If you’re new to cruising you may be wondering what those little boats with “Pilot” written on them are all about, and why they drive up to the side of your cruise ship when you’re getting close to a port.
Pilot boats are nothing new; in fact, they’ve been used for hundreds of years. They are used to carry a local experienced harbor captain to and from your cruise ship so that they can safely bring the ship into port, and then drive the ship back out to open waters when you’re departing the port. The captain of your cruise ship is probably not familiar enough with the port to confidently drive the massive ship in without the potential for problems and some, probably most, ports require the pilot to do the navigating.
Pilot captains are experienced, insured, and licensed for the port, although they are often self-employed individuals rather than working for a “pilot” company. Pilots are not only used for cruise ships, but any large ship coming into port such as cargo ships.
Pilot boats come in various shapes and sizes but they are all lightweight boats with large engines to enable them to move quickly in the water since they have to come out and meet the ship once they are contacted. They pull up along side the ship and the captain jumps off. Control is not actually turned over to the pilot, but he helps the captain get the ship into port.
When it’s time to leave port, the pilot gets on-board your ship and acts as an extra set of experienced eyes to help your captain navigate the waters. Then when they are at a safe distance, he jumps aboard the Pilot boat waiting for him and they return to port.
Pilot boats can be used for other purposes when needed. We were recently on a cruise where one of the crew members had a medical emergency. We had left port about an hour before and the captain brought the ship to a stop. A little while later, a Pilot boat showed up, picked up the crew member, and headed back to the port. We then continued on our way. That was much better than having our cruise ship turn around to sail an hour back to drop the person off. The pilot saved us a two hour round trip.