My Dad was a Pilot on the Great Lakes and I am one too.  But you might be asking;  What does a Great Lakes Pilot do?  Well, I’m going to tell you.  And I should know, I’ve been one for 19 years. It’s a good question though, cause I don’t think many people outside our industry have thought much about it.

First Class Pilot of Great Lakes and Connecting Waterways

Many years ago, before a candidate could “write” the Pilotage Exams for a Pilot’s license on the Great Lakes, s/he had to have qualifying seatime.  I’m not so sure the Coast Guard requires much of that now.  You see, there are several “parts” to the exam and the Coast Guard has seemed to gravitate towards developing a sort of “generic” exam resembling an Ocean’s Mates License.  However a “Mate” is NOT a “Pilot”…  not by a LONG shot.  Even though an Ocean Mate is a good navigator – s/he isn’t a Pilot.  To be approved by the United States Coast Guard to “write” the Great Lakes Pilotage exams, the Candidate first needs to prove s/he has “sailed” on the Great Lakes.

  • S/he must hold a Mate’s license that has NO “tonnage” (size of vessel), limitations and the “scope” of the license must be Great Lakes or Oceans.
  • S/he must prove she has been on the Bridge, (Pilothouse), during 12 round-trips of the St. Mary’s River, Detroit River and St. Clair River.
  • S/he must prove she has “made” 5 trips on each of the Great Lakes she wishes to “write” Pilotage for.
  • Unless s/he has graduated from an approved Maritime Training Academy, (where s/he has already earned an Able Seaman’s endorsement)…  S/he will need at least 12 months seatime as an Ordinary Seaman and have written the exam for the Able Seaman’s endorsement.
  • Unless s/he has graduated from an approved Maritime Training Academy, (I think), s/he will also need to prove 12 more months seatime as an Able Seaman, preferably as a Great Lakes Wheelsman.
  • Qualifying Seatime, etc. is usually at the discretion of whichever US Coast Guard Regional Exam Center s/he is applying for the license at.

The above bulleted points are similar to what is actually required.  Obviously, requirements change and I am not familiar with what exactly is required at this point in time.  But the above is close, I’m certain. Suffice it to say;  Although a Licensed Mate of Any Gross Tons certainly understands navigation…  A “Mate” is NOT a Pilot.  But, on Great Lakes Bulk Freighters we are “called” Mates.  Somehow many people have confused this issue.  I’m going to try to explain this dilemma.  You see, even a Great Lakes Mate is not necessarily a Great Lakes Pilot.

But Great Lakes Pilots Are Called Mates

This is where the “dilemma” about the job “description” of a Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighter “Mate” begins.  You see, a Great Lakes Pilot is first a Coast Guard licensed Deck Officer, generally called “Mate”.  Because of the “Watch” system which I’ve described earlier,  there is always a Mate on watch.  There is a “Mate” on watch whether the ship is at a dock loading or unloading or underway transiting one of the Lakes or Rivers of the Great Lakes.

The ship has got to have a Mate on watch at all times and that Mate has to be a Pilot when the ship is underway.  But a “Mate” and a “Pilot” are two separate licenses….  When you “write” for a Great Lakes Pilot’s license you first must hold a Great Lakes or Ocean“Mates” license.  And it has to be an Unlimited Tonnage license. And though a Mate on most of the Great Lakes Freighters on the USA side is ALSO a Pilot – they are called Mates.

The First Mate works from 4 to 8 in the mornings and evenings.  The Second Mate works from Midnight till 4 in the morning, then from noon till 4 in the afternoon.  The Third Mate works the 8 to 12 watch mornings and nights.  But on “most” Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighters, such as operated by American Steamship Company, Interlake Steamship Company, Key Lakes, and some others, the “Mates” are Pilots also.  But the Canadians have a different system with which I’m not too familiar.

U.S. Flagged Great Lakes Freighter Captains Are Pilots Too

All Great Lakes Mates aren’t necessarily Pilots and all Great Lakes Captains aren’t always Pilots.  But, on the U.S.A. side;  The big “old” Companies that I’ve mentioned above employ Pilots to fill ALL the Mate’s positions and the Captains are Pilots too.  So, at all times while the Great Lakes Freighter is “underway”, there is a Great Lakes First Class Pilot on the Bridge, (most of us call it the Pilothouse).  However,  all pilots have varying degrees of proficiency depending on, (usually), how much experience they have.  One of the Captain’s most important jobs is to ascertain the degree of proficiency of each of his or her Mates/Pilots.

The Captain is the “brains” of the operation.  A “good” Captain, (in my humble opinion), is always “thinking ahead”.  While s/he might, (a good Captain, in my opinion does), take heed of what her Mates “think”, the Captain makes the final decisions.  The Captain’s position is one of great responsibility.  Transporting millions of tons of bulk freight each year is big business but even more than that….  S/He is responsible for the safety and security of her ship and crew.  While s/he is sleeping or otherwise “not around”, her Mates are the people who assume her responsibilities.  All Great Lakes Freighter Captains were once Mates and all Great Lakes U.S. Flagged Freighter Mates  are Pilots.

So, a Great Lakes Freighter sails with 4 Great Lakes First Class Pilots, usually, although during times when there is a shortage of Pilots the Coast Guard will allow Ocean Mates and Great Lakes Mates that do NOT have Pilot’s licenses to navigate in “open” waters only.  This is not an ideal situation and is only done when there are not enough Great Lakes Pilots available to fill the Mate’s positions.

Because of the proximity of Shoals, reefs, and other Vessel traffic on the Great Lakes, and because of connecting Rivers, (as mentioned above), navigation on the Great Lakes is much different than navigation on the open Oceans.  Great Lakes Pilots have knowledge and experience with the intricacies associated with navigation on the Great Lakes.

The Job Description Of A First Class Pilot Of The Great Lakes

Canadian Coast Guard At Work
Canadian Coast Guard Breaking Ice

The responsibilities of a Mate/Pilot on a Great Lakes Bulk Freighter are many and diverse.  Her responsibilities typically depend on whether s/he is signed on the Vessel as First, Second or Third Mate. All of them navigate while the ship is underway.  But each has different responsibilities in regards to “ship’s business”.  You see, the Pilothouse is a floating office. Obviously, the Pilothouse is for navigation but LOTS of other business is taken care of there as well.

On an American Steamship Company vessel the responsibilities of the Mates are broken down something like this; (I think the other Companies do things very similarly)…

The Third Mate is responsible for all “logs”.  S/he is responsible for the Official Log Book and cargo logs and other logs pertaining to quite a few different things.  Although we all enter information “into” all the different “log books” – it generally is the Third Mate’s job to make sure the Logs are finished properly.  Then the Third Mate will usually help the Second Mate in keeping the chart corrections and Light List corrections up to date.

The Second Mate is the “PaperMate”.  S/he generally takes care of all paperwork pertaining to the ship’s personnel.  You wouldn’t think that there would be much of that type of paperwork on a ship.  But there is a lot of it. There are 22 crewmembers aboard a Great Lakes Freighter owned or operated by American Steamship Company.  Each one of these crewmembers fill out a myriad of forms when they “ship out” aboard our vessels.  The 2nd Mate is responsible for making sure this is all done correctly and sent or filed to wherever it needs to be.  Because the 2nd Mate is usually a proficient typist s/he will also find herself doing other jobs that come up too.  If the ship leaves the USA and goes into a Canadian Port the 2nd Mate is responsible for the paperwork involving “Customs” also.

The First Mate, God bless her or him; is the one who REALLY gets the brunt of responsibilities.  S/he is responsible for calculating safe loading procedures for the ship.  When thousands of tons of bulk freight is loaded into a ship – it has to be done safely and precisely or the ship’s structure, the very steel itself may be stressed and weakened.   It is the First Mate’s responsibility to make sure the loading “plan” is a safe and sound one.  The First Mate is constantly thinking of the stress loading or unloading may be placing on the structure of the ship.  It is a grave responsibility. The “seaworthiness” of a ship is directly attributed to the way it is loaded!

The First Mate is also responsible for the Life-saving apparatus on board the ship.  S/he must inspect and maintain the appliances of all sorts of life-saving gear.  From fire-extinguishers to inflatable life-rafts, personal flotation devices and all sorts of other stuff.  S/he works many extra hours a week making sure all this “stuff” is in good working order. But her job doesn’t end there…

The First Mate is also responsible for ordering equipment, parts, paint, tools and even stuff like toilet paper and cleaning solutions!  Her/His job NEVER ends.  On top of ALL of that, the First Mate is responsible for directing the work of the Bosun and his “gang” of seaman.  In my humble opinion; The First Mate’s job is a thankless one and anytime I can help her I am glad to assist.  I actually feel sorry much of the time for the First Mate.  I hate to even say that, but it’s the truth.  I know, I have been a First Mate often and have declined the job in recent years because it’s more work than I want to do!

When loading or unloading the Second and Third Mates follow the First Mates plan which s/he usually draws out in the “load book”.  While loading or unloading the Mate on watch is also responsible for the safe and efficient operation of all deck machinery and s/he must supervise the work of the deck crew involved in the dockside operations. Nowhere that I know of is a First Class Pilot required to do what a Great Lakes First Class Pilot’s job description entails. But like I said – shipping on the Great Lakes is “different”.

So What About Piloting A Great Lakes Ship?

Now, after all the ship’s “business”, the ship still needs to be navigated to the ports it will load and unload at.  This is where the Captain shines.  The Captain is in charge of everything to do with the navigation and safe maneuvering of the ship.  In all confined waters the Great Lakes Bulk Freighter Captain is generally awake and available if s/he is needed.  Most of the time you will find him/her sitting in her “chair”, (I call it her “high-chair” 🙂 ) in the Pilothouse overseeing our transit through “confined” waters.

But if s/he can’t trust the First, Second or Third Mate/s that are supposed to be Pilots, s/he would never be able to even sleep.  So one of her FIRST jobs is to figure out who knows what.  S/He’ll usually do that by seeing how her Mates navigate in confined waters such as Rivers and shoal areas. Their performance in these areas will show the Captain how much they know in regards to the job of Piloting a ship. Then the Captain will know when s/he is able to sleep and when s/he should be awake depending on WHO is on “watch”.  Usually the First Mate has the most experience.  Much of the time a Captain won’t sleep, (even in open waters), until midnight.  This allows her to be available should the Third Mate, who usually has the least amount of experience, needs her.

As you can see, having a Great Lakes Pilot’s license doesn’t necessarily mean that the “pilot” knows enough to pilot the ship in all circumstances.  But a person with common sense, who is familiar enough with our industry to hold that license will understand her limitations and will know when s/he should call the Captain.  More than anything;  a Mate/Pilot on the Great Lakes is the Captain’s “eyes” and “ears” when s/he is not around.  It is tremendous folly to allow the ship to continue into a compromising situation without calling for the help of the Captain.  All Mates anywhere and everywhere should NEVER be afraid to “call” the Captain when they feel there is a need to.  I make it a point to call the Captain whenever I feel the LEAST bit “nervous” about a navigation situation.  It is the Captain’s RIGHT to know when her ship may be encountering trouble.  And s/he most certainly should be made aware of the situation long before the situation gets out of hand!

Now I’ve Got To Go To Bed To Rest Up For My Next Watch

I hope I’ve helped you to understand at least some of what a Great Lakes Pilot does.  As I write about my job I realize I know more about this occupation than I thought I did.  There are things that we do that are second “nature” for us because we’ve been doing it for so long.  I have spent almost all of my adult life on a ship of one kind or another.  You could probably tell me things about your work that I would know nothing about and be very interested in.  I am going to put a “contact me” form on my Blog so that people can tell me what they think.  I promise I will do that soon. But right now I REALLY am going to go to bed. See Ya later!


    8 replies to "What Is A Great Lakes Pilot?"

    • Ruth Wright

      I just read your blog and although I was married to a sailor I did not know all the info that I just read about Because of your blog, I have learned something today. Thank you for letting us learn about what is going on with our sailors and understand what they do aboard a ship when they are gone for long period of times. I am looking forward to your next one. Again Doug, Thank you.

    • Joy

      Very interesting. Now when I watch the freighters pass by the river cottage I will know a bit more about them. Thanks, Joy

    • Doug LaLonde

      Thanks for the encouragement Joy and Ruth. I really appreciate that you enjoy reading my Posts. I really didn’t think so many people would read what I write. Hope you keep coming back!

    • Linda

      I love you!

    • Beverly La Londe

      Excellent description of a Mate/Pilot, Doug! I know because I was married to one for 50 years. 🙂 Very interesting! Keep it coming! Bev

      • Doug LaLonde

        I will try to keep the Posts coming. I’ve been having a little trouble getting a chance to get online lately though. Keep coming back. I knew your husband well – He was my Dad as I’m sure you are well aware 🙂

    • Ted

      Great post man! Really enjoyed reading it.

    • James

      How do you prepare (study) to “write” for the pilotage exam?
      Thanks.

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