A harbor pilot, often known as a maritime pilot, is a boat pilot with specialized knowledge of a particular port or harbor. The pilot is needed to direct large ships into a port where there are specific deep water channels surrounded by shallower flats. Without the services of a harbor pilot, docking ships would become a big hazard. There would be a real chance of running aground and damaging the ship and the cargo, some of which could be hazardous if released into a water-based ecosystem.
In most cases, becoming a harbor pilot requires no specific type of degree, only a great deal of experience and local knowledge that is only gained through practice. Most will start out as assistants, and work their way up to being pilots. Some may be employed by specific companies whose ships regularly go in and out of certain ports. The vast majority, however, are independent contractors. This offers the best chance to gain regular employment.
Some harbor pilots may specialize in certain types of ships. For example, some may be more skilled at bringing in large freighters. Others may specialize in helping military ships through treacherous waters. Some may even be employed to help large passenger cruise ships. The harbor pilot, in order to be successful, must be comfortable with whatever ship he or she is operating. Even the slightest mistakes could lead to disastrous consequences.
In addition to the shallow flats, currents are another danger to deal with when bringing ships into port. During different tides, currents may be calm or change from one direction to the other. Understanding how the tide affects these currents is a key in any harbor. The same strategy for docking a vessel during an incoming tide may not work during an outgoing tide. Thus, the harbor pilot must keep this in mind when working in the harbor.
Often, the harbor pilot may have adverse weather conditions with which to deal as well. Just as currents may affect the movement of a large ship, the wind can also significantly alter the direction of the ship and how it reacts. Windy conditions are very common around ports and harbors. Often, the wind will change direction during the course of the day, adding another variable a pilot must deal with.
In most cases, a harbor pilot will also work very closely with the harbor master. The harbor master is in charge of law enforcement and customs issues, as well as determining which ships dock in what locations. Thus, the pilot, seeking the best situation for his or her client, will often try to keep a good working relationship with the harbor master.