In Praise of Pilots

The use of pilots, independent skilled master mariners with specific practical and personal local knowledge, to assist and advising a vessel’s Master in ensuring a safe passage of a vessel within the area in which the Pilot operates is now a statutory requirement for most ports, but derives from a very old and widely established custom, which has saved countless lives and vessels over the years.

The recent and well publicised actions of the Southampton Pilot and the master of the Hoegh Osaka to run the badly listing vessel aground on the Bramble Bank last Saturday echo the events of the 7th November 1999 when, following collision with the Nab Tower, the Dole America, stricken with a large gash in the hull and taking on water, was run aground on the horse tail bank, at the Eastern end of the Solent by a Portsmouth pilot.

Unusually, the pilot involved in the Dole America incident had left the vessel with the Master’s consent within the pilotage area, so relinquishing command entirely to Dole America’s Master, and was returning to shore in the pilot boat when the collision occurred. His courageous actions in then returning to and re-boarding the stricken vessel and cool-headedly manoeuvring her out of the main channel and putting her aground on a sandbank from which she was subsequently recovered, were credited by the Marine Accident Investigation Bureau in their Report as having saved the vessel from foundering.

Both events serve to further demonstrate the unique value and expertise of local pilots, whose advice must be invaluable to any Master faced with the once in a career decision as to whether to risk structural damage and eventual loss of the vessel by deliberate grounding, or possible sudden total loss of vessel and crew whilst seeking to return to a sheltered berth.

Investigations are continuing to establish the cause of the problem that required such immediate and decisive action, and it yet remains to be seen whether, as with Dole America, commercial salvors can affect a full recovery of the vessel and preserve the cargo. If they are able to do so, then pursuant to equally long established custom and statute, the salvors will be entitled to pursue and receive a substantial savage award from the vessels and cargo owners, or their insurers, reflecting the values of vessel and cargo, and the risks and skill of their actions

It is accordingly surprising that Maritime Law provides that, save in very limited circumstances, a Pilot cannot usually expect to receive any additional reward by way of salvage for decisions taken by him (or her) whilst exercising their duties as Pilot on board a vessel, and within the laid down geographical confines of the pilotage authority.

The logical explanation for this anomaly is that Pilots should be incentivised to do all things possible to assist and preserve the vessel under their pilotage control as part of their normal responsibilities, and so should not merit additional payment for making decisions or taking actions which successfully preserve the vessel, her cargo and crew when that vessel, cargo or crew are in peril.

Whether the Pilot in attendance on Hoegh Osaka would be entitled to any such reward remains unclear, but if not he certainly earned his pay and more and it is to be hoped that others will recognise this.

The contentious decision of other commercial salvors to run the vessel MSC Napoli aground in Lyme bay in 2007, ultimately resulted in part of her cargo being washed ashore and publicly pilfered, an oil spill and the vessel being ultimately so damaged as to have to be eventually broken up in situ.

Inevitably there will be a few people watching from the shore quietly hoping that Hoegh Osaka’s appointed salvors endeavour to recover the badly listing vessel will yield some bounty on the beaches, but any significant release of pollutants into the Solent’s carefully managed environment will have grave effect, particularly given the present Spring tides.

The pressure is now on salvors, owners, insurers and the authorities to come up with a swift and successful solution.   Let’s hope they do so.

We have successfully acted for a number of clients who have  received significant salvage awards, including one which involved a claim by a Pilot. If you are affected by these issues then please contact our marine team.


Tim is a Director and Head of the Marine department specialising in marine and admiralty law.

He specialises in all aspects of the law relating to pleasure vessels and is recognised as one of the foremost experts in the field, addressing a vast range of issues from contractual to technical, via the statutory and occasionally bizarre.

Practising internationally, Tim represents owners, insurers, boatyards and high profile marine organisations, as well as those buying or selling their boats. 

After working for brief periods as a boat builder, yacht chandler and professional sailor, he went on to study Admiralty Law at the University of Wales in Cardiff where he obtained his law degree. He is a member of the Royal Yachting Association and the British Marine Federation.

  • Technical construction disputes
  • Contractual disputes
  • Marine conveyancing
  • Title disputes
  • Salvage and towage
  • Recreational Craft Directive / Maritime and Coastguard Agency compliance
  • Marine related personal injury and fatalities