Everything You Need to Know About Pilot Boats

Jul 13, 2023 · 11 mins read ·

Shipping & Vessels
a yellow pilot boat moored in a harbor

Have you ever wondered what a pilot boat is and what a marine pilot’s job involves? If so, this is the blog post for you. A pilot boat is a small, fast boat that is used to take maritime pilots to and from the port that they work out of and the ships that they are tasked with piloting. 

These ships may be inbound or outbound - i.e. coming into port or leaving it. But why are marine pilots needed? Surely the master (the captain) or the navigational officer can steer their own vessel into and out of the port or harbor?

Let’s take a closer look at what pilot boats actually are, why they exist, and their long and rich history.

Everything you need to know about pilot boats

This is one in a series of posts all about different types of boats and ships and while we’ve written about the vessels that everyone knows about, such as cargo and container ships, chemical tankers, fishing boats, ferries and cruise ships, we’re also interested in finding  more about some of the unsung heroes of the seas.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Tugboats

Alongside other vessels in the merchant fleet - which refers to any boat that ‘works for its living' and isn’t used just as a leisure or pleasure craft - such as fireboats, lightships, mining ships and icebreaker vessels, the pilot boat has an important role to play.

But first of all, what exactly is a marine pilot?

What does a marine pilot do?

A maritime pilot’s job is to safely guide vessels into and out of a port or harbor. They are seafarers themselves, but ones who have specific knowledge of an often dangerous or congested waterway.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Coaster Vessels

This may be a container terminal, a harbor or even the mouth of a river. Pilots have the local knowledge that is required to navigate these waters, which a non-local master or navigator may not.

The marine pilot boards the incoming or outgoing ship and takes over navigational duties to ensure the safe passage of the vessel as she enters and leaves the port.

What is a marine pilot’s boat?

The work of a marine pilot involves a fair amount of real and credible danger. Consider that they need to somehow get themselves from their pilot boat and onto a much larger ship - while both are in transit.

It is essential that the pilot is able to safely and efficiently board the vessel so that they are able to quickly reach the bridge of the ship where they can then assume control.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Bulk Carriers

It is for this reason that pilot boats are normally equipped with powerful engines that can both quickly reach incoming vessels and also maneuver in busy and often difficult or dangerous waters.

Advanced navigational and communication equipment will also be found onboard to enable the crew to locate their designated vessel and to communicate clearly with it.

And although small - particularly compared to the vessels they service - pilot boats must be strongly constructed in order to withstand heavy seas and to be able to take the impact of bumping against the colossal ships that they are pulling up alongside. 

Previously, pilot boats were built using steel and although there are some such boats still working, most modern pilot vessels are constructed from lightweight materials such as fiberglass and aluminum, affording them both strength and speed.  

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Supramax Vessels

Most pilot boats are also painted a highly visible color such as yellow, orange or red so that they can be easily identified, even in overcast or poor weather or sea conditions.

And just so there is no mistaking their role in a busy harbor or port, pilot boats usually have the word ‘pilot’ painted in large letters on either side of their hull. They also fly a flag that is, in many countries, white over red. Meanwhile, vessels that have a pilot onboard will display a flag with a ‘H’ on it.

Similarly, at night a pilot boat has additional navigation lights consisting of a round white light above a round red light.

Pilot boats are also usually identified by a large number painted on the side. In the days before the modern pilot boat, this number would have been displayed on the sail. Which takes us nicely on to…

The history of pilot boats

Marine pilot jobs and pilot boats have been around a long time. In fact they go as far back to ancient Greek and Roman times. Which, of course, meant that the original pilot vessels were not constructed of fiberglass and kitted out with a high speed engine!

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Gas Carrier Ships

The early pilot boats were, therefore, sail boats, usually single masted, lightweight yet powerfully designed boats that could operate efficiently and quickly when needed.

In fact, the earliest marine pilots were often local fishermen who were employed by the incoming or outgoing vessel’s masters. However over time it became clear that these part-time pilots needed to be properly insured and that the act of pilotage (i.e. piloting a vessel) needed to be regulated.

This led to the ports and harbors licensing pilots for their own jurisdiction, although for the most part these pilots were still self-employed and despite being insured and under tighter control, were still relying on their cumbersome fishing boats to transport them to and from the ships needing to be piloted. 

And so it transpired that a different type of lighter, more streamlined boat was needed - and one that wasn’t filled with nets, lines, tackle and other fishing equipment.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Car Carrier Ships

And hence the pilot boat was born and thus developed into the nippy little boats we see in harbors across the world today.

How do pilots know which vessels need their assistance?

Pilots, and the other crew members onboard a pilot boat, are no longer part-fisherman, part-pilot and these vessels are operated by experienced seafarers who know their local waters like the backs of their hands. 

They must also be adept at navigating through and into and out of busy waterways.

And of course, they must be able to pull up alongside the towering hull of a much larger vessel and allow the pilot to safely leave their own boat and board the ship to be piloted. This is often by swinging from the pilot boat onto a ladder that is hanging down the container ship or tanker’s hull.

But how do pilot boat crews know which ship they need to board? 

Back in the days of sail-powered pilot boats, this was on a first come first served basis and the pilot/fisherman who reached an incoming ship first would be the one to get the business.

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About Feeder Vessels

These days the industry is a little less gung-ho and a pilot will be scheduled in advance of a vessel’s arrival.

Typically, the crew onboard the incoming vessel will send a request for a pilot to that harbor’s port authority or a local pilotage company. 

A pilot boat will then be dispatched, will meet the vessel, and the pilot will climb aboard and take control of the ship until it is safely docked in its designated berth.

The pilot will then disembark from the vessel, climb back onto the pilot boat and return to shore.

Finally, when not being used to transport pilots to and from vessels, the powerful little pilot boats can sometimes be used to tow other vessels and assist in search and rescue operations. 

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About RoRo Ships

And there you have it - everything you need to know about pilot boats and marine pilot jobs.

For a closer look at some other vessels, check out our articles about watercraft as varied as dredgersheavy lift vessels, LPG and LNG tankerscrane ships and oil tankers

And if there’s a particular boat or ship that we haven’t yet covered in this series and you’d like to find out more about, drop us a line on our Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn pages and we might just write an article about it!

Read the previous article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About Cable Laying Ships

Read the next article in this series: Everything You Need to Know About Offshore Vessels

Eve Church

Eve Church

Eve is Martide's content writer, publishing regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea. Eve has been writing professionally for more than two decades, crafting everything from SEO-focused blog posts and website landing pages to magazine articles and corporate whitepapers.


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