The marine 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. Over time, piloting emerged as a distinct specialty, with pilots boarding a ship entering or leaving a harbor to assume control of the vessel until it was ready to enter the open sea again.
On the Hudson River, just before a ship enters the mouth of the river, a pilot boards and steers the ship all the way to its dock. (In some areas, a special docking pilot takes over for berthing the ship.) The pilot’s work begins in Yonkers and may end as far away as Albany, a distance of 109 nautical miles. (If the ship will be traveling the whole distance, about halfway through the journey, a second pilot may take over, as total travel time is approximately 11 to 13 hours.) The pilot must board the ship from a small pilot boat, climbing a rope ladder while the larger ship is still under way (albeit moving slowly), in all weather and sea conditions, while wearing formal business attire.
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. Since then, pilots’ associations for the Port of New York and New Jersey, Long Island and Block Island Sound, and the Hudson River have existed, from informal aggregations to officially sanctioned organizations. The Hudson River Pilots Association was chartered in 1945.
In the March 28, 1946 Agreement and Bylaws (the organization’s charter), the organization’s purpose is stated as ensuring “equal participation of members thereof in the distribution of pilotage fees in proportion to work done” (Article II, Section 1). The concern with ensuring that each pilot receives the appropriate fees for the number of boats piloted was a chief reason for the 1895 consolidation of the New York and New Jersey contingents of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association into the single United New York and New Jersey Sandy Hook Pilots Benevolent Associations. Prior to this, nineteenth-century pilots raced their sailing vessels to be the first to reach an incoming ship, with the “prize” being the opportunity to pilot the ship into the harbor and to receive payment for this service. Although by 1945, motorized pilot boats were no longer chasing inbound ships, a concern with fair remuneration for pilots is a common theme for both pilots’ associations.
Today, the Hudson River and the Sandy Hook Pilots Associations remain separate organizations, representing the interests of pilots in their respective regions, but the same agency oversees the licensure and activities of their members: the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of New York. The Hudson River District and the Port of New York/New Jersey District are two of their three jurisdictions (the third is the Long Island and Block Island Sound District).