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Since the first settlement of Sydney Cove in 1788 marine pilotage has played an important role in Australia. The first pilot, Robert Watson, was a midshipman on the first fleet vessel HMS XX. Once a safe path from Sydney Heads to the Cove was sounded out, it became Mr Watson’s job to ensure that future vessels to and from the new settlement were safely navigated among the dangerous currents and rocks, to deliver their essential cargo.

As the settlement grew, so did the pilotage requirement. Based in Watsons Bay (named after the aforementioned Robert Watson) a small team of professionals trained up and formed the colony’s first pilot service. They would row out to sea in a flat bottom whaler, board the incoming ship using a rope ladder and safely guide the vessel in.

New pilotage services sprung up around the country to service the developing colonies. Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin ports all started their own pilotage services. In addition, many smaller ports- some now non-existent- had resident pilots to guide the ocean going vessels in and out of port, often through very treacherous conditions.

Not much has changed in over 200 years; pilots still meet vessels off the port entrance. Thankfully whalers are a thing of the past; now smaller diesel powered boats carry the pilots to their charges. Once alongside a vessel, the pilot must still climb the proffered rope ladder, sometimes through a distance of nine metres, just as their forebears did. If a port predominantly services vessels able to take a helicopter, aerial transfers may be the norm, with pilot boats used either as a backup or when conditions preclude the use of a helicopter.

Pilots are skilled at all weather operations. They can conduct their vessels through strong winds, heavy seas, fog and rain. Most have been Master Mariners with years of seagoing experience before becoming specially trained as pilots. Sometimes recruits have even operated their own ships within a port after being trained and granted a pilotage exemption.

Role of pilotage

Pilotage plays an important role in modern society. Harbours and ports are valuable pieces of infrastructure, and require careful management of the risk entailed every day as ships move in and out.

By thorough training and dedication pilots mitigate the risk of all vessels, both Australian and Foreign, as they use our ports. Ship’s Masters, whilst professionals in their own right, usually receive only rudimentary training in ship handling. Pilots not only have intimate knowledge of their home port, but they are also highly trained in this art of ship handling- a skill of immense importance with today’s huge vessels. It is chiefly these two factors- local knowledge and ship handling skill- that make today’s pilots the first line of defence in protecting our precious ports and waterways.

Australasian Marine Pilots Institute (AMPI)

AMPI is the professional body representing marine pilots throughout Australasia. It assists in the setting of standards, safety management and provides support and guidance with ongoing professional development.

AMPI provides advice to regulators on how to improve operational safety in our ports, and ensures that member pilots and their organisations continue to lead in world’s best practice. Together with its partners, AMPI has developed a set of training standards for both initial and continual training for pilots. As a partner of the International Marine Pilots Association, AMPI also has input into all important decisions made by the International Maritime Organisation.



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