Master / Pilot Relationship


I lived in Panama for many years and transited about 30 times. Many of my good friends were Canal pilots and port Captains for the Canal Authority.
I had no idea the pilots were under different law than elsewhere. I can remember years with 4 or 5 panamax ship groundings within the canal. Talking with pilots they stated that the canal never pays and is never responsible. More along the lines of what I had always thought.

The point above about sizing the vessel for investigation is a valid one but I believe there’s more.

Truly winning in Panama is extremely difficult


What I really wish to see is that all pilots around the world taking a week off at the same time while harbors grant waiver to proceed without pilot. We would understand what is the difference between a «master in command» against one «in charge of the navigation», with modest local knowledge and shiphandling experience. I presume that we would witness the opposite of one good paint scratch every 600 maneuvers to «one big problem»! :wink:


I presume that very few Masters of large ships ever actually get to dock or un-dock their ships without a pilot giving the orders. Actual ship handling may be limited to dropping anchor and/or picking up pilot on arrival for most.

As Master I sailed mostly on small ships (except one 18000 dwt tanker) and in places where we seldom saw a pilot.

Until I took command I had very little actual ship handling experience, but I was suddenly expected to be fully capable of doing so.

Only as 3rd Officer were you normally on the bridge when docking/un-docking and few Masters would allow the Chief Officer to handle the operation, even under his supervision.

I don’t know if any of this has changed on normal merchant ships since those good ol’ days??


It has not. That being said, I trade to the same places on a liner run and feel fairly confident that I could get the ship alongside in a pinch with the limited local knowledge I’ve gained over the years. Talking the tugs language is a different story. Each port has its own colloquialisms and methods. I’m also keenly interested in shiphandling and try and learn a little something and ask questions each time I maneuver with a pilot.

I may not know the local currents like the back of my hand but I do know my ship well enough to know when things are getting out of control and when I don’t like how things are going.

You are correct in that when I got my first command, I really did not know much. It takes time.


I once read a ship handling manual that pointed this out rather well, but I can’t find it now. Simulator training has made a significant improvement to how well you can prepare before taking the plunge, but there is no real substitute for real world experience.


What I would add is that every master of every foreign vessel will hand over the navigation and the maneuvers to the pilot and will fully collaborate. But it could be different when a pilot is dealing with a local master of a regular liner vessel. The master will hand over the navigation but will do the maneuver himself. Most of these masters are very capable. In those special circumstances, it does not change anything to the fact that the pilot remain in charge for the safe navigation. If the pilot believes that the vessel is going too fast or does not set where it should, he has the obligation to advise the master. If the master does not react, he could land in very deep shit since everything is recorded. On the other hand, if the pilot sulks silently in the corner of the bridge, he will have in his turn to answer if the adventure turns awry sour.

Shiphandling is an art. You have it or you don’t. If you want to know the answer, I suggest taking a manned model shiphandling training. You will find the answer very rapidly. You will love it or hate the heartbeat…


That’s exactly the difference between a master and a pilot; the former react whereas the later anticipate. Hoping that you can react before it’s too late … :thinking:


Yes I fully agree, things have improved and there are possibilities to do all the mistakes in the world on a simulator, without anybody being hurt, or any damages being done to anything, except maybe a dented ego.

In the offshore industry it is also common that the Master and Ch. Mate does all ship handling on their watches on “even terms”, although the Master is still the man/woman in Command.
(The Mate is not called 2nd Captain, except in the GoM)


Perhaps. But if you don’t think a Captain anticipates certain things during a maneuver you are mistaken. A pilot may be a specialist in that particular harbor and specially trained in shiphandling with thousands of maneuvers under their belt, but captains work with thousands of pilots over their career and know good piloting when they see it. How many starts you make with the engine, where you are positioning the tugs, what orders you’re giving those tugs, how ‘settled’ or calm you are during the transit and docking, etc. do not escape my attention.

Good shiphandlers are good shiphandlers and I don’t subscribe to a Pilot vs Master kind of mentality. I do however believe the best pilots I’ve worked with these many years have at one time sailed Master. Just my humble opinion.


Masters or pilots who boast of being the best shiphandlers are usually the worst. I much rather value the ones who keep low profile … since I believe they realized that despite all efforts, things can go wrong at any moment.


Basic shiphandling is not that bad. But fun starts when the AB turns the wheel on the wrong side, the rudder get stuck hard over, the engine doesn’t start, the thruster fails, the tug parts her line, a mooring winch breaks down, the anchor does not go, a thunderstorm approach, you need to go to toilet … :rofl:


In that order???


You could factor in a “code brown” or two into that kind of list, in any order




I’m going to have to retract what I posted about the term “conn” not being common outside the military.

Just did a google search:ntsb marine accident “conn”

This was a incident involving a Navy sub but here is what the NTSB says on the Navy meaning of the deck and conn:


To have the deck means to supervise all functions and maneuvers of the ship and all personnel on watch. To have the conn means to direct the shipís movement with rudder and engine orders. To ensure safety of operations, some types of evolutions cannot be executed without the review or approval of the CO or, in his stead, the shipís executive officer


Even good pilots have limitations, try taking a car ship into a tanker port on a windy day.

Many times I’ve seen pilots not expect the ship to set down that much in the wind. With the wind near the beam I’m watching the set like a hawk but the pilot very often will not notice till the ship is getting close to the lee side of the channel or I say something.

Even then they will often haul it back to the center of the channel only to return to the same course and do it all over again.

Also the house forward gets a few of them. They get the ROT wrong and put on too much rudder and almost take it ashore inside the turn.

Pilot expect what they expect, same as everyone.


You have pilots who got the job because their father and grandmother were pilots. Others got the job on merit. Some have a big month of training while others cumulated two years of training on top of a master mariner ticket and five years of practice before even touching a car carrier. If a so called pilot does not anticipate a car carrier to drift in gusty winds, make your pic as how he got the job ! :thinking:


It really has not changed much at all and I would have to assume this is the case the world over.

Prior to becoming Chief officer on larger vessels, the only opportunity to handle a ship that I had was while I was a newly minted Watch-keeping officer. It was on my first ship: a small passenger ferry that carried only a Master, Mate, Engineer and a seaman/cook. During my first tour onboard the master suffered a medical issue shortly after leaving an isolated port while en-route to a port that was more closely connected to civilization. Being the only mate onboard I had to step in and dock the ship. Thankfully It was a very maneuverable vessel and the weather conditions were good at the time and I had no issue getting her alongside. That Master was taken to hospital and another Master was sent to us before sailing.

After that I had no further ship handling experience until I became Chief Officer on Product tankers where I received very limited opportunity to handle a vessel under the supervision of the Master.

Now that I am sailing as Master almost all the ship handling done on my vessel is under pilotage.

On a side note I have had the opportunity to sail under some masters who were exceptional ship handlers, the best ones as someone said earlier were the ones that never had to boast about it.


Lesson No.1; «Never go faster than the speed at which you are willing to hit the dock»

  • many small kick ahead rather than a big one full astern :wink:
  • if you feel that the vessel is going too fast, demand the engine to be tested astern :thinking:
  • it is not too good to observe from the bridge any bow wave line surfing away from the ship’s side or the axis :hushed:

On good trick on pre-approach, is to find in the nature any two structures forming a leading alignment that are fixed from each other; that is the resultant transit or vector where the vessel is falling to …

Rule 7, Risk of Collision

In determining if risk of collision exists the following considerations shall be among those taken into account:

(i) such risk shall be deemed to exist if the compass bearing of an approaching vessel does not appreciably change,


I gained my early ship handling experience as a young naval officer, progressing from boat handling of vessels such as the captains barge ( a twin screw launch) to various small ships in command. In the Merchant marine my first opportunity to do any ship handling was in AHTS vessels 6 on 6 off as Mate. The master and I carried out all manoeuvring in or out of port and at the rig when on watch. I then went on to be master of an AHTS, then master of a geared feeder container ship where I was a pilotage exempt master. Larger ships followed where I had a pilot although I relieved a pilot in India and had to do it myself in obscure ports in the Pacific and South America…
I always had the mate on the bridge with me when manoeuvring, the second mate forward and the third mate aft.