How to Become a Harbor Pilot

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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 sand bars or obstructions. A harbor pilot safely guides a vessel into its harbor berth, or out of the harbor into open water.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in water transportation occupations (including harbor pilots) is expected to grow 15 percent 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.

  • 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.

  • Contact your state board of Pilot Commissioners. The American Pilots’ Association (APA) is the trade organization 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-recognized 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.

  • Obtain a Coast Guard license and sea time. Despite states’ differences in harbor 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.

  • 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 harbor pilot certification criteria. Contact local tugboat service companies about available positions.

  • Apply for the harbor 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 harbor pilot association. When your tenure is completed, and you receive final Commission approval, you will be certified as a Harbor Pilot.

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