From Wikipedia: A pilot is a mariner who guides ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbours or river mouths. However, the pilot is only an advisor, as the master remains in legal, overriding command of the vessel.
Pilotage is one of the oldest, least-known professions, and yet it is one of the most important in maritime safety. The economic and environmental risk from today’s large cargo ships makes the role of the pilot essential.
Normally the pilot joins an incoming ship at sea via helicopter or pilot boat and climbs a swaying Jacob’s ladder sometimes up 40 feet (~12 metres) to the deck of the largest container and tanker ships. 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.
The photo above, by OneEighteen, shows a pilot transferring from a pilot boat to a large commercial vessel. This is what he has to say about the photo: “This photo symbolizes a lot about the unknowns of piloting; beginning with whether the thing is tied off OK or not. Four U.S. pilots lost their lives in pilot ladder accidents last year.
Beyond that there are the issues of being woken up in the middle of the night to board a strange ship with an unknown crew. The darkness at the head of the ladder sums it up well.”
Here is an article that explains just how dangerous this line of work can be: Shaken by deaths in their ranks, pilots scrutinize their practices and equipment
The following is from a U.S. Coast Guard publication (PDF): “Many people who watch a large oceangoing (typically foreign) ship moving in one of this nation’s ports or waterways have no idea that a local citizen is on the bridge of that ship assisting its navigation. That person is a ship pilot, an individual occupying one of the most important but least-known positions in the maritime industry. Pilots are highly trained experts in ship navigation in confined waters and possess extensive knowledge of local conditions. Their role is to protect the people, economy, and environment of their area by guiding ships safely and expeditiously through the waters of their regions.
This is a difficult, demanding, and dangerous job with heavy responsibilities. It is, however, rewarding and highly respected. Pilots are considered the elite of the mariner profession.”