Cruise Ships Have Captains, But Did You Know They Also Have Pilots?

Filed under: Ships

Arriving in port and sail aways are two of the most magical times on a cruise ship. This is when you want to order your favorite cocktail, grab a deck chair, and snap that gorgeous island view to post on social media to make all your friends back home jealous!


While the captain is responsible for bringing the ship and passengers safely into their port of call, they are often assisted by a critical member of the team, the Harbor Pilot, also referred to as a Maritime Pilot.


Pilots are experts on their harbor. They know the tides, currents, sand bars, and help the Captain navigate the narrow channels ships use to traverse the port and dock. While GPS and other technological advancements aboard these state of the art vessels are highly capable of guiding the ship, the Pilot provides the human component and can advise the Captain on how real time winds and currents may affect their decisions. Many pilots are also former Captains themselves!

Have you ever seen a Maritime Pilot? You may have and just not known it!

Oftentimes as the ship is approaching land, it will pause or slow down just outside the entry to the port. Sometimes they will stop altogether and many passengers will be abuzz wondering what is going on. This may be because they are waiting for the Pilot who may not be available or is helping dock another ship. We waited for a Pilot outside the San Juan port once for an hour!

If you keep an eye on the port, you’ll often see a smaller vessel coming towards the ship. It’s frequently mistaken for a tug boat! The small boat will align itself with the ship, often while both are still moving. The crew of the the ship will open a portal in the side and you will see the Pilot climb up to the side of their boat and watch for the perfect timing, where in a hair biting moment, the Pilot will reach out and grab onto the cruise ship, then climb a small ladder on the side of the ship where the ship’s crew help pull the Pilot aboard. It is not a profession without risk!


The Pilot will make their way to the bridge of the ship where they will advise the Captain and Officers on how to navigate the harbor and safely dock with out damaging the ship or the pier. There Captain remains in control of the ship in all ports except for one- can you guess which? It’s the Panama Canal. This is the only passageway where the Pilot takes command of the ship.

You’ll see the Pilot and their team was again as they lead the ship out of port and sends the vessel off to continue it’s journey.

Have you ever seen a Pilot board a cruise ship? Have you seen it and just not realized until now!?

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