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A bar pilot or maritime pilot is a professional who helps to guide ships through navigationally challenging waters. While he or she is on board, he or she provides advice to the captain; this advice is based on knowledge of local waters, weather conditions, and the abilities of the captain's boat. Typically, the captain retains legal control and responsibility of the ship, although a bar pilot can be held accountable for egregious navigational errors which result in substantial damages.
There are several different kinds of maritime pilot. A bar pilot is experienced at navigating ships over shoals and sandbars, which are often found near major harbors. A bay pilot can handle navigation in a bay or inlet, while a river pilot navigates ships along rivers. In some cases, a maritime pilot may be qualified to work in two or even all three of these areas; in San Francisco, California, for example, bar pilots can guide ships past the shoals outside the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Bay and into the ports of Oakland and San Francisco, and up the Sacramento River.
Most regions require ships to take on a pilot when they enter or exit a port or harbor or when they are navigating congested or dangerous waterways. The use of a pilot helps to reduce the risk of collisions with other vessels, and it ensures that ships pass through regional waters safely. Pilots are also able to control ship traffic, acting like air traffic controllers to prioritize and route big ships which are difficult to maneuver.
In order to become a bar pilot, someone must have extensive qualifications. In addition to being very knowledgeable about the area in which he or she wishes to work, a bar pilot must also know a great deal about handling ships, especially big cruise ships and tankers. Typically, he or she must apply for a license to ensure that he or she is qualified to practice. Once qualified as a ship pilot, someone works with a regional pilot association to make sure that pilots are constantly available to those who need them.
In regions which are too small to have an official bar pilot, a local Coast Guard station may help visiting mariners, and regional captains who are familiar with the waters may help out as well. Even with a pilot on board, accidents can still happen; typically, these accidents are investigated to see if something can be done to prevent similar accidents in the future.