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Captain Eric Nielsen

A conversation with ...
A Pilot, Eric Nielsen

Explore Port Careers

All about...Pilots

What a pilot does . . .

By state law, every ship that enters Maryland waters must have a state-licensed pilot at its helm, steering massive ships from the sea into port. That means that every vessel bound for Baltimore must be met by a pilot at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, where she or he takes command of the ship. Throughout this voyage, pilots steer their ships through a 50-foot deep channel, with sometimes as little clearance between the bottom of the ship and the bottom of the Bay as three feet. Once the ship reaches the Key Bridge, a docking pilot takes over the helm and brings the ship into its berth in the Port.

Pilots are licensed for their work by the State of Maryland and governed by the Board of Pilots appointed by the governor.  In addition to being excellent ship handlers, pilots must be completely familiar with local water depths, winds, tides, currents, and hazards such as reefs and shoals.

Career Tidbits

  • Pilots must serve a five-year apprenticeship before they become fully licensed.  This is in addition to other training and education they must complete, including earning a bachelor’s degree from the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy or the other state maritime academies listed here and experience on ships in other positions.  Only a few of the hundreds of applicants for these apprenticeships are selected to participate in this five-year program.
  • To board a ship, pilots often climb a Jacob’s ladder, a portable hanging ladder consisting of ropes or chains with steps of metal or wood. The ladder was named after a story in the Bible in which Jacob dreamed of angels climbing between heaven and earth on a ladder.  Originally, sailors used Jacob’s ladders to climb to the highest masts on a ship.

A pilot typically has:

These skills and abilities:
Good leadership and analytical skills, good mathematics skills (especially in algebra, geometry, distance and time), good science and business skills

This knowledge:

  • Correct operating procedures for a variety of water craft
  • How properties of mechanics and physics work and affect vessel progress
  • Principles and applications of navigation and the mathematics involved in it
  • An intricate knowledge of the waterways they travel

This training:
Potential pilots must have ten to fifteen years of seagoing experience in a variety of positions and responsibilities before applying to be a pilot. During this time, they learn how to read and interpret nautical and coast guard charts of navigable waters, as well as the buoy systems and geographic features of the waterways where they will work as pilots.

This education:
Potential pilots must graduate from one of five maritime academies in this country, earning either a bachelors or masters degree.  In Maryland, they must maintain a five-year pilot’s license administered by the state.

Pilots are critical in getting ships to the dock …

According to the Maryland Commission on Higher Education, training for this career, as well as those of ship's masters and mates, is available through the 2- and 4- year programs at the Maryland Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS). This resource was discovered by using the keywords: MARITIME STUDIES and is described in more detail here.

The Maryland Career Clusters help students prepare for their future education and careers while they are in high school. The job of pilot, ship's master, and ship's mate are career opportunities in the Transportation Career Cluster, in the core area of transportation operations.

Find out about other careers at the Port.