplying the assist tugs. There’s all kinds of mystery, intrigue and controversy regarding their status as there’s no legal requirement for having a separate docking pilot in addition to a regular pilot. The same pilot guiding the ship into or out of port would normally be capable of handling any docking or undocking maneuvers. The squabbling is usually oriented around money, and who’s getting it. Whatever…..

Finally, we come to the complicated world of towing vessels. It includes both tugboats and towboats and is the real source of the confusion in terminology. Specifically the word pilot (not to be confused with someone having pilotage for a route, or needing a pilot because they don’t), is a colloquialism (informal term) used to describe the second officer of a towboat operating within the Western Rivers region, which includes almost all of the major rivers and their tributaries west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies that drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

The senior deck officer in charge of a tugboat or towboat must be a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Master of Towing Vessels or be otherwise properly licensed or endorsed as per 46 CFR § 15.610, stands the front watch (6-12’s), and is usually called either the master or the captain, although they may also be referred to as “that bastard” or worse. The second officer, known as the mate everywhere else in the country, stands the back watch (12-6’s), and is referred to as the pilot on the Western Rivers. Why? Because that’s just the way it is. It’s simply a regional historical term that’s stood the test of time.

The terms steersman (Western Rivers only) and apprentice mate (everywhere else) entered the regulatory language in 2001 when the new towing license rules were created. These are technically licenses in the Coast Guard regulations, however they confer no real authority whatsoever. In fact, they function only as the equivalent of a learner’s permit. A holder of these “licenses” may operate the towing vessel only under the “direct supervision” of a properly licensed master, mate or pilot.

It’s all so clear now, isn’t it? And just in case you’ve managed to stay with me this far, here’s another curve ball: the senior unlicensed seaman in the deck force, called the bosun on a ship, is referred to as the mate on the Western Rivers towboats. Hah!

Recommended reading: Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. You can get it in hardcover or softcover from

#ShipPilots #marinepilotage #tugpilots #PilotsWesternRivers #towboatpilots

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