What Are The Duties of Officer On Watch When Pilot is On Board Ship?

The pilot plays a crucial role in the safe navigation of the vessel to her destination. Expert in the local waters, a Pilot is imperative to the Bridge Team. Berthing/un-berthing, anchoring, transiting narrow channels etc. are very specialized operations and require expertise of a very objective manner that results in efficient planning, monitoring and execution of safe passage.

The ship’s master is undoubtedly conversant with the vessel and the crew, but might not be extremely well versed with certain port areas; the pilot’s localized knowledge is what compensates that aspect.

Nevertheless, seafarers will be aware that the quality of pilotage varies from country to country. A pilot at the port of Houston is extremely professional and knowledgeable, with state-of-the-art equipment to ensure proper procedure. However, a pilot at the port of Lagos might not be as well experienced and equipped. This is of concern to the Master, for a wrong move can jeopardize the safety of the vessel and her crew.

Pilot boarding
Pilot boarding a ship from a pilot boat, prior to entering a harbour (Image credits : Danny Cornelissen)

This said, the pilot’s presence on board is for added vigilance and not as a substitute. The pilot’s inclusion doesn’t exempt the OOW of his duties. As much of an expert as the pilot may be, the master remains the sole skipper and the last word on every matter. The master remains responsible for the vessel and her safe navigation and any incident doesn’t exonerate him from blame. When in doubt of the pilot’s efficiency, he may choose to take over the handling of the vessel. Therefore, it is important that the OOW assists the Master duly with the expected diligence and fulfills his duties, which include the following: 

Prior to pilot boarding

1. Determine the correct expected time of arrival (ETA) to pilot with the VTS on the VHF. There are numerous vessels (especially in high concentration areas, e.g., Istanbul) and they, almost always, require pilots. Hence it is important to know the exact time of arrival and adhere to schedule. Log all communications.

2. Rig pilot ladder, observing strict standards of safety. The VTS generally informs as to which side the pilot will be boarding from and the requirement of height above water; also, rig gangway (combination) if asked for. The pilot ladder should be arranged as per the instructions given with all safety measures on standby (life jackets, life buoy, handheld VHF etc.).

3. Check if all the required equipment are up and running. Synchronize clocks. Keep both radars ready and working. Put echo sounder on to constantly monitor the UKC. Adjust squelch and volume controls of the VHF for clear communication. Keep the appropriate (large scale) charts ready for plotting.

4. Mater/Pilot exchange forms prepared.

5.Inform the Engine Control Room (ECR) of the arrival time.

6. Unless extremely necessary and urgent, suspend all work on deck and designate crew for efficient pilotage. Get mooring equipments checked and ready. Advise crew of the time of arrival at port and to be on ‘stand by’.

7.Engage manual steering prior to arrival of the pilot and give time to the helmsman to get accustomed to it in his own way before he is instructed to maneuver.

8. Hoist the pilot flag.

Pilot Onboard

1. After ushering in the pilot, once pleasantries have been exchanged with the Master, it is generally the pilot who goes to instruct the helmsman about the course of action. Any specific operational requirement by the Pilot, so long as the Master approves, is to be provided for.

2. The OOW should be observant of the helmsman. The crew might be overworked/fatigued in which case the OOW should ensure that there is somebody else on stand by to relieve him.

3. All the important navigational marks should be noted down in the Ship Maneuvering Book correspondent to the chart or otherwise.

4. Ensure that the Pilot duly signs all the required forms. Needless to say, it is also required to get the Master’s signature on all of them.

5. The position of the vessel should be plotted on the chart as deemed necessary by the Master. If it is more than the OOW to handle all at once, he can always designate the Cadet to plot the position, if the Master approves of it.

6. If the vessel is proceeding to berth at the jetty, the OOW is to follow the Master’s instructions with regard to the maneuvering speed and such other orders. Relayed to the Master by the Pilot, those orders are immensely crucial to the safe berthing of the vessel. The OOW doesn’t have to be concerned about the stations unnecessarily for that aspect is duly taken care of.


Pilot Away

1. As a matter of extending courtesy, the pilot is ushered out as he’s ushered in. Once the forms are signed, and all other paperwork has been completed, the OOW should ensure that pilot exits safely. It is advisable to inform the crew a bit in advance so they may have the ladder/combination ladder rigged on the required side.

2. As is with boarding the vessel, all safety measures should be adhered to.

The entire process of pilot embarking and disembarking is rather simple yet risky. Risky for the crew, for rigging the pilot ladder and gangway is clear exposure to harm, especially in older vessels. The OOW should be vigilant that all safe working practices are strictly followed. Also, pilotage is a great experience for a cadet. If possible, and deemed appropriate by the Master, the cadet ought to be made a part of the operation.

The pilot might be part of the Bridge Team, however, it is imperative to remember that any error on behalf of the pilot doesn’t exonerate the Master from his responsibilities. The pilot is merely an addition to the team and not absolute in command. Therefore, the OOW should assist the Master in having a trouble free pilotage.

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About Author

Shilavadra Bhattacharjee is a shipbroker with a background in commercial operations after having sailed onboard as a Third Officer. His interests primarily lie in the energy sector, books and travelling.


  1. Good refresher, I remember as an OS escorting the pilot in any hour of the day. I agree the pilot ladder and the accom ladder is important for all safety.

  2. Does it implies that the helmsman only takes instructions from Pilot in the discharging of their duties? What else do they perform even before pilot is ushered in and out? Thank You!

  3. Interesting to read this article as I am reminded of my earlier days preparing for a pilot and tasks on board.
    As a pilot and after having been both involved in Costal Pilotage (Great Barrier Reef) and in Harbour Pilotage here in Australia, one gains a slightly different appreciation of the whole pilotage process.
    The Master and the Bridge team as employees and representatives of the owner and ship managers and armed with flag state authority do everything to ensure their ship is safe from the perils of the port….
    The pilot armed with his local knowledge, ship handling skills and local legislation does everything to protect his port or facility from the perils of the ship…..
    Both the Master and his Bridge Team need the pilot to complete the process safely just as the pilot needs the Master and his Bridge Team to complete his task in the most efficient manner!
    You understand this complex relationship and you understand the need for BRM and all the rest that goes with it!

  4. I have a dream of becoming a marine engineer, but lost my parents at early age. I need help for me to actualise my dream.

  5. A pilot can tell a lot about the vessel just by observing how the ladder is rigged and the actions of the crew. Being a pilot is a great job, with plenty of action to keep everyone interested.
    The crew does treat a pilot with the utmost respect and gratitude! It is our job to safely transit the waterway and berth the vessel, however It is also our job not to make the Master nervous.
    A pilot will break the ice and bring the stress level down a few notches in the wheelhouse.
    Decent article… but it ended as soon as it was getting good. Hopefully there will be a sequel!

  6. i am doing pilotage for 10 yeras .it is really placed too much stress on me as pilot. however i know i am master advisor .the prime responsibility still is on master.

  7. Prime duty of the OOW is to supervise actions made by pilot to don’t hesitate to seek clarification from pilot when there is any doubt.

  8. Pilots are not “ushered out as a matter of courtesy”. They are escorted in/out as a required safety issue to/from the boarding facilities to/from the bridge by a responsible ship’s officer.

    The only place where the Pilot legally assumes control of the con/movement of the vessel is in The Panama Canal. The Master retains the overall command of the vessel in all other aspects. The OOW maintains the duties established by BRM practices.

  9. Hello sir;
    Hoisting pilot flag (H) on a ship when the pilot is onboard,is it mandatory or voluntary?

    Best regards

  10. Hoisting the pilot flag (H) on a ship when the pilot is onboard is mandatory. It is an international maritime signal that indicates that a ship is under the guidance of a pilot and that the pilot is on board.

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