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Harbor pilot

Harbor pilots are often the first port ambassadors who meet the crew of a ship arriving in Le Havre. The pilot is called and reaches the ship on a launch or by helicopter (it all depends on weather conditions). He then assists the ship’s master as soon as he sets foot on the deck: he is the one who guides and drives the ship’s maneuvers to her docking position. “It is a great responsibility especially when you are called to guide a close to 400 meter long container carrier” explains one of them.  How proud they are when the captain, once his ship and her cargo have safely reached the port, can shout a “good job pilot! “!

Regulations make it mandatory for ship masters to use the service of a harbor pilots depending on the length, tonnage (usually over 300 tons) and the type of cargo transported. This requirement, which can be traced as far back as around the year 1 100 in Oleron has become mandatory and regulated in all French ports in 1815. Ship pilots are therefore the advisors of ship masters entering or leaving the harbor or navigating a difficult seaway.

They work from a pilot station and are licensed to operate in one or several specific ports or even one or several seaways.

Pilots are recruited by concours (competitive exam). They must hold a ship master certificate issued by the ENSM (Ecole Nationale Supérieure Maritime, formerly known as “Hydro”) and possess a ten year sea experience on average (long-haul). Once they have been successful at the concours, pilots buy a share of their pilot station (around €250 000) which they sell when they retire.

Each of the 32 pilot stations located in France and in overseas territories work like a syndicate. They unite pilots who are appointed individually by the State. The syndicate is in charge of the management of the community, especially the equipment: in Le Havre, six launches and one helicopter to intervene regardless of the conditions and without any additional charge for the shipowner.

Since 2005 the Le Havre-Fécamp pilot station acquired the first harbor maneuvering simulator in France. That tool makes it possible to model Fecamp, Antifer and Le Havre ports in an extremely realistic way. Originally aimed at integrating young pilots faster, it is also a continuing education tool making it possible to model situations inspired by piloting experience. This scalable simulator has recently been equipped with Azipod controls which can be found on modern ocean liners to operate 360° movable blades. Le Havre-Fecamp station now trains pilots coming from other regions and abroad.

Pilots are protected by a State monopoly while acting as a private company. Rates are therefore regulated and are defined each year by a trade assembly within which users and the State are represented.

When a ship uses the same harbor frequently, masters can get a master pilot license which will make it possible for them to maneuver their ship in the harbor themselves, provided that they have attended sufficient maneuvering sessions with a licensed pilot and that they come often enough.

Pilots adapt to gigantic scales

Since container carriers are becoming bigger and bigger, pilots must prove capable of maneuvering in an ever more precise manner within harbor infrastructures that do not widen. In Le Havre all kinds of giants expand the boundaries of this skill.

Each year, pilots of Le Havre-Fecamp station witness the approach of more and more enormous ships. Ten years ago, container-carriers of 295 meters already seemed to defy understanding. But today it has become common to witness 350 and up to 400 meters hulls dive into container terminals, let alone outsized cruising liners.

The 51 Le Havre-Fecamp pilots are used to maneuver all kinds of ship sizes, however dangerous (such as oil tankers at Antifer), including in extremely adverse weather conditions. They nevertheless explain that they feel extremely conscious of their responsibility when they have to handle the latest jewels of the international merchant fleet. Their role is to bring these sea giants to safe harbor but also to perform on a deck that is never theirs. “When we have succeeded in maneuvering a ship big enough to need two tugboats, it is high time to go and have a good rest” confesses one of them who adds that one gets used to these new scales quite rapidly. Nevertheless, there is, in such cases, no room (in every respect of the term) for mistakes in an environment that proves difficult (Port 2000 is less protected from the wind than older infrastructures) and in more difficult crossing conditions.

The simulator asset

New additional constraints reinforced the exchange of experience between pilots, especially during simulation exercises. “We develop a culture that is close to the one existing in the airline industry in which every event is reported in order to enrich our collective approach” a Le Havre pilot confirms.


“François, once he had studied for five years at Ecole Nationale de la Marine Marchande graduated as a First Class Master of Marine Navigation and passed the pilot concours at Le Havre station. After that he started piloting small ships. Today, François is a marine pilot called “tous tonnages” (all tonnage) “Thanks to this profession I remain in touch with my former profession, sailor, as I deal with the crews of each ship. I maneuver and pilot safely all kinds of ships and act as a conductor like I used to do when I was an officer in the merchant navy. This profession also makes it possible for me to stay close to my family.”

Source: multiple Internet sources, specialized literature, testimonials (Pratic-Export, Pôle-emploi cards, Wikipedia, Onisep, CNRTL, Umep à la Page…)