In maritime law, a person who assumes responsibility for a vessel at a particular place for the purpose of navigating it through a river or channel, or from or into a port.
The captain, or master, of a large ship has total command in the high seas. However, when a ship enters or leaves a port, or enters a river or channel, the captain turns over navigation to a local pilot. Because of safety and commercial concerns, state and federal maritime law governs the licensing and regulation of pilots.
A docking pilot directs the tugboats that pull a ship from the pier. Once the ship has cleared the pier and is under way in the harbor, the docking pilot leaves the ship and turns navigation over to a harbor pilot. Every ship that enters and leaves a port must have a harbor pilot aboard. Once the ship reaches open water, a small boat picks up the harbor pilot and returns the pilot to port. The captain then resumes full command of the ship.
The harbor pilot must have a thorough knowledge of every channel, sandbar, and other obstacle that could run the ship aground, strike another ship, or cause an accident that would endanger the ship, its crew, its cargo, and any passengers on board. The pilot must also be an experienced sailor who knows how to maneuver a ship through crowded harbors.
Either the state or federal government licenses pilots to ensure that vessels will be prop-erly operated in state and U.S. waters. Federal law requires that federally registered pilots navigate ships on the Great Lakes, and state law regulates the need for pilots in bays, inlets, rivers, harbors, and ports. Where the waters are the boundary between two states, the owner of the ship can hire a pilot who has been licensed by either state to navigate the vessel to and from port.
State and federal laws impose qualifications for a pilot's license. A pilot must have the highest degree of skill as a sailor and may be tested on that knowledge. The individual may be required to submit written references from persons for whom he or she has served as an apprentice. In addition, the applicant must obtain a reference from a licensed pilot. The pilot may also be required to post a bond.
Once licensed, the pilot must act in a professional manner. A license can be revoked or suspended for adequate cause, such as when the pilot has operated the ship while intoxicated. The pilot has the right to appeal to a court an administrative body's decision to deny licensure or to impose discipline.
The legal rights and responsibilities of the harbor pilot's action in navigating vessels are well settled. The pilot has primary control of the navigation of the vessel, and the crew must obey any pilot order. The pilot is empowered to issue steering directions and to set the course and speed of the ship and the time, place, and manner of anchoring it. The captain is in command of the ship except for navigation purposes. The captain can properly assume command over the ship when the pilot is obviously incompetent or intoxicated.
The pilot must possess and exercise the ordinary skill and care of one who is an expert in a profession. A pilot can be held personally liable to the owners of the vessel and to other injured parties for damages resulting from NEGLIGENCE that causes a collision. The pilot will be responsible for damages if his or her handling of the ship was unreasonable, according to persons of nautical experience and good seamanship, at the time of the accident. The negligence of a pilot in the performance of duty is a maritime TORT within the jurisdiction of a court of ADMIRALTY, which deals only with maritime actions.