Capt. Michael Kilpatrick
Vice-president, Great Lakes Region, Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association
President, Corporation of Professional Great Lakes Pilots
The Corporation of Professional Great Lakes Pilots was established in 1962 to deliver pilotage services in Districts 2 and 3 of the Great Lakes Region. District 2 spans the waters from Port Weller on Lake Ontario as far west as Sarnia, at the south end of Lake Huron. It includes the Welland Canal, Lake Erie, the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers and Lake St. Clair. District 3 covers an even larger area, comprising Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, as well as St. Mary’s River and Georgian Bay.
Pilots must have extensive experience and knowledge of the district for which they are licensed. Accordingly, pilots in Districts 2 and 3 are highly-experienced mariners, holding various certificates of competency, and usually having served several years as Masters on vessels navigating the Great Lakes. Their ship handling skills and local knowledge of the district is tested through comprehensive written and oral examinations.
Successful candidates then undergo practical training in the district, with assignments on a variety of vessel types under the supervision of an experienced pilot. A panel of senior pilots then evaluates a trainee’s readiness to be licensed by the federal government as a fully-qualified pilot. This is done by way of more written, oral and practical examinations. Pilotage assignments are shared by Canadian and U.S. pilots on the basis of a memorandum of understanding between the US Coast Guard and the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, except for the Welland canal, where it is exclusively Canadian pilots. There are some 31 Canadian licensed pilots working in Districts 2 and 3.
In District 2, pilots must navigate the Welland Canal, a man-made waterway connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie. Opened in 1932, the canal’s eight locks allow vessels to bypass Niagara Falls via the Niagara Escarpment, conquering a height difference of almost 300 feet. The Welland Canal’s locks are just 80 feet wide, and with large ships routinely passing each other, very careful maneuvering in and out of locks is crucial. There can be only inches to spare on each side!
In such a narrow canal, very precise ship handling is essential. The smallest difference in any number of variable conditions, including vessel speed, distance between vessels, wind velocity, or water currents, can have an outsize impact on whether a ship transits the Canal safely. With navigational changes having to be made within a matter of seconds, the pilot must be on high alert, constantly adjusting engine, thruster, and rudder.
Transit time through the Canal is upwards of 10 hours, and while there is usually a change of pilots halfway through, it is not uncommon for one pilot to do the entire transit during busy periods to keep delays to a minimum.
District 2 is, of course, more than just the Welland Canal. It includes a number of ports on Lake Erie, and on the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, serving important installations, including several oil refineries, steel plants and grain elevators.
District 3, by far the largest district in the Great Lakes Region, covers a vast territory that includes Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron, the connecting waters of the St. Mary’s River, as well the Georgian Bay.
Trips in the District, such as those from Chicago to Sarnia, can be as long as three days, so pilots must be prepared for long assignments. Assignments are also quite varied, ranging from short harbour assignments, to river transits, to passing through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, and occasional visits to minor ports with cruise ships, special cargo charters, and tug-barge combinations.
Given the variety of ports in the District, the open waters transits, and the unprotected breakwater entrances of many of the ports, pilots must be very involved in voyage planning. Wind and water level fluctuations must be taken into account when planning lake transits and harbour entries. Where exposed breakwater approaches are inaccessible due to wind and navigational conditions in stormy weather, the use of anchorages is a possibility. In the winter months and early spring, weather routing for freezing spray, and ice pilotage skills are required. Snow squalls and seasonal fog provide special challenges in the narrow channels of the St. Mary’s River.
Another important feature of pilotage in District 3 that is connected to the sheer size of the district is the long distances that pilots may be required to travel for assignments. These distances can sometimes be over 1000 km.