If you have a career as a maritime pilot, you are among the elite and most skilled of all maritime workers. It takes years of training and practice to be able to do this job well and safely. You also do a job that is crucial to navigating ships and that is difficult and dangerous. Pilots are highly-skilled workers and make good money helping take ships through local waters and navigating to avoid structures, other ships, rock outcrops, reefs, and other hazards, all while considering the local weather, tides and other factors.
Piloting work is dangerous and risky, and if you get injured while doing your job as a pilot you should know that you are protected by maritime law. You have rights to compensation to help with medical costs and lost wages and you may even be entitled to more compensation if your employer can be proven to be negligent in your accident. With the guidance of a maritime lawyer, you can get the compensation to which you are entitled, which is important in this most dangerous line of work.
What is a Pilot?
A maritime pilot is someone who takes a ship through hazardous waters. Harbors and rivers are examples of such waters, and those pilots who specifically work in the constricted and dangerous environment of a river are called river bar pilots. Other places where pilots may maneuver vessels include ocean waters close to shores or reefs, the mouths of rivers, and congested ports and harbors. They are hired locally, rather than by individual ships. Any ship coming into these dangerous waters may hire a local pilot to take them through the worst of it.
Pilots are very skilled at navigating, especially in local waters. Most harbors keep pilots on staff and these workers know the local waters, all the hazards, the weather, and the tides. When a ship needs to come into port the pilot is taken out to the ship either by helicopter or with a fast-moving pilot boat, and then brings the ship into port. In most situations the captain of the ship is still first in command and may relieve a pilot if he or she does not believe the pilot is doing the job well enough. In the Panama Canal, pilots have top authority when navigating ships through the canal.
Some of the most skilled of all maritime pilots work on river bars. These are the areas of rivers where the current meets the swells of the ocean. Many harbors open this way at the mouths of rivers and the bar is the most dangerous and difficult areas of waterway to navigate. River bar pilots earn a lot of money because their technical skills are much in demand for making these short, but treacherous trips through the bar. The money compensates them for doing a job that is so crucial to the industry, but also for the stress and risk of injury and death that these pilots face every day on the job.
The Dangers of the Job
Of all the piloting jobs in the maritime industry, that of a river bar pilot is probably the most dangerous, and most of the dangers are natural. The river bar is an area in which water is turbulent and weather can be wild. The Columbia River in Oregon, where pilots take ships through the bar to Portland, is one location where the work of pilots is crucial and yet hazardous. Here the pilots experience huge swells that can lift a boat’s propeller out of the water and stall it, leaving the ship and crew in a dangerous situation, with no power and at the mercy of the raging water. Anchors are no good here, as the water is so rough they have been known to rip them right off the ships.
The weather and rough waters of a river bar are not the only dangers of a piloting job. Another danger is the crowded areas in which they work. Pilots often have to maneuver boats around many others in very cramped conditions of harbors and ports.
Other hazards exist on the boats themselves, which may be crowded with equipment and wet and slippery from bad weather. Pilots often have to use simple rope ladders to move up and down a ship, which presents another hazard. Falls onto the deck or even overboard into the water are not uncommon for pilots.
Common Piloting Accidents and Injuries
The hazards associated with piloting jobs can easily cause accidents involving collisions, running aground, falling overboard, slips and falls, and others. Common injuries that pilots face on the job include head, back, and neck injuries from crashes and falls.
They also may fall from the rope ladders in use on many of these ships. Slipping and falling or tripping and falling on the deck of a ship are not uncommon accidents, and falling overboard and possibly drowning is also a possibility. Some pilots are injured when being transported by helicopter or when exiting the helicopter and climbing down to the ship.
Examples of Accidents
A pilot working in San Francisco in 2007 rammed a container ship into the Bay Bridge causing a huge gas in the fuel tank and a big spill in the bay. The pilot was working in heavy fog and used radar an electronic charts to navigate. Although conditions were challenging, pilots are trained to work this way. What this particular pilot failed to tell his employer was that he was on medication that could have impaired his abilities. As a result he could be found negligent for the accident and subsequent ship and environmental damage. His error in judgment means that anyone injured on board the ship could claim negligence and get compensation as a result.
In an incident on the Columbia River in 2012, a pilot fell overboard into the rough and dark waters of the Pacific Ocean. Thanks to rigorous training, crew members were able to rescue her alive. Crossing over from one ship to another was just a part of her job, which highlights how dangerous it can be. Although experienced, she fell, and it could have happened to any other trained pilot. Such incidents are not uncommon on piloting jobs, and when safety training hasn’t been adequate, can often lead to drownings. If the other crew hadn’t been quick to rescue her and didn’t have the training to do so, she likely would have drowned.
Another piloting incident didn’t end so well in Panama City, Florida in 2013 when a pilot fell from a Jacob’s ladder in the dark and wasn’t discovered until the next day. The pilot was an experienced veteran of the job, but was still susceptible to all the hazards and risks, as was the pilot in the Columbia River incident. This pilot should have been rescued, but no one saw him go overboard and the incident ended in tragedy instead.
Legal Help for Pilots
If you work as a maritime pilot you know the risks you take every day you do your job. That doesn’t mean, however, that you are not entitled to assistance when you are injured on the job. Depending on your status, there are several federal maritime laws that may apply in your situation. A legal professional, experienced in maritime law, can help guide you through the system and assist you in making claims or getting compensation if you have been denied those rights.