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You are here: PortCities Southampton > Life of a Port > At work in a port > Running the ships > Pilots and pilotage
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Pilots and pilotage

Ports and harbours are tricky places to navigate a ship. They may have dredged channels between sandbanks. Near the shipping channel may be submerged rocks or wrecks. There may be tides and currents that demand local knowledge. For these reasons, most ports insist that any vessel over a certain modest size carries a qualified local pilot when it enters or leaves.

Pilots boarding a ship

Magnifying glassPilots boarding a ship

Pilots are qualified navigators who are taken on board a ship, usually at the entrance to a port or river. They then use their local knowledge to sail the vessel into port. Pilots will have been to sea themselves. They usually have a Master`s certificate which lets them command a seagoing ship. They also need intimate local knowledge, acquired by working with a qualified local pilot for a period. A pilot`s job is to advise the ship`s master on a safe route to and from berth, but the master is always in charge of the safety of the ship.

Nowadays, depending on the port, pilots are employed by the port authority, or they work for a co-operative of pilots. Formerly, some were employed by Trinity House (a national body which also looks after lights and buoys round the coast) but it now only does deep sea pilotage. This is for masters not familiar with European waters who engage a pilot the whole time they are in continental waters. Whoever they work for, their fees come from a charge on each ship they pilot.

Pilotage is expensive. So masters of ships which regularly trade to a port and hence know its peculiarities can apply for a Pilotage Exemption Certificate. This means their ship does not have to pay for a pilot each time it sails or arrives. In recognition, the captain may receive a higher wage from the shipowner.

Pilots do not just work in ports and harbours. Some particularly difficult or busy stretches of water require pilots, for instance, the English Channel, and the Manchester Ship Canal.

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