What is Meant by a Master-Pilot Relationship?



The practice of shipmasters using experts with local knowledge to safely guide them when entering or leaving ports, or navigating in potentially dangerous areas that require in-depth local knowledge, dates to the beginning of water transportation.

The successful performance of such a task usually requires a special partnership, to be established between the master and the pilot during the passage. This forms the basis of what is referred to in the industry as the master-pilot relationship.

The master-pilot relationship is a partnership that enables resources available from both the master and pilot to be pooled together to enable the safe conduct of a vessel through a pilotage area.

The maritime industry can be a challenging place to work for both masters and pilots There are many different types of vessels, weather conditions, and traffic patterns that can make it difficult for the two to communicate effectively.

In this article, we will discuss the key components of the master-pilot relationship and how it contributes to the safety of navigation.

The Evolution Of The Master-Pilot Relationship

Although pilotage is one of the oldest and probably the most vital link in marine safety and maritime commerce it is one of the least-known maritime occupations. A marine pilot is a man with local knowledge who acts as a guide for mariners in his own specialized and limited zone.

Pilots with local knowledge have been hired on board ships for decades to safely navigate vessels into or out of port – or wherever navigation may be regarded hazardous, especially when a shipmaster is unfamiliar with the area.

Sea Pilot Boarding a Ship at Port Cherbourg
Sea Pilot Boarding a Ship. Image: www.dirkzwager.com

Marine pilotage is one of the world’s oldest vocations, with pilots mentioned in some of the earliest written histories. For example, the word “pilot” first appeared in “the bible’ -Ezekiel’s book in the 6th century BC, when the term “pilot” was used.  “Ezekiel 27:8 – The inhabitants of Zidon and Arvad were thy mariners: thy wise men, O Tyrus, that were in thee, were thy pilots.” Also, in the Greek “Iliad”, there is a reference to “Thestor the pilot,” who steered the ships from Achaeans to Lion.”

The history of the great ocean discoveries is also full of the activities of pilots. Marco Polo’s first eastbound voyage was completed in 1275 with the assistance of Arab pilots while Arab pilots were actively involved as counselors on Vasco de Gama’s voyage from the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut (India). Evidence is even now emerging that Christopher Columbus’s used an African pilot, Pedro Alonso Niño in 1492 on his voyage to the Americas.

The relationship between the master and the pilot has historically been one of respect and collaboration, as both parties work together to ensure the safe operation of the vessel. The pilot has generally been considered the expert on the local conditions, while the master has had the final say in all decision-making. This relationship has ensured that vessels have operated in a safe and efficient manner.

The Importance Of The Master-Pilot Relationship.

Maritime transportation is one of the most important activities in the world today. Ships carry goods and passengers between countries and continents. The safe and efficient operation of these vessels depends on the skill and teamwork of many different people, including the ship’s captain and pilot. The master-pilot relationship is one of them.

The relationship between the captain and pilot is a special one. It is based on trust, responsibility, and skill. Both parties must be aware of the hazards involved in navigation, the capabilities and limitations of their vessel, and the demands of the voyage.

The master is responsible for the safety of the vessel and its crew, while the pilot is responsible for the safe navigation of the vessel. Together, they work as a team to ensure the safe operation of the vessel.

The partnership is essential for the safe operation of a vessel, and both parties must work together to ensure the safe passage of the vessel. The shipmaster must have faith in the pilot’s abilities, and the pilot must have faith in the shipmaster’s judgment.

Pilotage is an ancient profession that has been essential to shipping since Ancient Greece. Although it is one of the oldest, and least-known maritime professions, it is still one of the most important links in maritime safety and maritime commercial trades. The actual economic and environmental risks, involving large ships, make the role of the pilot essential, providing safety to the ship’s passage, handling, safety of life at sea, and protection of the environment.

In all cases traditionally, the master retains command of the vessel while the pilot acts in an advisory capacity. An exception is however found in the relationship at the Panama Canal where the Panama Canal Commission accepts a greater degree of liability in exchange for greater control of the ship’s navigation in the waterway. Inside the locks of the Canal, the Commission becomes liable for payment for injuries to the vessel, cargo, crew, or passengers arising out of a passage through the locks.

Information Exchange In The Master-Pilot Relationship

Information forms the basis for a successful master-pilot relationship. The master and pilot must communicate with one another regarding the ship’s characteristics, local weather, and navigational procedures. Depending on the situation, pilots are used for a range of purposes, such as liaison, ship handling, pilotage based on local knowledge, and bridge support. In order to accurately track the ship’s position and movement, the master and officer of the watch must work closely with the pilot.

The pilot’s responsibility is to control the ship’s navigation, including the course and speed of the vessel. He coordinates the employment of tugs, communicates with the VTS, and offers guidance on how to use moorings and towing lines. To effectively perform all these tasks require the pilot to synthesize information from the ship and his own knowledge of local conditions. This information is the key ingredient in the master-pilot relationship.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), in a recommendation, emphasizes the important role of information and describes a navigational watch with a pilot on board in the following words:

“Despite the duties and obligations of a pilot, his presence on board does not relieve the master or officer in charge of the watch from their duties and obligations for the safety of the ship. The master and the pilot shall exchange information regarding navigation procedures, local conditions, and the ship’s characteristics. The master and officer of the watch shall cooperate closely with the pilot and maintain an accurate check of the ship’s position and movement.

The Challenges Of The Master-Pilot Relationship

The challenges of the master-pilot relationship are important to understand in order to ensure safe and efficient maritime operations. There are many challenges that come with the master-pilot relationship, which basically stems from what is referred to as “divided authority

The most famous of these challenges throughout history has been that of liability of the two parties, especially during periods of compulsory pilotage. The question historically had been could the master be held responsible for the acts and omissions of a party (pilot in this case) he/she was forced to engage. For a long time, there were different legal opinions in different parts of the world.

The Brussels Convention of 1910, which stated in part (5) that “liability……shall attach, in cases in which the collision is caused by a pilot’s fault, even when carrying of the pilot is obligatory,” resolved this issue and the differences between the laws of different maritime nations on how they handled the liability of shipowners and ships when a ship was under compulsory pilotage.

The justification for imputing responsibility ‘in rem’ – to the ship, irrespective of the status of the pilot, has now come in line with contemporary public policy in terms of allocating the cost of risks in commercial activity.


The maritime industry is a vital part of the global economy, and the master-pilot relationship is critical to its success. In this article, we have looked at the history of the master-pilot relationship, the challenges it faces today, and the future of the maritime industry.

The maritime industry is constantly changing, and the master-pilot relationship must adapt to the new challenges and opportunities that arise. The industry is facing new challenges, such as the increasing size of ships and the changing demographics of the workforce. But, with the right mix of cooperation and communication, the master-pilot relationship can continue to thrive in the maritime industry.

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