Protecting the marine environment is central to the mission of Puget Sound Pilots. Crew fatigue, mechanical problems, or navigational errors can lead to accidents that spill thousands of gallons of pollutants into the water.

When a pilot boards a ship, they question the Captain about the condition of the ship. Before the vessel can sail, the Captain must certify that their ship’s propulsion and navigational equipment are in good working order and comply with all U.S. and international safety standards.

If the pilot finds a problem that could compromise safety or the environment, the pilot will take the necessary action.

This could be anything from notifying the Coast Guard to delaying departure or docking until repairs are made. Pilots are licensed solely by the State of Washington and are required by law to be onboard all foreign ships sailing east of Port Angeles. Because of this, they are independent and charged with making safety-related decisions without regard for the economic consequences to the shipping company.

  • A Puget Sound Pilot who boarded a cargo ship discovered that the vessel’s gyro compass was inoperative. The Captain wanted to proceed, but the pilot considered the situation unsafe, overruled the Captain and ordered the crew to anchor the vessel until the compass was repaired.
  • A PSP pilot boarded a Bulgarian cargo ship in Seattle and noticed a sheen of oil around the ship. When the Captain insisted that it wasn’t from his vessel and resisted notifying the Coast Guard, the pilot contacted the Coast Guard directly. The vessel was detained until the spill could be investigated.
  • A Puget Sound pilot boarded a 66,000 ton container ship at 1:45 a.m. in Seattle in preparation for a 3:00 a.m. departure. Upon meeting with the ship’s Captain, the pilot determined that the Captain, the Chief Mate and the Chief Engineer had been drinking. The pilot immediately notified the appropriate authorities and the Coast Guard ordered the ship not to sail. According to the Coast Guard, four hours after the pilot came aboard, tests showed that the blood alcohol level of the Captain and the Chief Mate was twice the legal limit.

What happens when a pilot is not aboard?

  • In December 2004, an Asia-bound cargo ship experienced engine problems during a storm off Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The ship was outside the area in which pilots are required, so no pilot was on board. Rather than call the Coast Guard or take the ship into nearby Dutch Harbor for repairs, the Captain shut down his engine and ordered the ship’s crew to repair the problem. When the engine failed to restart, the captain failed to properly notify the Coast Guard or hire a rescue tug. The storm drove the ship onto the rocks where it broke apart, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel and fuel oil into the Bering Sea.
  • During the rescue attempt, a Coast Guard helicopter that had retrieved seven stranded crewmen was pulled into the sea when it was swamped by a rogue wave. The helicopter crew and one member of the ship’s crew were saved but six other members of the ship’s crew died.
pilots on the sound

This accident would not have happened if a pilot had been onboard. A pilot would have immediately notified the Coast Guard and called for assistance, regardless of the cost. The ship would have been taken to sheltered waters for repairs and would not have been forced aground.

“Thank you for your work, for your courage out there, and for your effectiveness.” Hear that and more from Jay Manning as he addresses pilots at last month’s the West Coast Pilot Conference. Jay is the President of the Washington Environmental Council, former Chief of Staff to Governor Gregoire, and former Director of the Washington Department of Ecology.