Mention the term “harbour pilot” or “maritime pilot”, and many people would picture a man climbing a ladder to board a vessel at sea. Surely, there is more to a pilot’s life than going up and coming down a ship’s ladder.

I trust that the following works of art with my annotations will paint a somewhat more rounded picture of what it means to be a pilot. Although these depict pilots during the 19th century, maritime pilotage has not changed much. The road to becoming a pilot is still long and difficult, and the work still entails the same risks faced by the pilots of yore.

The Pilot Exam, 1846
Etching by Wilhelm Oelschig (German, 1814–after 1862). After Rudolph Jordan (German, 1810–1887)
Photo credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art

To be appointed as a harbour pilot in the old days meant joining an elite group. Candidates for the position were carefully screened on the basis of their knowledge, sea experience and personality traits.

A pilot, late 19th century to mid 20th century
Oil painting by John Everett (English, 1876–1949)
Photo credit: Royal Museums Greenwich via Wikimedia Commons

Then as now, pilots had to do what needed to be done even in rough sea and foul weather. The steam pilot boat racing towards a ship in John Everett’s painting calls to mind the words of Joseph Conrad in his 1906 novel, The Mirror of the Sea: “The sea — this truth must be confessed — has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.”

An English frigate at anchor, drying sails and a Danish pilot boat, 1822
Oil painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (Danish, 1783–1853)
Photo credit: Bruun Rasmussen (Danish auctioneers) via Wikimedia Commons

Maritime pilotage is hard work. But to go out to sea on a pilot boat when it’s a sunny day is an exhilarating experience. The feel of the sea breeze and the smell of salt water can do wonders for one’s body and spirit.

Throwing Letters to the Pilot, 1888
Wood engraving by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum (American, 1849–1925)
Photo credit: The Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts

Pilots in the Age of Sail and the Age of Steam also acted as mail carriers. A pilot boat was always a welcome sight for a ship’s homesick crew.

In the Pilot’s Room, 1874
Oil painting by Max Liebermann (German, 1847–1935)
Photo credit: Digital Library

Max Liebermann’s painting shows a group of pilots waiting to be given their assignment. Three of the men are wearing Dutch clogs (klompen). The pilots blend in with the shadows. Except for the two figures on the right, one can hardly make out their faces. It is a subtle statement about the relative anonymity of pilots and the fact that their work is uncelebrated.

Engraving after The Pilots, 1887 by Gari Melchers (American, 1860-1932)
Note: The image is from the 1888 book Recent Ideals of American Art by George William Sheldon. It was digitally enhanced by Marine Café Blog. Melchers’ painting is in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Washington, and it can be viewed here.

In his charming painting, Gari Melchers opens a rare window into the lives of harbour pilots. Five pilots relax in their station, one smoking a pipe and another tinkering with a ship model. The scene is in stark contrast with works of art that often depict pilots clambering up a ladder to board a ship.

The Old Pilot, 1837
Oil painting by Henry Perlee Parker (English, 1795–1873),
Photo credit: The Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England via Wikimedia Commons

The Pilot Peter Jørgensen Garibaldi, before 1890
Pencil drawing by Christian Krohg (Norwegian, 1852-1925)
Photo credit: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

To be a pilot is a badge of honour. One wears it with pride even in old age. The pilots in the two works shown above exude an air of self-confidence, the lines on their weathered faces speaking eloquently of what they have gone through in their profession.

Pilot Boats, 1875
Oil painting by Hans Gude (Norwegian, 1825–1903)
Photo credit: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo

There comes a time for pilot boats to rest. The same is true of pilots. Some pilots continue working until they grow old or die. One can suppose that they do so because they love what they are doing.

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