Master-Pilot Relationship

Master Pilot relationship has always been an interesting issue to debate. One has always something to talk on this, some experience to share, etc. The Pilotage zone, being the most vulnerable of the entire passage to accidents, is always exposed to the possibility of accidents. There is always a possibility of gray area owing to many factors such as maneuver of ship in navigationally sensitive area; possible random traffic; helm orders by someone new to ship; Master seeing his ship maneuver in rather unfamiliar territory; language problems; and likelihood of some human error.

In a case study, of several marine occurrences, it was found that the mishaps were of five types:

Collisions occurred in 16% of the cases, with another vessel underway. Grounding cases were 32% of the total. In 24% of the cases vessels struck some stationary object, such as vessel not underway, quay or some fixed installation. In 17% of the cases there were light impacts with some vessel, marker, buoy, etc. A single case of sinking amounted to 0.36% of the total.

After a long sea voyage, often a ship’s officer takes a sigh of relief, as if the Pilot’s presence would eliminate the possibility of any accident. He thinks it is time to take it easy, as the ship is in safe hands. The conning is practically handed over to a person who probably, though familiar with the area is a stranger to the ship. A large number of accidents occurring in pilotage waters, with Pilot on board are the evidence enough to show that we need to change our opinion on this issue. Well trained competent individuals can still have faulty situational awareness; imperfect judgment; insufficient experience with new situations; etc. Pilot may be burdened with multiple tasks to be performed, troubling him and dominate his ability to cope up.

Different countries have enacted legislation in respect of Pilotage, probably influenced by the local laws and to a certain extent, by the relevant Pilotage area. In the United States alone there are 25 separate Pilotage Acts in the various coastal states.

Here it is interesting to understand and differentiate between the meanings of the two words: power and authority. At sea the Master has both the power and the authority over the ship and its crew, but on entering Pilotage waters the authority to direct and control the movement of the ship shifts by operation of our laws to the Pilot. What binds their relationship together is that the Pilots authority can only be exercised in co-operation with the Masters power to command the crew, and the Master’s power to have the ship moved can only be lawfully exercised in co-operation with the Pilot’s authority to direct and control the movement of that ship.

The Master has the right, (in fact the duty), to intervene or displace the Pilot in circumstances where the Pilot is manifestly incompetent or incapacitated or the ship is in immediate danger due to the Pilot’s actions. Well, it goes without saying that the Master must have sufficient reason to do a thing like this. With that limited exception, international law requires the Master and/or the officer in charge of the navigational watch to ‘co-operate closely with the Pilot and maintain an accurate check on the ship’s position and movement.’

In a challenging and responsibility-filled environment the Master brings in his responsibility for his vessel and the Pilot, his local knowledge that means teamwork with clear and simple ways to communicate.

The basic school of learning seamanship is different everywhere. This may cause some difficulty. The Bridge Team terminology for everyday piloting with multinational crew must be extremely simple. The Pilot can ask questions in respect of the bridge team and responsibility related matters to a mate. A Pilot may expect to be warned when anything comes within a short range. Small things like, when called by VTS, it is normal to translate the conversation for the bridge team. The helmsman can be given special attention and can be checked by a third person at all times. In short, the Pilot should never be working alone.

It has earlier been recommended by investigation authorities that the Pilotage authorities must publish official passage plans for compulsory Pilotage waters and make them available to Masters to facilitate monitoring of the Pilot’s actions by the vessel’s bridge team.

The idea of publishing the official passage plan for compulsory Pilotage waters in a great thought. Probably a workable solution. To go one step further, even the alternate and emergency plans must be published. The Pilot is known to have local knowledge and he does not fear navigating in restricted waters. But on the other hand, where Master is supposed to know the ship, is he competent and comfortable in taking over the con and handling the vessel in restricted waters? Has he got the ‘hands on’ training on navigation in restricted waters?

Doing a turning circle, in open ocean or anchoring in an anchorage is not good enough for above purpose. The question here is, ‘Is the Master comfortable, if he has to suddenly take over the situation and give orders in a river or Inland Passage’?

Lack of interaction has been the root cause of many accidents. Though, such lack of interaction is not at all uncommon. General lack of interaction, co-ordination and co-operation among the Master, the officer of the watch and the Pilot was evidenced in one particular incident. The investigation authorities found that there was a lack of communication between the Pilot and the OOW regarding the charted position. Both the Pilot and the second mate did their own calculations of the vessel’s position, but they did not exchange information.

In one particular case, the Master and the Pilot had different ideas as to the helm and engine actions required to effect the turn. In this case, the Master’s ideas prevailed. The kind and amount of advice to be given by the Pilot were not decided in advance. This means that in spite of the sufficiency of knowledge on either side the bridge of communication should be very open and smooth.

In yet another case, the Pilot fell asleep and neither the Pilot nor the OOW effectively monitored the vessel’s progress in an area of strong current. The practice of OOWs relying on Pilots is well known. The proper interaction between the Pilot and the OOW could have resulted in the effective monitoring of the vessel’s progress. Like, it is not uncommon for a Pilot to declare soon after reaching the wheelhouse that the large scale chart being used is out dated.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the grounding of the ‘QUEEN ELIZABETH II’ off Martha’s Vineyard en route to New York in 1992 and concluded that, if the Master and Pilot had actually talked about the proposed course, the occurrence would probably have been averted. Both the Master and Pilot underestimated the vessel’s propensity to squat when cruising at 25 knots.

Important findings revealing the various causes of accidents:  

  1. The misunderstanding and lack of communication between the Pilot and Master or the OOW.
  2. Conflicting opinions given by Masters, OOWs and Pilots in response to the questionnaire.
  3. Lack of a mutually agreed passage plan; coordination and co-operation among the bridge team; and precise progress-monitoring by the OOW.
  4. Limited legal liability of Pilot, sometimes, coming in the way of smoothness in bridge teamwork.
  5. In many cases Masters and bridge officers showed reluctance to question a Pilot’s decisions.
  6. In spite of indicating in the questionnaire, Pilots generally fail to note a particular feature.
  7. Mis-perceptions that the intended passage plan can lead to significant misunderstandings for the bridge team.
  8. Inadequate knowledge of the operating language.
  9. The Pilots seldom assist the OOW in monitoring the vessel movements.

In an interesting case, when the Pilot passed his position report to VTS, the OOW logged the time, but he did not plot the position on the chart. The OOW was not monitoring the Pilot’s actions and did not recognize that the change of course was premature. The OOW appeared to have placed total confidence in the Pilot’s navigation ability.

In an accident involving a medically unfit Pilot in fog conditions, the Pilot, attempting to navigate the ship between the two bridge towers, issued directions that resulted in the ship heading directly toward one of the support towers. A medically unfit Pilot, an ineffective Master, and poor communication between the two were the reasons found, contributing to the accident.


  1. It is a good idea to ensure the ports publishing (Hard and Soft) copies of their Pilotage plans with contingency plans so that ships prepare their passage plans accordingly. There is no point concentrating all the training and efforts on sea passage plan and leave an unattended patch in the most vulnerable, accident prone part of the passage.
  2. In the mean time the port can convey the tentative berthing / unberthing plan to the Master of the ship in good time.
  3. The difference between the Pilot and Master can be the local knowledge. The difference should not be the (Local knowledge + ship handling in restricted waters). This means the Master must get ‘hands on training’ on the navigation in restricted waters.

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