A Brief History Of Pilot Boats

A modern pilot boat has to be built to be fast and tough, bumping against the side of a 100,000 ton tanker ship as often happens. Equally importantly, it has to be able to operate in all types of weather as the pilot has to get to the incoming ship no matter what.

The job of a pilot actually goes back to the days of Ancient Greece when ships’ captains would use local harbour captains – often local fishermen with a sound knowledge of the area – to bring their vessel safely to shore. Eventually, local harbours each licenced pilots for their particular area.

However, although they were licenced by the harbour, most pilots remained self-employed and often had two jobs – one as a pilot – while still going fishing locally. This meant that they need to be able to get from the port to the inbound ship very quickly and they often used their own fishing boats to do this. The problem with this was that fishing boats are not really very fast and they were also loaded up with fishing gear, and so a new type of specialist boat was needed.

The early boats were single masted or twin masted, and later developed into a pilot cutter – which was effectively a much over-powered, very light weight single masted boat with a very steeply angled keel.

Today, pilot boats can vary in length from around around 23’ to 40’ or more and may have seating for up to eight people. They are high powered and very fast, and usually are mono-hulled, although there are some catamarans made. Some are still made of steel, but with the need for speed most use lighter-weight materials such as GRP, aluminium, or other composites. Most pilot boats are very brightly coloured in reds or yellows so that they can easily be seen even in very poor conditions. They usually have the word PILOT on them in very large letters, and during the day fly the H flag which is red and white. They also use special navigation lights at night with a white round light at the top with a red one below it.

Pilots used to be stationed on a permanently manned pilot station at sea, but today they are usually on shore at a local harbour. So for instance ships arriving at or leaving the Thames are met by a pilot from the pilot station at Ramsgate a few miles down the coast, while Portsmouth and the Eastern Solent is covered by pilots from the port itself, and Admiralty pilots support the warships entering and leaving.

Seaward builds the Seaward Nelson pilot boat and this is available in 29’, 35’, 40’, and 42’. There are over 300 Nelson pilot boats in use around the world and they are robustly built and well-fendered for the job that they have to do. There are a number of engine options available, and they can provide speeds of up to 25 knots.