River Pilots: Then and Now

Pilots have long been an integral part of navigating ships though inland passes and coastal waterways throughout the world. Early explorers such as Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama and Ponce de Leon utilized the services of local captains to maneuver their ships in unknown waters. The local ship handlers knew the tides, bars and channels, and could easily guide the foreign captains safely to their destination. These local ship captains are known as pilots.

Openning of Lock

Today, the destinations are more certain than in the early days of exploration but the rivers and passes can be just as uncertain. The Mississippi River, one of the mightiest rivers on the globe, will always require the help of local pilots to navigate its treacherous waterways.

John Barry’s book Rising Tide describes the forceful river,

“The complexity of the Mississippi exceeds that of nearly all other rivers…it moves south in layers and whorls, like uncoiling ropes, each one following an independent and unpredictable path…capable of snapping like a whip.”

It is this uncertainty that a Mississippi River pilot learns to master.

The Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association was formed in 1908, organizing the growing need for professional pilots in a bustling shipping center. At that time the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Natchez made up the busiest port system in North America. Today, more than 6,000 ocean vessels annually move through New Orleans, making the Mississippi River the world’s biggest waterway. Cargo includes steel, rubber, oil, grain, even cruise ships stocked with people. With all these precious commodities coming and going, safety is the pilot’s priority. The approximate 110 pilots belonging to the Crescent River Port Pilots’ Association each take their turn guiding ships through the 106 winding miles of the Mississippi River between Pilottown and New Orleans. They work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping agencies, supporting and employing leading edge technology.