From the earliest days of written history, from Egyptians to Greeks to biblical times, river piloting has been an elemental line of work. In Louisiana the ancient career quickly found a home along the Mississippi with some of the first ships entering the mouth of the river.
Before pilot associations and fee commissions there were unregulated, ruthless pilots monitoring the river in hopes of catching the first sight of an incoming ship. Aggressive pilots often strayed far out to sea in order to beat their competitors. Likewise, many ships had to wait unlimited hours in the dangerous waters for a pilot to just happen by. On many occasions two pilots would reach the ship at the same time and race to be the first to get on board, each scrambling up opposite sides of the boat. In the end the toughest and fastest won, not the most knowledgeable and skilled. In New Orleans, shrewd businessmen with no inclination toward piloting would hire any sailor, buccaneer, or drifter to work the ships and then keep the fees for themselves. Competition was fierce and obstacles were everywhere. The Mississippi was and still is one of the most treacherous rivers in the world, with sharp twists, hidden sandbars and sunken wreckage. Pilots also deal with flocculation, a thick black muck called ‘sea jelly’ which traps ships and only occurs in two places in the world – here and Venezuela.
The ships themselves can cause problems as well. Pilots must board across gangways or climb up a rope ladder, and crews can carry exotic diseases or harbor hostile attitudes. Foreign languages may hinder crews from understanding pilots’ instructions, and older ships may not be outfitted with up-to-date equipment or benefit from regular maintenance. Additional dangers have been added to the river, such as four locks on the lower Mississippi, eight bridges, overhead cables, and a substantial amount of ship traffic.
Struggling with the complaints and disorder of open competition, governments turned to regulation and the inevitable licensing of pilots. Licensing changed the face of piloting, turning the haphazard job into a profession, and as with all professions, members began to form organizations. Looking forward to the promise of well-trained pilots, shipping companies encouraged the evolution of pilot associations. To pilots, the groups offered fraternal organizations which provided mutual support, privileges and good working conditions, as well as necessary training programs in the form of apprenticeships. Plus, pilots no longer had to supply their own costly equipment, boats and stations.
Because of the dangerous line of work, it was necessary to have competent people you could trust with the ship’s cargo and often your life and those of the crew. This frequently meant sons, close relatives and friends. Sons following in their father’s calling is a method of selection that has been commonplace for many centuries. Informal training begins even before adolescence, as future pilots learn the craft merely from being around the family. As new pilots are commissioned, they carry on family traditions.
In 1908, the Louisiana Legislature created the Board of River Port Pilot Commissioners. A three-person board, each member was a licensed river pilot and appointed by the governor. Their job involved overseeing, investigating and disciplining pilots, as well as supplying a list of applicants to become apprentices. Twenty-eight pilots already working on the river from the Port of New Orleans to the Head of Passes were commissioned to serve under the board and authorized to form themselves into an association. They created the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association in the same year.
Today, Louisiana has four associations, with three on the Mississippi River. These are the Associated Branch Pilots of the Port of New Orleans, the Crescent River Port Pilots and the New Orleans and Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots (NOBRA), and one on the Calcasieu River, the Lake Charles Pilots’ Association. While pilots are members of an association to legally guide ships along the Mississippi and Calcasieu Rivers, they still function as separate, individual businessmen.
One of the responsibilities of the associations is to choose apprentices from the list of applicants supplied by the Board of Commissioners. Along with numerous Coast Guard licenses, stricter rules require applicants for an apprenticeship to now have a college degree. Apprentices must train with licensed Crescent River Port Pilots, making no fewer than 18 trips per month on the Mississippi River between Pilottown and New Orleans. Once the apprenticeship ends and the examinations and required simulations are completed, the Board then certifies the pilot for commission and asks the governor to officially appoint the pilot.
Ultimately, with full regulation and the forming of associations came fee commissions. Once set by statutes, Louisiana pilot rates fell under the jurisdiction of fee commissions in 1968. There were four commissions, one for each association. Eight members, all appointed by the governor, served on each commission, four representing the pilots and four the shipping industry.
Looking back over the years, piloting has evolved from perilous, cutthroat competition to educated pilots who are licensed, trained and regulated by those who know the challenges. Without the progressive transitions the occupation has undergone, the Mississippi River would not be the economic engine it is today.
Pilots work closely with one another to complete tasks and safely and efficiently get the job done. The Mississippi River is one of the most dangerous and busiest in the world, yet the Crescent River Port Pilots have a 99.95 percent safety record. It is hard to imagine that anything would be accomplished if pilots still followed the unruly path of their predecessors.
*Information in this article came from the Loyola Law Review, Vol. 47, Summer 2001.
At boarding, pilots must climb onto moving ships via a 30-foot rope ladder leading up the side of the hull from the deck of a pilot boat. This can be a dangerous undertaking, with the ship and pilot boat pitching back and forth and the ladder swinging from the ship. Once on board, a pilot acts as advisor to the captain, setting the ship’s course and speed, while steering the vessel to avoid hazards and other ships. Often pilots must overcome language barriers to direct and coordinate the activities of a foreign crew.