How to become a harbor pilot

Written by felicia greene
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How to become a harbor pilot
A harbour pilot escorts large ships into ports and back to open water. (the ship and tugboat image by Taiga from

Harbor pilots board large ships, including oil tankers and container ships, as the vessels prepare to enter or leave a United States port. Many port entry channels have confusing mazes of buoys and navigational hazards such as sandbars or obstructions. A harbour pilot safely guides a vessel into its harbour berth, or out of the harbour into open water.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in water transportation occupations (including harbour pilots) is expected to grow 15 per cent from 2008-2018. This projected growth will result from more cruise ship traffic through U.S. ports, more international shipping commerce, and traffic related to offshore oil and gas production.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Credential
  • Transportation Worker Identification Credential
  • Contact information for your State Board of Pilot Commissioners
  • Harbor Pilot certification criteria for your state
  • U.S. Coast Guard License (if applicable)
  • Towing company apprenticeship information (if applicable)
  • Harbor Pilot examination information

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  1. 1

    Obtain your federal credentials. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that mariners (including pilots) must obtain a Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC). This credential includes the license and other certifying information about the individual. Mariners who receive Coast Guard credentials must also obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). This document is issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

  2. 2

    Contact your state board of Pilot Commissioners. The American Pilots' Association (APA) is the trade organisation of professional maritime pilots. According to the APA, each state sets detailed certification criteria for maritime pilots operating within that state. These requirements are set by a state board of Pilot Commissioners, which is a state-recognised entity that works with each port authority.

    Although there is no national directory of state boards of Pilot Commissioners, each state's Commissioners office may be reached through local port authorities.

  3. 3

    Obtain a Coast Guard license and sea time. Despite states' differences in harbour pilot certification criteria, some similarities exist in mariners' required backgrounds. For example, the Florida Pilots' Association and San Francisco Bar Pilots' Association both require higher-level U.S. Coast Guard Captain's licenses. Both groups also require the applicant to acquire considerable sea time.

  4. 4

    Investigate a towing company apprenticeship. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that towing (tugboat service) company apprenticeships may be an acceptable option for acquiring sea time. Again, this is subject to each state's harbour pilot certification criteria. Contact local tugboat service companies about available positions.

  5. 5

    Apply for the harbour pilot examination. When you have acquired the necessary credentials, contact your state board of Pilot Commissioners to sit for the qualifying Harbor Pilot exam. If you successfully pass the exam, and are approved by the Commission, you will be eligible to serve an apprenticeship with the respective harbour pilot association. When your tenure is completed, and you receive final Commission approval, you will be certified as a Harbor Pilot.

Tips and warnings

  • A United States-based maritime academy education may help to prepare you for a harbour pilot position. Consult with your state board of Pilot Commissioners for details.

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