Ship Navigation in Harbors: Safety Issues
Ship Navigation in Harbors: Safety Issues
February 8, 2008
Specialist in Transportation Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Ship Navigation in Harbors: Safety Issues
On November 7, 2007, a container ship collided with a tower of the San
Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, spilling 58,000 gallons of the ship’s bunker fuel into
the Bay. The incident has raised questions about the role of maritime pilots and
vessel traffic services (VTSs) in preventing accidents in U.S. harbors, such as: Is
there a need for further independent oversight of pilot performance? Could VTSs
operate more like Air Traffic Control centers? Should the pilot and ship captain be
required to agree on a passage plan before transiting a harbor?
Because of the additional challenges of navigating large ships through the
constricted waters of a harbor, most U.S. ports require shipping lines to hire a
maritime pilot. Maritime pilots, through a lengthy apprenticeship process and many
years of experience, have gained intimate knowledge of the navigational
requirements of a particular harbor. Despite the federal government’s prominent role
in regulating interstate commerce, Congress has largely left it to the various coastal
states to regulate pilotage. Pilots are licensed by the state for ships engaged in foreign
trade (“registered” vessels carrying international cargo), which accounts for the vast
majority of port calls. Typically a state pilot board oversees the hiring, training, and
performance of pilots, as well as setting pilotage rates charged to the shipping lines.
The U.S. Coast Guard has jurisdiction only over pilots of ships engaged in domestic
trade and the courts have ruled that the Coast Guard does not have the authority to
suspend or revoke the license of pilots for violations while piloting a foreign-trade
ship. To assist pilots, the busiest U.S. ports have established VTS stations to monitor
ship traffic and provide relevant information to pilots, such as the location of other
ships. While often compared to an air traffic control tower, a VTS is not directly
involved in the movement of vessels and is more accurately described as an advisory
service than a traffic control center.
Ever-larger ships, difficult or challenging slow-speed handling characteristics
of some of these ships, and rising port traffic that is predominantly foreign-flagged
have led to proposals concerning pilotage, VTSs, and other safety-related navigation
services in U.S. ports. Given the federal interest in marine environmental protection
and the Coast Guard’s mission to ensure the safety of shipping in U.S. waters, some
experts have advocated stronger federal oversight of pilots. They recommend that
the Coast Guard or a national commission establish national standards for pilot
training and proficiency or that the Coast Guard be given disciplinary authority over
state-licensed pilots. State pilots resist greater federal oversight, arguing that the
unique geography and navigational requirements of each port justifies local
oversight. Whether VTSs should exert more direct control over vessel movement is
also raised as a safety measure, but most acknowledge that an experienced on-board
mariner is probably in the best position to direct a vessel’s movement. Requiring that
a pilot and ship captain first agree on a harbor passage plan, investigating language
difficulties between pilots and foreign crews, and Coast Guard rotational staffing
practices, are other issues policymakers may examine in assessing the safety of ship
navigation in U.S. harbors.
In troduction ......................................................1
Peculiarities of Harbor Navigation............................2
Challenges of Piloting Bigger Ships...........................3
Slow-speed Handling Characteristics..........................4
Pilotage Requirements Vary Among U.S. Ports..................5
State Pilot Associations.....................................5
State Pilot Associations Are Regulated Monopolies...............8
Vessel Traffic Services.............................................9
Safety and Security.......................................10
VTSs and JHOCs.........................................11
Issues for Congress...............................................11
Oversight of Pilot Performance..................................11
Should VTSs Operate More Like ATCs?..........................12
Ship Design Standards.....................................14
Requiring a Passage Plan.......................................15
Coast Guard Staffing Practices..............................17
Legislative Activity in the 110th Congress..............................17
Ship Navigation in Harbors: Safety Issues
On November 7, 2007, at about 8:30 a.m., the container ship Cosco Busan
sideswiped one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, ripping a
100-foot by 12-foot gash into the side of the hull and releasing over 50,000 gallons
of the ship’s bunker fuel into the Bay. Throughout the morning, and at the time of
the accident, there was heavy patchy fog, and the pilot had delayed the ship’s1
departure from the Oakland pier by 90 minutes because of the fog. About three
minutes before the accident, but apparently too late to avoid the collision, the San
Francisco Vessel Traffic Service (VTS), which monitors harbor traffic, contacted the
ship’s pilot. The VTS told him that he was running parallel to the bridge and
inquired whether his intended course was still to pass beneath the delta and echo
spans of the bridge, as he had informed VTS earlier.
Although several investigations are pending, the suspected cause of the accident2
is pilot error. Considering the number of ships transiting U.S. harbors everyday,
accidents are rare. This is largely the result of the skill and expertise of pilots and the
navigation support services they receive from VTSs. When accidents occur, the
public impact of the oil or fuel spilled can be large, as the Cosco Busan accident
As a result of tanker safety improvements implemented in the wake of the 1989
Exxon Valdez spill, the amount of oil spilled by oil tankers has been declining3
significantly and is now approaching the amount of oil spilled by non-tank vessels.
According to the Coast Guard, the Cosco Busan has a fuel capacity of 52,0004
barrels, larger than the fuel capacity of the majority of ocean-going non-tank vessels
calling at U.S. ports which have a fuel capacity between 10,000 and 20,000 barrels.
1 This account of the accident is based on the Statement of Admiral Craig E. Bone, 11th
District Commander, U.S. Coast Guard, in a hearing before the House Committee on
Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime
Transportation, November 19, 2007. The U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB), and the DHS Inspector General are investigating the accident which
will provide more details into the causes of the accident and will likely make
recommendations for preventing this type of accident in the future.
2 The San Francisco Bay Pilot commission has suspended the pilot’s state license, pending
a hearing, and the Coast Guard has requested that the pilot voluntarily turn in his federal
license, which he has done.
3 See Figure 2 in CRS Report RL33705, Oil Spills in U.S. Coastal Waters: Background,
Governance, and Issues for Congress, by Jonathan L. Ramseur.
4 One barrel is equal to 42 gallons.
However, 360 vessels calling U.S. ports have a fuel capacity over 50,000 barrels and
100 vessels have a fuel capacity over 70,000 barrels.5 While the fuel oil carried by
non-tank vessels is a relatively small fraction of the oil carried as cargo in tankers,
it is still of sufficient quantity to cause an environmental catastrophe and significant
economic loss if spilled.
Much attention has focused on the timeliness of the Coast Guard’s response to
the Cosco Busan spill, but the accident has also raised questions about oversight of
pilot proficiency and the role of VTSs in harbor navigation. Congress has thus far
held three hearings on the accident and has introduced legislation in reaction to the
accident. Other, preexisting legislation related to ship navigation is pending (see the
last section of this report). Important policy questions for Congress include whether
there is a need for further independent oversight of pilot performance; whether
VTSs’ should operate more like Air Traffic Control centers; and whether the pilot
and ship captain should be required to agree on a passage plan before transiting a
harbor? Ever-larger ships, difficult or challenging slow-speed handling characteristics
of some of these ships, and rising port traffic that is increasingly foreign-flagged may
be cause for a review of pilotage, vessel traffic services, and other safety-related
navigation services in U.S. ports.
This report describes the role of pilots and VTSs in the safe navigation of ships
in U.S. harbors and reviews the controversy over the governance of pilot
associations, the appropriate level of interaction between the VTS and pilot, and
other proposals for improving the safety of harbor navigation. The report’s focus is
on the prevention of ship collisions and groundings in harbors and thus does not
discuss oil spill response and clean-up.6 This report also does not discuss the legal
liabilities of carriers and mariners in ship accidents.
Peculiarities of Harbor Navigation. The skill and knowledge required to
navigate a ship in a harbor versus at sea is significantly different. Most ship
collisions, allisions,7 and groundings occur in harbors, because that is where
navigation becomes constricted by land, shallow water, other vessels, and man-made
structures like jetties, bridges, and piers. Tide and river currents are also an
important factor in harbors but not at sea. A ship’s response to the water
displacement of a passing vessel, a channel’s bank, and minimal under-keel
clearance are hydrodynamics peculiar to a harbor’s constricted waters. A fully
loaded ship moving at typical harbor speed in a channel with a following tide may
5 Statement of Admiral Thad Allen, Commandant U.S. Coast Guard, Hearing before the
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Oceans,
Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, December 18, 2007, p. 3.
6 For a discussion of oil spill response and clean-up, see CRS Report RL33705, Oil Spills
in U.S. Coastal Waters: Background, Governance, and Issues for Congress, by Jonathan L.
7 Allision is a Coast Guard term for a collision between a moving vessel and a stationary
not be able to stop, even with engines in reverse and the assistance of tugs, for one
or more miles.
Challenges of Piloting Bigger Ships. Ever-larger ships, increasing port
traffic, and ships carrying especially dangerous cargo have put a premium on the skill
and knowledge of today’s harbor pilots. In 2005, ocean-going vessels over 10,000
deadweight tonnage (dwt) made over 61,000 U.S. port calls, or an average of 167 per
day. From 2001 to 2006, container ship calls at U.S. ports increased by 14% while8
the average size of containerships increased by 25%. The Cosco Busan, with a
capacity of 5,500 TEUs9, is a member of the fifth generation of container ships built
between 2000 and 2005. The ship is over 130 feet wide and just over three football
fields long (901 feet). From 2001 to 2006, port calls by smaller container ships
(those with less than 4,000 TEU capacity) decreased by 15%, while port calls by
large container ships like the Cosco Busan or bigger (those with more than 5,000
TEU capacity) increased by 241%. Unlike the largest oil tankers, which load and
unload their cargo at offshore pipelines or transfer their cargo to lightering ships at
the harbor’s entrance, container and other types of ships must transit the harbor to
load and unload. Ships carrying cargo that can be especially dangerous or damaging
to the environment have also increased in number. From 2001 to 2005, liquefied
natural gas (LNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) carrier calls increased by 31%10
and tanker calls increased by nearly 10%. Because of a boom in shipping in recent
years, especially in the dry bulk sector, there is also concern that older ships that
otherwise would have been sent to the scrap yard are still plying the seas and picking
up dry bulk cargo at ports like those along the lower Mississippi River, which is a11
load center for bulk cargoes.
According to one observer, many ships transiting U.S. harbors may simply be
“too big for their ditches.”12 In other words, they exceed the size that the shipping
channel was originally designed for. While ships are designed and built for a
particular route, over the life of a ship lasting from 20 to 25 years, markets change13
and ships end up calling other ports. Often, shipping channels are deepened rather
than widened, which some argue is an indication that economics (ship productivity)14
motivates dredging more than safety concerns. In other words, it is argued that
8 Maritime Administration, U.S. Water Transportation Statistical Snapshot, May 2007, p.
9 TEU = one 20-foot container, and is the standard unit of measure for container ship
capacity. A 40-foot container is the size most commonly used and is equal to 2 TEUs.
10 Maritime Administration, Vessel Calls at U.S. and World Ports, 2005, April 2006.
11 “Eye on Substandard Ships, Bulk Cargo Boom Brings Poorly Maintained Vessels into
U.S. Ports,” American Shipper, December 2007, p. 66.
12 “Channel Design and Vessel Maneuverability: Next Steps,” Marine Technology, vol. 40,
no. 2, April 2003, p. 93.
13 “Critical Needs for Ship Maneuverability: Lessons From the Houston Ship Channel Full-
Scale Maneuvering Trials,” Marine Technology, vol. 42, no. 1, January 2005, p. 11-20.
14 “Channel Design and Vessel Maneuverability: Next Steps,” Marine Technology, vol. 40,
efforts are made to accommodate ship displacement but not maneuverability. For
example, when two ships pass each other in opposite directions at a certain segment
in the Houston ship channel, they perform a maneuver called “Texas Chicken”
because the two ships pass so close to one another that they use the displacement
from the other vessel for the extra water they need to avoid grounding on the edges
of the channel. A certain concrete structure in the Port of Long Beach is referred to
as the “can opener” because of the risk it poses to ships transiting the harbor.15
Slow-speed Handling Characteristics. In addition to their sheer size, the
biggest ships can have some handling characteristics that pilots need to compensate16
for when maneuvering them in constricted waters. Deep-sea speed is given higher
design priority than shallow and restricted water maneuverability in the design of
cargo ships. For example, high powered engines designed to achieve faster deep-sea
cruising speeds can have a minimum bare steerage speed of about eight knots, which
is a relatively high speed in constricted waters. In contrast, deep-sea speed is less
important for cruise ships and they exhibit better slow-speed maneuverability. As
ships are getting bigger, the relative size of their rudders is getting smaller; not a
problem at sea but it does have an adverse impact on controllability at slower speeds
in narrow channels and in shallow water. Ships with a higher profile, like car
carriers, container ships (when fully stacked with containers on deck), and cruise
ships, are much more susceptible than other ships to the influences of cross winds
during slow speed maneuvering.
Maritime pilots are hired by ocean carriers to take command of the navigation
of their ships through harbors. They are navigational specialists for a particular
harbor. They board ships at the entrance to a harbor (with use of a pilot boat17 or in
rare cases a helicopter) and take position at the bridge alongside the master of the
vessel (or the officer in charge of the watch) and other bridge crew. Using his/her
experience and intimate knowledge of the navigation through a particular harbor, the
pilot will order instructions to the helmsmen to steer the ship through the harbor and
may direct tugboats, if they are assisting. While the pilot is in command of the
navigation of the ship through the harbor, the captain of the ship remains in
command of the ship and retains ultimate responsibility for its safe passage. Only
under emergency situations is a captain likely to countermand the pilot’s orders.
Often the pilot will board the ship with a computer laptop or other handheld device
no. 2, April 2003.
15 “Giants of the Sea; Massive New Container Ships Carry Huge Loads, but Docking Them
Is Problematic for Pilots,” Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2006, p. B1.
16 “Channel Design and Vessel Maneuverability: Next Steps,” Marine Technology, vol. 40,
no. 2, April 2003.
17 The boarding from pilot boat to ship and vice versa is done while the ship is moving, and,
especially in conditions of heavy seas, cold water, or sea spray ice, is extremely dangerous.
Most pilots know of another pilot that lost their life while boarding.
that contains his/her own set of charts for that harbor as well as ship tracking
technology. The laptop may also be plugged into the ship’s navigation console to
incorporate the ship’s navigation technology into the pilot’s navigation software.
When the pilot boards the ship, the captain is required to inform the pilot about the
navigation particulars of the ship, such as the draft, air draft (highest point on the
vessel), and maneuvering characteristics. A “pilot card” is used for this purpose.
Although English is the required language of international shipping, language can be
a barrier to expansive communication between the pilot and captain.
Pilotage Requirements Vary Among U.S. Ports. Most U.S. ports require
that a ship hire a pilot — that is, it is compulsory. In some ports, hiring a pilot may
be voluntary. In these cases, if a ship captain regularly calls at a port and is confident
that he/she can navigate the ship through the harbor, the captain may elect not to hire
a pilot, but the shipping line will still be charged either the full pilotage fee or some
portion thereof. For liability reasons, many shipping lines will take on a pilot even
if not compulsory. On the West and Gulf Coasts, the pilot usually navigates the ship
from the harbor entrance to the dock (and vice versa), but on the East Coast, some
ports require a “docking pilot” to takeover from the pilot when docking the ship.
Docking pilots are usually former tugboat captains and are not members of the local
pilot association. In Louisiana, in addition to hiring a harbor pilot, shipping lines
may also be required to hire one or two “river pilots” depending on how far up the
Mississippi River the ship is transiting (to call at the Port of Baton Rouge or South
Louisiana). Especially large ships may be required to hire two pilots, or a full pilot
and an assist pilot.
Pilot Training. A pilot may be a graduate of a maritime academy with sea
experience. If a pilot has little sea experience, he/she may begin with an
apprenticeship under the supervision of a senior pilot lasting several years.
Eventually an apprentice pilot will have to pass a written exam that includes, among
other things, drawing the chart for the harbor, in every detail, by memory. A new
pilot will begin solo piloting on smaller vessels and will typically have to have
piloted a minimum number of ships in each size range before advancing.
As explained below, there are pilots who hold state licenses and those that hold
federal licenses or endorsements. The requirements for obtaining a state license vary
from port to port, but states generally require that an applicant hold a federal pilot’s
license as a minimum requirement. Obtaining a state pilot license generally requires
more hands-on experience than obtaining a federal pilot license.
State Pilot Associations. A maritime pilot typically works as an
independent contractor in a pilot’s association at a given port. The association takes
care of administrative functions for the pilots such as dispatching pilots to vessels,
maintaining pilot boats, and billing and collecting pilotage fees. Pilots are assigned
to ships on a rotating basis and the shipping line has no choice in the selection of the
pilot. Pilot associations are regulated by a state board of commissioners, or in some18
cases, by city government. Typically, a pilot board is comprised of three to ten
18 At the Port of Los Angeles, pilots are city employees overseen by the port. At the Port
members who serve part-time. Representation on the board must consist of a specific
ratio of pilots, members of the broader maritime industry in the port area, and
members of the public not connected with the maritime industry. The pilot board is
responsible for ensuring the qualifications of the pilots, setting pilotage fees charged
to the vessel operators, and reviewing the performance of pilots. Pilotage fees are
based on the draft and/or tonnage of the vessel and, in some cases, the distance
piloted. Pilots do not work in a competitive environment and pilot associations are
effectively local or regional monopolies. The pilot association only selects enough
member pilots to service the traffic at hand. State and local pilot associations only
have jurisdiction over the pilotage of ships in the foreign trade — that is, ships
carrying international cargo.19
Federal Pilots. The federal government has jurisdiction over the pilotage of
ships in the domestic trade: for example, a tank vessel carrying oil from Alaska to20
California. Typically, a sea captain engaged in the domestic trade will carry a Coast
Guard pilot’s endorsement on his/her captain’s license and therefore will not need to
hire a pilot upon entrance to a harbor but rather has the authority to pilot the vessel
in that harbor. This type of federal pilot authorization is the most common. There
are also a few independent federal pilots that are not employed by a coastwise
shipping line, but offer their piloting service at the particular port for which they are
licensed. Like the state pilot license, the federal pilot license pertains to a specific
port, therefore, the ship captain must obtain a pilot license for each port that he/she
expects to call on a routine basis. Generally, all state and local pilots licensed to pilot
foreign trade vessels also hold a federal license to pilot ships in the domestic trade.
As mentioned above, most state and local pilot associations require a federal pilot’s
license as a minimum requirement for being allowed to work towards a state pilot’s
license. The federal government will grant a federal pilot’s license to anyone that
qualifies, unlike the states that limit the granting of licenses based on their perceived
need for pilot services.
Dual Oversight. Significantly, the Coast Guard cannot suspend or revoke the
license of a pilot for misconduct while he or she is piloting a foreign trade vessel.
The courts have ruled that the pilot in this instance is acting solely under the authority
of a state license.21 Conversely, a state cannot do the same to a pilot while piloting
a vessel in the domestic trade, because the courts have ruled that in this instance the
of Long Beach, one private company provides pilotage services in an exclusive contract with
19 Statutorily, ships engaged in the foreign trade are referred to as “registered” vessels.
20 Ships engaged in the domestic trade (a.k.a. “coastwise trade”) are statutorily referred to
as “enrolled” vessels.
21 Alex L. Parks, and Edward V. Cattell, J.R., The Law of Tug, Tow, and Pilotage, 3rd Ed.,
Cornell Maritime Press, Centreville, Maryland, p. 997. See, Soriano v. United States, 494th
F.2d 681, 1974 AMC 283 (9 Cir. 1974) and Dietz v. Siler, 414 F. Supp. 1105 (E.D. La
pilot is acting solely under the authority of his/her federal license.22 However, the
Coast Guard does have the authority (46 U.S.C. 2302) to levy a civil penalty of up
to $25,000 against a person who operates a vessel in a negligent manner and charge
a person operating a vessel in a grossly negligent manner with a class A
The dual regulatory structure of piloting dates back to the mid-1800s. As ports
in colonial America began to develop, the colonies instituted their own pilotage
requirements as pilotage was a long-established tradition in Europe. In 1789, the
First Congress allowed the states to continue to govern pilotage practices “until
further legislative provision shall be made by Congress.”23 It was not until the mid-
1800s after the introduction of steam vessels that Congress began to play a role in
pilotage. In 1871, Congress enacted a law that required steam powered ships in the
coastal trade to have federally licensed pilots and preventing the states from requiring
state pilots for these ships.24 A 1912 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed that
federal jurisdiction over pilotage pertains only to ships engaged in the domestic trade
while the pilotage of ships engaged in the foreign trade fell to state jurisdiction, until
Congress decided otherwise.25 This bifurcated regulatory structure continues today.
The bifurcated nature of pilot oversight is a product of legislative history and
questions have been raised why oversight is not purely based on safety
considerations. Whether a ship is carrying domestic or international cargo is not a
factor in safe harbor navigation. The NTSB questions how the Coast Guard can
adequately perform its safety mission without direct oversight over the pilotage of the
vast majority of vessel transits in U.S. harbors. Moreover, with the current trend of
substituting oil from Alaska (which accounts for most U.S. coastal shipping) with
imported oil, further diminution of U.S. coastal shipping seems probable.26 On the
other hand, one could argue that captains of coastwise trade vessels are deployed on
voyages of much shorter duration than international voyages, are likely to call at a
limited number of U.S. ports more frequently, and therefore can gain the expertise
and knowledge of navigation necessary for safe transit in those ports. In contrast, sea
captains on international voyages, it is argued, do not gain the same level of harbor
expertise and knowledge because of much longer voyages and potential assignment
to voyages with different port callings. It is also argued by state pilot associations
that because the geography and the nature of maritime traffic varies tremendously
among ports, it is best left to each individual port to decide the level of pilot expertise
and performance required to ensure safe harbor navigation.
22 See, Baggett v. Department of Professional Regulation, Board of Pilot Commissioners,
23 Section 4 of the Lighthouse Act of August 7, 1789 (1 Stat. 54). [Crowley, p. 173.]
24 Act of February 28, 1871, 16 Stat. 440.
25 Anderson v. Pacific Coast Steamship Company, 225 U.S. 187 (1912).
26 In the last half-decade, U.S. foreign waterborne trade increased by nearly 17% while
coastwise and Great Lakes shipping declined by 4%.
State Pilot Associations Are Regulated Monopolies. With a handful
of exceptions, most ports have just one pilot association servicing that port.
However, there is generally nothing in state laws prohibiting a competing pilot
association from forming. It was only during the sailing era that competition among
pilots in a harbor was the norm. Pilot associations defend their monopoly status as
being necessary to prevent commercial interests from trumping safety. They contend
that in a competitive environment, economic pressures from the shipping lines would
inevitably undermine their safety prerogative. Also, pilot associations argue that if
they granted licenses to all those who applied and met the requirements, pilots would
not obtain an adequate number of transits to maintain their expertise in a given
harbor. How an apprenticeship training program would function if senior pilots
knew that their trainees would soon be competing against them is also a concern.
State licensed pilots further contend that it is important that the pilot be an
independent contractor, not a member of the crew employed by the ship operator, as
is typically the case with federal pilots. It is argued that an independent contractor
status insulates the pilot from cost pressures that could otherwise cloud the pilot’s
The state pilot system has been criticized for being a relatively closed profession
and claims of nepotism have been directed at some pilot associations.27 A study by28
the Marine Board of the National Academies noted that “pilots generally have been
reluctant to address colleague performance because of social and business
relationships, potential loss of earning for affected individuals, and especially
concern that any form of oversight might expose them to liability for a colleague’s
performance.” The integrity and credibility of pilot oversight was highlighted by a
1986 ship and barge collision on the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The NTSB
found that the pilot of the ship may have caused or contributed to five of six
accidents in the previous five years, but the pilot commission and the pilot
performance review panel, both of whose membership was comprised entirely of
pilots, had not taken any disciplinary action against the pilot.29 Since that accident,
Louisiana has amended its piloting regulations to include non-pilots on pilot boards,
other states have generally done the same, and some states do not allow any pilots to
be on the board. However, criticism of the monopoly structure of the pilot system
in Louisiana continues30 and the Cosco Busan accident has raised this criticism
27 See for instance, “River Pilot Reform Adrift,” Times-Picayune, October 3, 2007, p. 99;
“River Pilots Say Craft Handed Down Through Generations,” USA Today, September 28,
p. 1; “Special Report: River Barons. How Pilots Exploit Their Monopoly on the
Mississippi,” Times-Picayune, November 4 and 5, 2001; “Harbor Pilot: Great Job, But Good
Luck Getting It,” Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1995, p. T-1.
28 Minding the Helm: Marine Navigation and Piloting, Marine Board of the National
Resource Council, National Academy Press, 1994, p. 120.
29 NTSB, Marine Accident Report: Collision Between the Hong Kong Flag Bulk Carrier
“Petersfield” and the U.S. Towboat “Bayou Boeuf” and Tow, New Orleans, Louisiana,
October 18, 1986, January 5, 1988.
30 “Editorial: When Pilots Police Themselves,” Times-Picayune, October 6, 2007, p. 6.
against the San Francisco Bar Pilots as well.31 The pilot of the Cosco Busan had
been involved in a ship grounding in the same harbor in February 2006.
Pilotage fees also motivate the debate regarding the monopoly structure of
pilotage. Ship operators are concerned with the level of pilotage fees they pay.
Likewise, port authorities and other maritime service providers in a port are
concerned that the level of pilotage fees may drive business away from their port.32
Thus, in addition to navigation safety, port economics continues to drive a debate
over pilot governance.
Vessel Traffic Services
To assist the pilot and crew with safe navigation, the Coast Guard has
established vessel traffic services (VTS) in many ports. From the VTS, Coast Guard
“watchstanders” can monitor and provide guidance to harbor traffic with the use of
electronic communication, radio, radar, differential global positioning system33
(DGPS), surveillance cameras, and binoculars. A VTS operates 24 hours a day,
seven days a week. VTSs vary depending on the geography and the nature and
volume of vessel traffic in a port area, but VTSs generally are staffed with both
uniformed and civilian Coast Guard watchstanders. Currently there are VTSs in
eleven U.S. ports staffed by 155 civilian and 130 active-duty personnel. The Coast
Guard estimates that about 43 active-duty watchstanders will transfer in and out of34
VTSs annually. VTSs may also be staffed by members of a “maritime exchange”
from which they have evolved. U.S. ports without a Coast Guard-led VTS have a
maritime exchange that provides “VTS-like” services, and are more accurately called
Vessel Traffic Information Services (VTIS). A maritime exchange may be jointly
operated or run by a pilot association and be staffed by pilots. VTSs and VTISs are
funded from some combination of user fees charged to vessel operators, financing
from port authorities, state governments, and the Coast Guard.
VTS Development. The original purpose of maritime exchanges was to alert
ship service providers in port (i.e., agents, pilots, tugs, stevedores, longshoremen
unions, terminals, U.S. Customs, and other vendors and government agencies) of a
ship’s pending arrival. Before the development of current technology, a lookout was
31 “Opinion: Ship Pilot, Board Deserve More Scrutiny for Spill,” Sacramento Bee,
December 11, 2007, n.p.
32 See for instance, “Shippers Bristle at River Pilots’ Fees, Louisiana’s Woes Felt Across
U.S., Experts Say,” Seattle Times, July 12, 2001, p. A-17; “Changing Course, Louisiana
Overhauled its Ship-pilotage Regulation After Reformers Made It an Economic-
Development Issue,” Journal of Commerce, July 5-11, 2004, p. 12-14; and “River Pilot
Group’s Rates Blasted; Attempt to Create Windfall Alleged,” Times-Picayune, November
33 DGPS is more accurate than civilian GPS.
34 “VTS Personnel and Training,” The Coast Guard Proceedings of the Marine Safety and
Security Council, Summer 2007, vol. 64, no. 2, p. 14.
posted with a telescope, signal flags, and flashing signal lights.35 While maritime
information exchange is still the central function of marine exchanges, in the 1960s
and 1970s they also began offering a VHF radio communication and radar system for
pilots and captains to avoid collisions and groundings. Participation was initially
voluntary and unregulated and there were no protocols. However, after a ship
collision in San Francisco Bay in 1971, Congress passed the Ports and Waterways
Safety Act of 1972 (P.L. 92-340), which directed the Coast Guard to establish VTS
systems at ports where the Coast Guard deemed necessary.36 In the 1970s, VTSs
were established in San Francisco, Puget Sound, New York, New Orleans, and
Houston-Galveston. VTSs were added in Morgan City, Port Arthur, Louisville,
Valdez, Los Angeles, and Sault St. Marie thereafter. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990,
passed in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, made participation in the VTS
mandatory where they existed.
Safety and Security. As a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack
and the heightened concern for port security, harbor traffic monitoring and ship
tracking has received a boost in federal attention and funding. The Maritime
Transportation Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-295) requires ships over 300 gross
registered tons (grt) to be equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS)
transponders, which electronically transmit ship information, location, speed, and
direction. AIS data can be transmitted ship-to-ship or between ships and shore-side
VTSs or maritime exchanges. For security reasons, the Coast Guard is planning to
extend shore-side AIS receivers and transmitters nationwide, but currently this
technology is fully operational at just several major U.S. ports.
AIS was introduced into the shipping industry as a safety measure prior to 9/11.
To some extent, it allows for the replacement of voice radio communications with
electronic communication, which is regarded as more efficient, less distracting to the
mariner, and a less error-inducing medium for data transmission. Some vessel
collisions have been caused, in part, because a pilot was communicating by radio
with more than one other vessel and mistook communication from one vessel for
another. It is highly desirable that VTS communications to the pilot or master be as
non-intrusive on the mariner as possible. For instance, in the Cosco Busan accident,
when the Coast Guard was asked why the VTS watchstander had not alerted the pilot
earlier or repeatedly, the Coast Guard replied that VTS personnel are trained “not to
distract the pilot with interruptions during any critical maneuver.”37
With the introduction of AIS, there was some speculation and debate that a ship
could determine its location without the need for navigation buoys and determine the
location of other ships without the need for a shore-side VTS. However, now that
ship tracking and monitoring has become a security objective, shore-side
communication and tracking facilities are viewed as a necessary component.
35 “Vessel Traffic Service Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor,” A Report to the VTS
International Symposium in Hong Kong, China, February 10-13, 2004, p. 3.
36 In 1972, Congress also passed the Vessel Bridge to Bridge Radiotelephone Act (P.L. 92-
63), requiring ships to be equipped with VHF radio telephones for communication among
37 “Coast Guard Admiral Grilled Over Spill,” Associated Press Online, November 20, 2007.
VTSs and JHOCs. The Coast Guard has also created Joint Harbor
Operational Centers (JHOCs) to improve port security and safety. JHOCs were
authorized in the SAFE Port Act (P.L. 109-347, section 108). They are intended to
be “fusion centers” for federal law enforcement (namely the Coast Guard, Navy, and
Customs and Border Protection) and local law enforcement (port authority police or
state or city police assigned to a port area) to share intelligence and equipment (e.g.,
patrol boats) and coordinate response when the need arises. The Coast Guard is
planning to co-locate JHOCs and VTSs. JHOCs are currently operational at Norfolk,
San Diego, Charleston, and Seattle; and the Coast Guard plans to create a JHOC at
each major port area.
Issues for Congress
Given the trend towards larger ships, an expected increase in port traffic, and
a probable lag in the expansion of shipping channels and terminal facilities due to
fiscal and environmental constraints, Congress may consider several issues related
to the safety of harbor navigation.
Oversight of Pilot Performance
In response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress required that all pilots
commanding ships in Prince William Sound be operating under the authority of their
Alaska pilot license in addition to their federal license.38 This created a system of
dual accountability — to the State of Alaska and to the U.S. Coast Guard. The
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended that all state pilots
be required to operate under Coast Guard authority to address a “lack of adequate,
consistent accountability of state pilots.”39 Under this requirement, a state-licensed
pilot would not be allowed to pilot either a foreign trade vessel or a domestic trade
vessel if his/her federal license was revoked. The NTSB contends that the
consequences of a major marine accident, particularly in terms of environmental
damage, cannot be considered merely local in effect, and therefore, federal oversight
of pilot performance is appropriate. The NTSB has also stated that “the near total
immunity from Federal control enjoyed by state pilots prevents the Coast Guard from40
carrying out its congressional mandate to ensure safety on all Federal waterways.”
However, past Congresses have not favored granting the Coast Guard additional
legislative authority over state-licensed pilots. The Coast Guard’s response to a 198841
NTSB recommendation regarding this matter states as follows: “The Coast Guard
38 Section 4116(a)(2) of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-380).
39 NTSB Safety Recommendation addressed to Admiral J. William Kime, Commandant,
U.S. Coast Guard, October 21, 1991, p. 6.
40 NTSB, Marine Accident Report, Collision Between the Hong Kong Flag Bulk Carrier
Petersfield and the U.S. Towboat Bayou Boeuf and Tow New Orleans, Louisiana, October
41 Coast Guard reply dated July 13, 1988, excerpt quoted in NTSB Safety Recommendation
concurs with the intent of this recommendation, and recognizes the need for
establishing better disciplinary control over some State-licensed pilots. However,
past Coast Guard efforts to obtain the recommended authority have not been
successful in Congress.”
The Coast Guard requested this authority as a provision in S. 682, which was
enacted as the Port and Tanker Safety Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-474), but the provision
was not included in final passage of the bill. At that time, the American Pilots
Association argued against the provision on the grounds that the Coast Guard was not
as knowledgeable and experienced as local pilots with the local conditions in each
harbor, due in part to the continual rotation of Coast Guard staff every two to three
years. Therefore, the association argued the local pilots were in the best position to
properly judge the performance of their peers.42 Shipping lines, however, argued in
favor of the provision, stating that43 “when there is misconduct, or there is slippage
in the quality, the evaluation of that should be at the Federal level so that we have
uniform excellency all over the country, and it does not depend on the particular
political climate of the State to determine whether you are going to have good pilots
or bad pilots.”
The desire for an independent assessment of pilot performance was also voiced
by the Marine Board of the National Academies, noting that “measures to confirm
maintenance of pilot knowledge and skills are informal; systematic measures are not
used to detect and correct degraded capabilities before such weaknesses become
factors in marine accidents” and that “the effectiveness of corrective action at the
state level by pilot associations and pilot boards has been uneven.”44 The Marine
Board did not call for the Coast Guard to have disciplinary authority over state pilots,
but called for the creation of a national commission on pilotage, chartered by
Congress, that would set national baseline standards for pilot training and
qualifications and would accredit each port’s piloting system.45
Should VTSs Operate More Like ATCs?
The Coast Guard notes emphatically that VTS is an advisory service, not a
traffic control center. The Coast Guard describes VTSs as providing a range of four
addressed to Admiral J. William Kime, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, October 21, 1991,
42 Testimony of Captain Ernest A. Clothier, President of American Pilots Association, House
Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and
Navigation, September 13-15, 1977, pp. 410 and 413.
43 Testimony of James J. Reynolds, President, American Institute of Merchant Shipping,
House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and
Navigation, September 13-15, 1977, p. 313.
44 Minding the Helm: Marine Navigation and Piloting, Marine Board of the National
Resource Council, National Academy Press, 1994, p. 122.
45 Minding the Helm: Marine Navigation and Piloting, Marine Board of the National
Resource Council, National Academy Press, 1994, pp. 319-327.
basic services that represent an increasing continuum of involvement: 1) monitoring
of harbor traffic, 2) providing information to mariners so that they can navigate more
safely or efficiently, 3) advising or recommending a course of action to a vessel
(usually infrequently), and (4) in rare circumstances, directing a vessel to move to a
certain location or hold at anchor or at the dock until safe to proceed, but without
giving direct maneuvering orders.46 While VTSs are often compared to an air traffic
control tower, the major difference is that VTSs do not give specific “conning”
orders to the pilots, such as heading and speed.47 However, the level of VTS
involvement in harbor navigation varies depending on the circumstances of the
harbor. For instance, in busy harbors or in harbors with a drawbridge, the VTS may
enforce a harbor traffic management plan that dictates one-way traffic or order of
procession through a waterway.48 In these cases, the VTS could be described as
traffic management, as opposed to positive traffic control.
Whether VTSs could operate more like an ATC, which navigation experts refer
to as “shore-based pilotage” or “remote pilotage,” is a topic of speculation and
debate. Pilots and other navigation experts assert that there is no way of replacing
the eyes of an experienced, on-board mariner.49 Pilots describe turning a ship like to
turning a car on ice — it slides through the turn, and pilotage is described as a
process of continually watching how the ship responds to a maneuver, which will
dictate the pilot’s next command. How a ship responds is affected by the
characteristics of the ship, weather, and water conditions.50 A pilot needs to be aware
of multiple cues: wind, tide and river currents, (in the case of estuaries); the salt
water versus fresh water mix that affects buoyancy. These are all factors that only
an on-board mariner is in position to discern. Pilots stress that visual cues and
references are still of paramount importance in their trade and doubt whether any
kind of advanced VTS system could replace the process of continual evaluation by
an on-board pilot.
If conning a ship is beyond the present capability of a VTS, Congress might still
move to assess whether the VTS should exert more control over harbor traffic in bad
weather conditions. The Coast Guard already has authority to restrict vessel
movements during hazardous weather conditions, but does not regularly do so. One
reason may be that the Coast Guard lacks standards to judge the maneuvering
capabilities of vessels in constricted waters (see below).
46 “U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Services,” Coast Guard Proceedings of the Marine
Safety and Security Council, vol. 64, no. 2, summer 2007, pp. 10-13.
47 A closer parallel in aviation may be Flight Service Stations (FSS) which provide weather
briefings and flight planning services largely to general aviation pilots.
48 “U.S. Coast Guard Vessel Traffic Services,” Coast Guard Proceedings of the Marine
Safety and Security Council, vol. 64, no. 2, summer 2007, p. 11.
49 See for instance, Mike Hadley, “Issues in Remote Pilotage,” Journal of Navigation, vol.
52, no. 1, January 1999, pp. 1-10; and Patrick van Erve, Norman Bonnor, “Can The
Shipping-Aviation Analogy Be Used As An Argument To Decrease The Need For Maritime
Pilotage?” Journal of Navigation, vol. 59, no. 2, May 2006, pp. 359-363.
50 “Special Report: Marine Pilots,” Journal of Commerce, May 26, 1999, p. 11A.
Ship Design Standards. Lawmakers might consider whether more scientific
information and analysis about ship maneuverability in harbor waters is needed.51
While the IMO in 2002 developed maneuverability standards for ships in deep,
unrestricted water at sea speed, no analogous performance standards for ships in
shallow, constricted water at slow speed have been established. Because there is no
standard, the Coast Guard cannot establish harbor restrictions for certain ships that
may be less controllable during hazardous weather conditions. These standards
would arguably also help pilots better predict the maneuvering capabilities of vessels
and aid in the development of pilot training simulators and manned physical models
to more accurately reflect real-life conditions.52
Poor-Handling Vessels. Given the particular handling characteristics of
some vessels, policymakers might elect to consider whether there should be a more
systematic method for pilots to share their experiences with vessels requiring special
attention, both within their harbor and among pilots from other harbors where the
ship regularly calls. This was a recommendation of the U.S. Coast Guard following
an investigation into a 1997 ship collision in the Chesapeake Bay.53
VTS Expansion. Although the cost effectiveness of VTSs can be disputed
on a port by port basis, Congress may act to assess the need for VTSs in other U.S.
ports, particularly those that have experienced large traffic growth. For instance, at54
the Port of Savannah, vessel calls have increased by 34% in the last half-decade and
in the last decade, the port jumped from 11th to 4th largest in the country in terms of55
TEU throughput. The port has also recently become a major gateway for LNG
For security reasons, the Coast Guard is actively pursuing its ability to track
ships further from shore using AIS technology. Congress may examine whether there
are any safety benefits to this expansion, such as avoiding ship collisions at the
approaches to harbors.
51 “Channel Design and Vessel Maneuverability: Next Steps,” Marine Technology, vol. 40,
no. 2, April 2003.
52 “Critical Needs for Ship Maneuverability: Lessons From the Houston Ship Channel Full-
Scale Maneuvering Trials,” Marine Technology, vol. 42, no. 1, January 2005, p. 11-20.
53 U.S. Coast Guard, “Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Collision
Between the M/V Saudi Makkah and the M/V Turtle Queen on March 12, 1997 in the
Chesapeake Bay” September 24, 1997.
54 Georgia Ports Authority, [http://www.gaports.com].
55 Maritime Administration, U.S. Waterborne Foreign Container Trade by U.S. Custom
56 Maritime Administration, U.S. Water Transportation Statistical Snapshot, May 2007, pp.
Requiring a Passage Plan
The NTSB has consistently recommended that the pilot and master of the vessel
first establish a detailed passage plan of how the transit of the vessel is going to
proceed through the harbor. The pilot would inform the master of his intended
course, noting “the essential features and relevant checkpoints of maneuvers to be
undertaken:” such as where he specifically intends to pass under a bridge, maneuver
around a shallow area, pass by a channel buoy; and contingency plans for unexpected
incidents.57 Because the master and the bridge crew essentially provide another set
of eyes, the NTSB contends that a passage plan would allow the ship’s crew to be a
more effective check on the ship’s position and movement, though some accident
investigations reveal a reluctance on the part of the bridge crew to “speak up” or
“challenge” the pilot and some masters may consider the pilot’s arrival as a chance
to get some rest. A passage plan could also foster teamwork, or more specifically,
“Bridge Team Management” (BTM, a.k.a. Bridge Resource Management, BRM), a
concept adopted from the airline industry that, among other things, emphasizes good
communication among those manning the bridge. A common thread that runs
through many marine accident reports is a lack of communication between the pilot
and bridge crew. BTM has become part of the required training curriculum for pilots
and bridge crews.
The Coast Guard has not supported the NTSB’s recommendation, arguing that
it would “impinge on the traditional master/pilot relationship”58 and that “the pilot
cannot be expected to establish a ‘game plan’ with the master when so many aspects
of a passage cannot be predetermined. The Coast Guard believes there are sufficient
Federal regulations59 and customary practices which apply in master/pilot
relationships.”60 A Canadian survey of mariners found that while 80% of the pilots
responding claimed that they “always” or “often” inform the master of a passage
plan, less than half of the masters said that they do.61 On the other hand, while 96%
of officers of the watch and 95% of masters responded that the officers of the watch
always or often monitor the ship’s movement, only about 50% of pilots responded
that officers of the watch always or often monitor the ship’s movement.62 The report
57 NTSB, Marine Accident Brief, Grounding of New Delhi Express in Kill Van Kull
waterway, New York Harbor, April 15, 2006, NTSB/MAB-07/02, p. 15-16.
58 NTSB, Marine Accident Brief, Grounding of New Delhi Express in Kill Van Kull
waterway, New York Harbor, April 15, 2006, NTSB/MAB-07/02, p. 15.
59 Current regulations, codified at 33 CFR 164.11(k), require that “If a pilot other than a
member of the vessel’s crew is employed, the pilot is informed of the draft, maneuvering
characteristics, and peculiarities of the vessel and of any abnormal circumstances on the
vessel that may affect its safe navigation.”
60 NTSB Safety Recommendation addressed to Admiral J. William Kime, Commandant,
U.S. Coast Guard, October 21, 1991, p. 6.
61 Transportation Safety Board of Canada, A Safety Study of the Operational Relationship
Between Ship Masters/Watchkeeping Officers and Marine Pilots, Report No. SM9501, n.d.,
62 Transportation Safety Board of Canada, A Safety Study of the Operational Relationship
noted that foreign masters who are not familiar with local navigation conditions rely
largely on the pilots and thus the verification of a pilot’s passage plan becomes only
a formality but, at the same time, Canadian masters who are well aware of the local
conditions may also pay little attention to the pilot’s passage plan. In 2003, the
International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations body that establishes
safety standards for international shipping, recommended that the information
exchanged between the pilot and master include, among other things, “general
agreement on plans and procedures, including contingency plans, for the anticipated
passage.”63 Thus, while a passage plan maybe considered good practice, an
unresolved issue is whether it has any consistent value and whether it should become
a regulatory requirement.
Language Barriers. Given the global nature of the shipping business,
language is always an issue in international shipping operations. English is the
standard language of shipping and the IMO has developed a navigational code of
basic commands in English.64 However, the pilot, captain, crew, and VTS can
communicate in whatever language everyone is most familiar with, if different from
English. On foreign-flagged ships, the captain may be the only crew member that
understands English, or at least the basic IMO phraseology, and therefore may need
to translate the pilot’s commands to the helmsman. The largest single source of ship
crews, both officers and unlicensed seamen, is the Philippines, in large part because
of their English language skills.65 More recently, China, India, the Ukraine, and
Russia have also become major suppliers of seamen. In light of the increasing
diversity of seamen, Congress may wish to examine whether language barriers are
an increasing problem in ship navigation and whether there is a need for additional
enforcement of English language proficiency among ship crews calling U.S. ports.
Congress may opt to examine how the aviation sector has addressed this problem.
Near-Miss Data. Congress might consider whether to establish a database of
near misses like that in the aviation sector. The Coast Guard and the Maritime
Administration looked into establishing a data base of near misses in the marine
environment in 1997, but the project was disbanded in part because of legal and
practical concerns about mariner confidentiality.66
Between Ship Masters/Watchkeeping Officers and Marine Pilots, Report No. SM9501, n.d.
63 IMO Pilotage Resolution 960 (Resolution A.960 , adopted December 5, 2003), section
64 The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping
for Seafarers (STCW), 1978.
65 Filipinos accounted for 24% of officers and 46% of unlicensed crew for ships calling at
a sample of U.S. ports in 2004. See Maritime Administration, “Foreign-Flag Crewing
Practices: A Review of Crewing Practices in U.S.-Foreign Ocean Cargo Shipping,”
66 The Marine Transportation System and the Federal Role: Measuring Performance,
Coast Guard Staffing Practices. An ongoing concern expressed by some
Members of Congress and some in the maritime industry is a lack of technical
expertise by Coast Guard safety personnel due to its practice of continually rotating
staff by subject area and location.67 This issue has been raised regarding limitations
in the capabilities of VTSs to exert more control over vessel movement and the
agency’s capability to judge pilot performance. Some have called for removing some
safety functions from the Coast Guard to a civilian agency, at which professional
continuity could be better fostered. The Coast Guard has responded to this criticism
with a plan, among other things, to increase civilian positions in the marine safety
program, strengthen marine safety career paths, and increase hiring from maritime68
academies. The Coast Guard further argues that there are synergies between its
maritime safety and security missions. Therefore, the Coast Guard maintains that
these missions should be carried out by the same agency.
Legislative Activity in the 110th Congress
In the aftermath of the Cosco Busan accident, Senators Boxer and Feinstein
introduced legislation that would give authority to the VTS to direct a vessel’s speed
and direction in an emergency and require pilots to use laptop navigational
equipment under certain circumstances (S. 2430). The Coast Guard Authorization
Act of 2007 (H.R. 2830) would require the Coast Guard to conduct a vessel safety
risk assessment for Cook Inlet and the Aleution Islands of Alaska. The Senate
version (S. 1892), in addition to this provision, would require the Coast Guard to
study and report on human errors that have caused oil spills and near-misses in the
last ten years as well as any data deficiencies impeding such a study, and includes
several provisions regarding the secure marine transport of especially hazardous
cargo. The Hydrographic Services Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R.
3352/S. 1582) authorizes funding to NOAA through FY2012 for its coastal surveying
and nautical chart functions. The Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act (H.R.
2400, which passed the House) and the Ocean and Coastal Exploration and NOAA
Act (S. 39, reported by the Senate Commerce Committee) provides funds for
updating and integrating survey information for U.S. coastal regions.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY2008 (P.L. 110-161) requires the
DHS Inspector General to investigate the role of the San Francisco VTS in the Cosco
Busan accident and the Coast Guard’s response to the spill and issue a report by April
Targeting Improvement, Special Report 279, Transportation Research Board, 2004, pp. 124-
67 House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard
and Maritime Transportation, Hearing on Challenges Facing The Coast Guard’s Marine
Safety Program, August 2, 2007.
68 U.S. Coast Guard, “Enhancing the Coast Guard Marine Safety Program,” September 25,