What’s in a pilot’s technology tool kit?

What happens when you can’t see in the dark or through the fog? What do you do as the person responsible to navigate the vessel, its crew and product to safe shores? While marine pilots have always relied on their experience, training, intuition and professional judgment to make these timely and correct decisions, technology has improved the pilots’ ability to make these decisions by providing them with real time, precise information while reducing workload in other areas. Some of the main ones we use are ships RADARS, Global Positioning System (GPS), Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and electronic charts (photo of ships bridge).

We could talk your ear off about the technical use of each one but rather, we’ll share two applications of the tools.


Technology, like a pilot’s PPU and the associated accuracy due to precise GPS positioning plays a role on every dark night or foggy transit. One of the examples is how Ken expertly used the PPU to reberth a ship at Cascadia. In those conditions the ship’s radar has and most likely always will be the most important tool onboard. However, radar is only as good as the operator using it, and the advantage pilots have over regular members of the ships crew is the familiarity and recognition of exactly what they are looking at. Especially on rainy and stormy nights, the radar has to be constantly adjusted by using sea and rain clutter controls to bring into focus a garbled picture full of interference. Only someone with hundreds of transits of the area in adverse conditions can be certain of the landmarks or object returns they are looking at. The PPU provides reassurance as the pilot carefully manages their attention between looking out the bridge windows, checking and adjusting the ship’s radar, glancing at the ship’s ECDIS or paper chart position, and then using their PPU to confirm what they are seeing.

One of the ways this technology has greatly assisted the modern pilot is with the “rate of turn (ROT) generator”. In conjunction with the GPS, it provides the pilot access to other ships AIS signals that assists with positive identification of other traffic, and also lets the pilot know how many degrees per minute the ship is turning in either direction.

This information can be critical during challenging coastal turns or during close harbor manouvers in which adverse conditions may have made it difficult for the pilot to tell how fast the ship was turning. This technology can also display projected ship movements by superimposing ship shaped positions ahead of the ship’s outline on the screen, allowing the pilot to see where the ship will end up minutes ahead if it’s present speed and rate of turn are maintained.

This feature has allowed pilots to safely move ships in compromised visibility situations where before those ship movements may have been delayed which has improved efficiency, especially on foggy days. With projected movements clearly displayed, a pilot can make needed corrections to the ship’s movements before they are visible to the naked eye, adding another layer of safety for the ship and it’s surroundings.


These days pilots are constantly using simulators to practice emergency situations (like ship or tug failures), to assist industry in terminal improvements or new placements, to learn advanced maneuvers in challenging conditions, or to practice skills with the advantage of being able to use numerous ships under different load conditions while controlling the elements as desired.

Apprentice pilots train with senior pilots in numerous simulators around North America. They are made to maneuver many different ships in areas carefully constructed to resemble ports all over the coast of British Columbia. After having successfully maneuvered real ships under the watchful eye of senior pilots, they then have to prove themselves in simulated conditions. This allows apprentice pilots to be put in very challenging conditions that are hard to find in reality on demand. This first round of simulation takes place in purpose built rooms made to look just like the bridge of a ship, and would normally include four apprentices, a senior pilot and a simulator operator.

The second stage the apprentices go through takes place in similar facilities but with two adjoining tugboat simulators. In these sessions not only are apprentice pilots maneuvering their ship, but they are also directing “their” tugboats to act as required. While senior pilots advise the apprentices in the ship bridge rooms, senior tugboat masters coach junior captains within the tugboat bridge simulators to complete their maneuvers as ordered over radios.

Valuable skills are learned from both the coaching and mentoring of senior operators, as well as in the thorough debriefings where challenges and solutions are discussed between two senior pilots, four apprentice pilots, two senior tugboat masters, and two or four junior tugboat masters. These pilot and tug operator sessions have been instrumental in developing best practice and emergency procedures for places like second narrows bridge where area constraints and environmental conditions require carefully considered parameters.

The directors of the British Columbia Coast Pilots are often called upon to gather in their own simulator and use their vast experience to push the limits of ships size and environmental conditions at different simulated berths around the coast. This allows the parties involved to understand why and where the operating limits may be, and how improvements or new builds can be best advised.

As pilots graduate to larger vessels throughout their careers, regimented visits back to the simulator along with familiarization trips on larger vessels allow them to hone their skills before they are actually called upon to direct these larger ships. An area of interest takes place near the end of a pilots limited first seven years before becoming an unlimited pilot. These pilots are sent to a manned model facility in France where they learn to operate the unique propulsion and maneuvering systems of the largest cruise ships. They then bring these acquired skills back home to Vancouver where they practice over and over again in the simulator, developing the skills to pilot even the largest cruise ships. Apprentice pilots also use the in house simulator to learn how their PPU units work, and how to customize their features to best suit personal needs and preference.