The master has full responsibility for safe navigation of his vessel, even if a pilot is on board. If he has clear grounds that the pilot may jeopardise the safety of navigation, he can relieve him from his duties and ask for another pilot or, if not compulsory to have a pilot on board, navigate the vessel without one. Only in transit of the Panama Canal does the pilot have the full responsibility for the navigation of the vessel.
In English Law, Section 742 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 defines a pilot as "any person not belonging to a ship who has the conduct thereof". In other words, someone other than a member of the crew who has control over the speed, direction, and movement of the ship. The current United Kingdom legislation governing pilotage is the Pilotage Act 1987.
Pilotage is one of the oldest professions, as old as sea travel itself, and it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The oldest recorded history dates back to about the 7th century BC. The economic and environmental risk from today's large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot essential.
The work functions of the pilot go back to Ancient Greece and Roman times, when locally experienced harbour captains, mainly local fishermen, were employed by incoming ships' captains to bring their trading vessels into port safely. Eventually, in light of the need to regulate the act of pilotage and to ensure pilots had adequate insurance, the harbours themselves licensed pilots. The California Board of Pilot Commissioners was the first government agency created by that state's legislature in 1850.
Prior to the establishment of harbour boards to regulate, pilots known as hobblers would compete with one another. The first to reach in incoming ship would guide it to the docks; and receive payment. In Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, there is a monument to the hobblers who lost their lives.
Although licensed by the harbour to operate within their jurisdiction, pilots were generally self-employed, meaning that they had to have quick transport to get from the port to the incoming ships. As pilots were often still dual-employed, they used their own fishing boats to reach the incoming vessels. But fishing boats were heavy working boats, and filled with fishing equipment, hence a new type of boat was required.
Early boats were developed from single-masted cutters and twin-masted yawls, and later into the specialist pilot cutter. These were effectively light-weight and over-powered single masted boats with large steeply angled keels, making them deep draft under power and shallow draft in lighter sail. Joseph Henderson was an early American harbor pilot. He is well known for being a Sandy Hook Pilot for the New York harbor and along the Atlantic Coast during the Civil War.
A few historic pilot vessels are still sailing. The motorboat USS California was completed in 1910 and served in World War I on harbor patrol duty. The two-masted gaff-rigged schooner Zodiac, built as a racing sailboat in 1924 and also named California after being acquired by the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association for use as a pilot boat, is one of few surviving sailing pilots in existence. The two-masted gaff-rigged schooner Adventuress launched in 1913 also saw service as a pilot boat, and during World War II served with the United States Coast Guard. The Zodiac and Adventuress are both listed with the National Register of Historic Places and are now cruising in Washington state after restorations.
In the Inland Brown Water Trade another type of pilots are known as trip pilots. Due to the shortage of qualified posted masters these independent contractors fill the holes in the manning schedule on inland push boats on various inland river routes.
Duties involved 
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Their size and mass makes large ships very difficult to manoeuvre; the stopping distance of a supertanker is typically measured in miles (kilometres) and even a slight error in judgment can cause millions of dollars in damage. For this reason, many years of experience in an operating area are required to qualify as a pilot. For example, the California Board of Pilot Commissioners requires that pilot trainees must have a master's license, two years command experience on tugs or deep draft vessels, and pass a written exam and simulator exercise, followed by a period of up to three years training gaining experience with all types of vessel and docking facilities. Following licensing, pilots are required to engage in extensive continuing educational programs.
By far the most challenging part of any ship's voyage is the passage through the narrow waterways that lead to port and the final docking of the ship. The pilot brings to the ship expertise in handling large vessels in confined waterways and expert local knowledge of the port. In addition to bringing local maritime expertise on board, unlike the vessel's captain the pilot is insulated from the economic pressures (e.g., getting the ship from point A to point B on time, regardless of weather conditions, traffic, or other navigation issues) that can compromise safety. Instead of being part of the ship's crew, pilots are employed locally and therefore act on behalf of the public rather than of the shipowners.
Normally the pilot joins an incoming ship at sea via helicopter or pilot boat and climbs a pilot ladder sometimes up 40 feet (~12 metres) to the deck of the largest container and tanker ships. Climbing the pilot ladder can be dangerous, even more so in rough seas considering that both the ship to be piloted and the pilot's own vessel are usually both moving. With outgoing vessels, a pilot boat returns the pilot to land after the ship has successfully negotiated coastal waters.
Pilots specifically use pilotage techniques relying on nearby visual reference points and local knowledge of tides, swells, currents, depths and shoals that might not be readily identifiable on nautical charts without first hand experience in the waters in question.
Beyond the experience and training of regular ship's captains, pilots also receive special, ongoing training to stay on top of their profession. Pilots are required by law in most major sea ports of the world for large ships.
However, in some countries, Masters (and sometimes other ranks too) of ships that call at only a few ports and so have strong local knowledge and experience of navigating in those ports, such as a ferry, may be issued with a pilotage exemption certificate, which relives them of the need to take a pilot on board.
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Because maritime pilots have advanced to the top of the maritime profession and are responsible for the most dangerous part of a voyage, they are generally well compensated.
The Florida Alliance of Maritime Organizations reported that Florida pilots salaries range from US$100,000 to US$400,000 annually. This was similar to other US states with large ports. Columbia River bar pilots earn about US$180,000 per year. A 2008 review of pilot salary in the United States showed that pay ranged from about US$250,000 to over US$500,000 per year.
Pilot compensation has been controversial in many ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, especially regarding pilots who are employed by public agencies instead of acting as independent contractors.
Compensation varies in other nations. In New Zealand, according to the government career service, pilots earn NZ$90,000-120,000.
In popular culture 
- The novel Shōgun by James Clavell features John Blackthorne, an English pilot serving on the Dutch warship Erasmus, which is shipwrecked on the coast of Japan.
- In the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance Frederic's father directs his nursemaid Ruth to apprentice him to be a pilot, but instead she mishears and indentures him to be a pirate till his 21st birthday.
- Dropping the Pilot, famous cartoon by Sir John Tenniel
Pilot boats have special lighting: in addition to the "normal" navigation lights, a pilot boat has a white round light at top and below that a red round light, while a fishing vessel has the red light at top and the white light below.
To remember this, some people use the mnemonic "white cap, red nose" to reflect the idea that pilots consumed a lot of alcohol while waiting for ships, thus the white captain's cap with a red nose below it. This "memory trick" is even mentioned in the training materials for the small-boats certificate in the Netherlands.
See also 
- "Be a marine pilot" Retrieved 3 April 2013.
- "Dublin Bay's Hobblers". Maritime Institute of Ireland. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
- Quilter, V. "Sailing History". Hobbling Disaster. DúnLaoghaire Harbour Company. Retrieved 7 January 2012.
- "Schooner ''Zodiac'' History". Schoonerzodiac.com. Retrieved 2012-02-18.
- "Schooner Adventuress National Historic Landmark Study". National Park Service. 1989-04-11.
- Pilot commission - overview, Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo, and Suisun, 7 October 2011, retrieved 3 December 2011
- "Pilotage Act 1987". legislation.gov.uk.
- Peterson, Patrick (1 March 2010). "Harbor pilots steer clear of rule change". Melbourne, Florida: Florida Today. pp. 14A.
- Jacklet, Ben (2004-10-19; updated 2009-10-30). "Columbia pilot pay attracts port’s eye". Portland Tribune. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
- Dibner, Brent (December 8, 2008). "Review and Analysis of Harbor Pilot Net Revenues and Salary Levels". West Gulf Maritime Association. Retrieved September 18, 2010.
- Palmeri, Christopher; Yap, Rodney (1 December 2011). "Los Angeles Port Pilots Steer for $374,000 a Year While Long Beach Profits". New York, New York: Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 3 December 2011.
- History of Loodswezen about organized marine pilots in the Netherlands. Visited 3 April, 2013.
- "Harbour Pilot/Kaiurungi Aka". Career Services/Rapuara. NewZealand.govt.nz. Retrieved September 18, 2010.
- Navigation Lights, visited 24 April, 2012
- Cursus Klein Vaarbewijs (Dutch) Les 5, Deel C: Voorschrift 29, Powerpoint presentation, downloaded 24 April, 2012.
- Google search Witte Pet Rode Neus returns several references to this Dutch 'memory aid'.
Harry Hignett, 21 Centuries of Marine Pilotage. London, March 2013.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Maritime pilots|
- International Maritime Pilots Association
- American Pilots Association
- NY & NJ Sandy Hook Pilots Association
- U.S. Coast Guard