The maritime pilots’ profession dates back to the seventeenth century, when the increasing size of sailing ships, particularly their larger draft, placed them in danger of running aground when attempting to enter or leave a harbor. Initially, ships’ captains would hire experienced local guides, who were familiar with the depth and potential hazards in and around their harbors, to guide their ships through these potentially treacherous waters. Ship piloting as an avocation began in the Netherlands. On March 9, 1694, the British Colony of New York passed a law appointing experienced local seafarers as “Sandy Hook Pilots,” and a pilots’ association was chartered.
In 1784, the New York legislature licensed its first maritime pilot, a measure intended to prevent insufficiently skilled boat operators from posing as pilots and endangering shipping. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, as political corruption became rampant, politicians often appointed pilots on the basis of favoritism, not expertise. Moreover, pilots competed to be the first to reach a ship approaching New York Harbor, for the first pilot to reach the ship would be rewarded with the commission of piloting it into the harbor. These practices made the potential for error, and thus for tragedy, all the more likely. Indeed, several well-publicized maritime disasters paved the way for tighter regulation of pilots’ training and licensure, including the power to take disciplinary action against violators.
On November 22, 1836, the American flagship "Bristol" ran aground in gale-force winds because no pilots came to its aid. The "Mexico," an American barque, met a similar fate on January 1, 1837. At the time, the limited regulatory climate did not permit the negligent pilots to be held liable. In December 1836, the New Jersey legislature created a State Pilot Commission, appointed the sole licensing body for ship pilots, who could only become eligible after taking an examination and presenting references to their character and training. New York appointed its Board of Commissioners of Pilots in 1853. The New York legislature did make regulatory efforts for pilots prior to that—first in 1819, with the establishment of the Board of Wardens, predecessor to the current Board of Commissioners, and then in 1845, when the Board was to be overseen by the state Chamber of Commerce and the New York Board of Underwriters. However, political corruption continued to hamper the Board of Commissioners’ efforts to ensure maritime safety in New York Harbor. It was not until the 1853 legislation that the Board was fully empowered to pursue its regulatory mission.
An additional challenge to maritime safety was presented by the gradual replacement of sailing ships with steamships. Few steamship companies wished to risk their profits by requiring their captains to slow down enough for the pilot to board safely. Moreover, the pilots could not afford to exchange their sailboats for steam-powered pilot boats. On December 3, 1883, a collision between the steamship "Alaska" and the pilot boat "Columbia" (Pilot Boat #8) resulted in the deaths of Columbia’s entire crew. In response, the Board of Commissioners passed a bylaw requiring steamers to stop and allow the pilot to board. If either the steamer’s captain did not stop, or if the pilot delayed the steamer unduly while boarding, either one would be subject to a fine.
On December 1, 1895, the separate New York and New Jersey pilots’ associations consolidated into the United Pilots’ Benevolent Association of New York and New Jersey (now known as the Sandy Hook Pilots Association). One of their first actions was to purchase the entire fleet of pilot sailboats from the pilots and, using the proceeds from the subsequent sale of these boats (many of which begun second lives as racing vessels), provided the pilots with a fleet of steam-powered boats. These included two station boats, the "New York" and "New Jersey," which remained at the entrance to New York Harbor and provided accommodations for pilots awaiting duty, and four smaller pilot boats that transported pilots between the station boats and the ships they would pilot, as well as to and from shore. The association also instituted a rotation system, which eliminated the practice of competing for ships and ensured steady work for all pilots, with regular hours and pay.
Today, the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of New York (along with its counterpart for New Jersey, the New Jersey Maritime Pilot and Docking Commission) continues to regulate maritime pilotage, now on the Hudson River and on Long Island and Block Island Sound in addition to the Port of New York/New Jersey. The board oversees the training and licensure of bar pilots, investigates complaints against licensed pilots, and metes out disciplinary action when a licensee commits a violation. It also works with other agencies on regulations concerning shipping and the marine environs within its jurisdiction.