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What is a Bar Pilot?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WikiMotors researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Jul 10, 2011

My father is a member of the Columbia River Bar Pilots. He helps crews cross the Columbia River Bar, one of the world's most dangerous navigated areas. The amount of flowing water and the impact of it with storms of the North Pacific make for some challenging conditions at sea. People brave this area to gain access to multiple inland ports.

He told me that the Oregon Board of Maritime Pilots controls the pilotage rates that the Columbia River Bar Pilots charge. Legally, no one can receive or demand more or less money for piloting in the area the board regulates.

By cloudel — On Jul 09, 2011

@Oceana - My brother is a bar pilot at San Francisco Bay, and he makes around $400,000 a year. However, he does have to buy his own health insurance, and due to the danger of his job, it costs about $22,000 a year.

I have heard of bar pilots in other areas making about $200,000, so it all depends on the area in which you work. Probably the more ships that go through a region, the higher the pay.

My brother is paid with pilotage fees that shippers have to fork over as part of their port costs. He is not paid with taxpayer money or by the state.

By Oceana — On Jul 09, 2011

I think a career as a bar pilot would be exciting. I love being out on the water, and the rush of striving to avoid danger would make for a highly interesting workday.

Does anyone know how much bar pilots make or who pays their salaries? I just wonder if they are paid by individual captains or by the state.

By Perdido — On Jul 08, 2011

My uncle is a bar pilot who helps navigate ships entering the Mississippi River mouth. The area is dangerous and full of traffic.

He has also worked at sea, but he says that his services are greatly needed at the river, because just one single accident could back up traffic and delay the workings of this multibillion-dollar industry.

He has spent most of his career learning and working on a certain portion of the river. His knowledge is in high demand for ships coming to the Mississippi River from all parts of the world.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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