The word “pilot,” causes most people to think of men and women flying jet planes. But pilots in the ocean, maritime pilots, play an important role in the global economy. Maritime pilots, sometimes called harbor pilots, are specially trained to guide ships safely into harbors. Pilots are not members of the ship’s crew, but expert navigators in their home harbor. They have expert knowledge of local waterways, local changes due to high seas, shifting sandbars, or human-made obstacles. As a ship enters a harbor, the local pilot boards the vessel by small boat or helicopter. The pilot works with the ship’s captain and assists in bringing the ship safely to dock.


Cargo ships, cruise ships, and ferries use ports to load and unload passengers and cargo. Maritime pilots must board each ship that goes into or out of a port. There are about 360 active commercial pilots in the United States. Goods that move through United States ports include fossil fuels, grains, metals, electronics, and automobiles. These items are generally loaded into rectangular containers and lifted onto and off of container ships by cranes. Some container ships are four football fields long and are able to carry up to 15,000 containers. Trucks and trains transport cargo from the ports to destinations all over the United States.


Like any industry that relies on the ocean, the importing and exporting of goods at ports depends on sea conditions. High winds and tall waves make navigating harbors dangerous. When the conditions are particularly bad, ports must be closed. More energy in the air and water due to climate change may mean stronger and more frequent storms, and therefore faster winds and higher waves, which can affect the safety of ships, passengers, and cargo at sea.


  1. Why is being a maritime pilot so dangerous?


    • Answer

      Pilots must board ships in all types of conditions, including storms. They climb onto ships from smaller boats or helicopters.

  2. Why are port authorities reluctant to close ports? 


    • Answer

      Ports are integral to importing and exporting goods around the world. Closing a port affects many industries.

  3. Why is climate change an issue for the shipping industry?


    • Answer

      Increased storm intensity and frequency may make shipping more hazardous.

  • Pilot boats use special lighting so other boats can recognize them in the dark. These vessels use white light directly above a red light. This configuration is different than those that other boats use. Fishing boats, for example, use a red light above a white light.
  • 2012 was the warmest year on record in the United States. During the year, people experienced extreme weather events, including hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and wildfires.
  • About 13.2 million American jobs are dependent upon United States ports. 

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.


to transport goods to another place for trade.

fossil fuel

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.


part of a body of water deep enough for ships to dock.


to bring in a good or service from another area for trade.


This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1114251. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.