Halifax Pilots


Capt. Ian Swan

As of May 2021, there are 11 active pilots and 1 apprentice in the Halifax Pilotage District. Pilot staffing levels are set by the Atlantic Pilotage Authority, in consultation with pilots and industry, and reflect anticipated traffic levels. Candidates must meet the minimum requirement of Master, Near Coastal. Our pilots are highly skilled Master Mariners with extensive nautical training, years of sea experience and have demonstrated an expert knowledge of the waterway. Critical success factors throughout one’s career: maintaining up-to-date local knowledge and highly-specialized ongoing proficiency training on the latest pilotage techniques and technology available.

Pilots usually board the vessel by means of the ship’s rope pilot ladder, either alone or in combination with an accommodation ladder, often climbing the side of the vessel for up to 9 m. Embarking and disembarking pilots is always risky, and even more so during night navigation and under inclement conditions. Once pilots are aboard, they go to the vessel's bridge area where they will have the conduct of the vessel until it has safely transited pilotage waters or is safely secured to the berth.


The Halifax Pilots are active members of the Halifax Port Operations Committee (Halifax Port Authority – HPA), Halifax Port Navigation Safety Committee (HPA), Halifax Port Security Committee (HPA), the Halifax Pilotage Committee (Atlantic Pilotage Authority), and the Canadian Marine Pilots’ Association.

From Confederation in 1867 until the enactment of the Pilotage Act in 1972, pilotage services were provided by the Halifax Marine Pilots’ Corporation Limited. In 1984, the pilots reinstated this corporation.

Since 1826, there have been 180 pilots licensed for Halifax. In 1826 the Halifax Pilots were selected by examination and became the exclusive providers of pilotage for the Port of Halifax by order of the Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia. It is worth noting that it was not until the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, that masters and mates onboard ships of the British Empire were required to pass professional examinations to obtain the newly legislated requirement of being the holder of a certificate of competency. The Halifax Pilots were ahead of the curve. Today of course, the examination and licensing of pilots is a federal responsibility carried out by the Government of Canada in accordance with the Pilotage Act.

Video courtesy of AeroVision Canada.

The Halifax Compulsory Pilotage District

Halifax is a compulsory pilotage area. When pilotage services are required, marine pilots are dispatched to meet and board vessels as they enter designated compulsory pilotage areas.

Designation as a compulsory pilotage area depends on local levels of risk to safe navigation and takes into account a number of criteria including:

  • Degree of difficulty and hazard in the approaches and within the port itself;
  • Amount of vessel movement and maneuverability and the size of those vessels;
  • Design of wharfs, slips, and actual space available for maneuvering;
  • Nature of cargo carried on board (e.g. oil, gas, explosives, hazardous materials); and
  • Environmental concerns and the preservation of the ecosystem.
Compulsory pilotage areas

The geography of the Port of Halifax is near perfection – it is a deep-water natural harbour that encompasses a large area, is ice-free, and opens directly onto the North Atlantic to access the great circle trade route. It is approximately a 14 nautical mile run in pilotage waters from the pilot boarding station to Bedford Basin. In fact, the city owes its founding in 1749 to the magnificence of its harbour and strategic location. Today, more than 440,000 people live in the urban centre around the harbour – making Halifax the 14th largest municipality in Canada.

Photo courtesy of Cody Osborne Photography Photo courtesy of Cody Osborne Photography.

Photo courtesy of Cody Osborne Photography Photo courtesy of Cody Osborne Photography.

Geography also holds the key to its future - Halifax accommodates the largest vessels in the world. These are ships that are too large to physically call at inland ports in Canada and some US East Coast ports. This benefits all Canadians because Halifax is one of the country’s designated trade corridors. There is a general industry trend toward very large vessels – longer, wider, higher and deeper drafts in all vessel types.

Halifax is home to Halifax Port Authority whose facilities include Fairview Cove Container Terminal (Ceres Halifax Inc.), South End Container Terminal (PSA Halifax), Richmond Terminals, Ocean Terminals, Halifax Grain Elevator, and the Halifax Seaport and Cruise facilities. There are also a number of major government and privately owned facilities located around the harbour including Maritime Forces Atlantic, Canadian Coast Guard, Tuft’s Cove Generating Station (Nova Scotia Power), Gold Bond Canada Ltd., Autoport, Woodside Atlantic Wharf, CN Halifax Intermodal Terminal, Irving Oil Halifax Terminal, McAsphalt, and Irving Shipbuilding and Graving Dock.


Navigational Challenges

The Port has 74 berths and 13 numbered anchorages in Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin. The Narrows connect Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin and is situated between two bridges. In the Narrows, there are 0.13 nautical miles (NM) / 276 meters between the 10-metre contours, and 0.095 NM / 175 m between the 15-m contours.

The Angus L. Macdonald Bridge, with a vertical clearance of 50m at midspan, crosses the harbour near Canada’s largest naval base - Maritime Forces Atlantic which employs more than 5,000 military and 2,000 civilian personnel. The A. Murray MacKay Bridge also spans the Narrows. It has a vertical clearance of 49m at midspan. The Canadian Coast Guard’s fleet is berthed at their docks in Bedford Basin, near the A. Murray MacKay Bridge.

Protective rock berms surround the north abutment of the Macdonald bridge and the two NE abutments of the MacKay Bridge. Air Gap refers to the distance from the surface of the water to the lowest point of the base of the bridge in the Navigation Span. Halifax pilots operate with a minimum 1.35m clearance in good visibility, and 1.55m in poor visibility. This applies to passing commercial and recreational vessels.

The sheer size of the ships moving under pilotage imposes limitations on where they can safely transit, berth and anchor. These vessels share the waterway with a lot of other users including small pleasure craft, small fishing craft and tour boat operators. There are five yacht clubs, a shipyard and Halifax Metro Transit operates a commuter passenger ferry service that criss-crosses the inner harbour. The Halifax pilots work collaboratively with the users through committees and face-to-face interactions e.g. Halifax International Boat Show, to ensure good communication and safety in using/sharing the waterway.

On December 5, 2003, the International Maritime Organization adopted Guidelines on Places of Refuge for Ships in Need of Assistance (resolution A.949(23)). Halifax is designated as a port of refuge. This has seen two crippled laden crude oil tankers enter the Port for repairs. M.V. Australian Spirit – the ship had power but no rudder and could not steer; M.V. British Merlin – the ship had no power and, while the rudder was intact, the result was the same i.e., no ability to maneuver. Skilled pilots working with skilled tug masters successfully brought these ships into port and safely secured them alongside.


Main Types of Traffic

The Port handles an almost unlimited variety of ships – some brought here for commercial shipping, some for international naval operations, some for exploration, and others for megaprojects, tourism, and fishing. The size and design of the ships ranges considerably as does their maneuverability and the ship handling techniques required to safely pilot these vessels.

Halifax is the main container port in Atlantic Canada and the fourth largest in the country. Containerships range in size up to the newer class of ultra-large container vessels (ULCV) that carry in the range of 15,000+ TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit). In a relatively short period of time, ULCVs in excess of 16,000 TEU have become regular callers and we expect the trend in increasing size to continue. At 16,000 TEU, these are the biggest ULCVs to call at any Canadian port, and in some cases, Halifax is the first port of call in Eastern North America.

But there is definitely even more to Halifax including laden oil tankers up to Suezmax size carrying up to 1 million barrels of crude oil, and bulk carriers and self-unloaders of various sizes. Anchorage #1 accommodates Cape Size bulkers at 199,000 DWT and 17m draft for fueling and/or AGM Inspections. The Halifax pilots have even piloted the Erik Raude semi-submersible with 20.1m draft. Other traffic includes ro/ro vessels and auto carriers and general cargo vessels. Halifax is a major port of call for cruise ships and it is always exciting when the newest and grandest ships make their inaugural calls. Also in the traffic mix are specialized shipping i.e. heavy lift and project cargo vessels, and tug and barge operations. As well, Jack-up drilling platforms, all foreign warships, aircraft carriers and submarines are piloted by Halifax pilots.


Particular Areas of Expertise

The skills required by today’s pilots are ever increasing. Pilots have embraced technology and have been at the forefront of its development as a tool for pilotage to enhance safety. While ships are getting bigger at a very rapid pace, the size of the waterways for the most part have remained more or less fixed.

Conducting the safe navigation and berthing of massive vessels requires great precision and skill with constant vigilance of dynamic underkeel clearance (DUKC), air gap, windage, currents, tides and other traffic in the waterway. Halifax pilots are experts in the direction of tugs for escorting and berthing operations, night navigation and navigating in fog.

Technology when used as a tool to complement the pilot’s precise skill adds an extra layer of safety when maneuvering vessels in the port. This is of great benefit when piloting the latest ULCV vessels, or Neo-Panamax vessels under the bridges and through the Halifax Narrows 24/7, 365 days/ year.

Halifax pilots have been instrumental in the development of safe operating weather and tug criteria for the ULCVs and Neo-Panamax vessels calling the Port. For example, the development of the SmartATLANTIC Inshore Weather Buoy for Halifax, the Port of Halifax Air Gap Measurement System for the Halifax Harbour Bridges, the iHeave Project to measure DUKC in sea state, and the use of portable pilotage units are just a few examples of pilot-led initiatives. We have not achieved these milestones only on our own, however, as one of our most valuable attributes is a spirit of open dialogue, partnership, and pooling expertise and resources with relevant stakeholders. Most recently, we have been working with the Canadian Coast Guard on a review of Nav-aids and deep-water routing of larger vessels, and with the Halifax Port Authority on the development of criteria for the simultaneous berthing of two ULCVs at the South End Container Terminal.