Harbour pilots play an important role, but not everyone appreciates them.

The rationale for maritime pilotage is simple. A pilot knows the harbour, river or channel where he operates more intimately than the master of a vessel that is arriving or departing. He knows the rising and ebbing of the tide; the depth of the water at various points; and the potential hazards that need to be avoided.

Ship masters, however, do not always appreciate the services of a pilot. Some may feel resentful that a local chap is taking over control of their vessel. It’s a blow to their ego.

In light of this, I would like to share the following story excerpted from ‘From the Log of the Velsa’, a 1914 novel written by British author Arnold Bennett. The book is about the adventures of the owner and crew of a yacht sailing to various parts of Europe and how they adamantly refused the aid of harbour pilots.


It was folly to proceed. We proceeded. We had got in alone; we would get out alone. We shot part the coast-guard, who bawled after us. We put the two beacons in a line, obedient to the directions; but we could not keep them in a line. The tide swirled us away, making naught of the engine. We gave a tremendous bump. Yes, we were assuredly on the bank for at least ten hours, if not forever; if it came on to blow, we might well be wrecked. But no. The ancient Velsa seemed to rebound elastically off the traitorous sand, and we were afloat again. What the coast-guard said is not known to this day. We felt secretly ashamed of our foolishness, but we were sustained by the satisfaction of having deprived more local pilots of their fees.

Still, we were a sobered crew, and at the next river-mouth northward–Orford Haven–we yielded to a base common sense, and signaled for a pilot. The river Ore is more dangerous to enter and far more peculiar even than the Deben. The desolated spot, where it runs into the sea is well called Shinglestreet, for it is a wilderness of shingles. The tide runs very fast indeed; the bar shifts after a gale, and not more than four feet of water is guaranteed on it. Last and worst, the bottom is hard. It was probably the hardness of the bottom that finally enduced us to stoop to a pilot. To run aground on anything of a rocky nature may be fatale. Our signal was simply ignored. Not the slightest symptom anywhere of a pilot. We were creeping in, and we continued to creep in. The skipper sent the deck-hand forward with the pole. He called seven feet, eight feet, seven feet; but these were Dutch feet, of eleven inches each, because the pole is a Dutch pole. The water was ominous, full of curling crests and unpleasant hollows, as the wind fought the current. The deck-hand called out seven, six, five and a half. We could almost feel the ship bump… and then we were over the bar. Needless to say that a pilot immediately hove in sight. We waved him off, though he was an old man with a grievance.

A vessel that is unaided by a pilot may not run aground as in this story. It may safely reach its destination with the captain relying on charts, some guesswork, and plenty of guts. But why make life difficult for everyone on board?

Click here to download ‘From the Log of the Velsa’ by Arnold Bennett.

It’s worth a read!


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