Capt. Thomas Robertson
President, Pilots' Corporation, Lake Ontario and Harbours
The Pilots' Corporation, Lake Ontario and Harbours was established in 1972 to deliver pilotage services in the Lake Ontario District. This international district spans the entire Lake, and includes 12 ports, most of them in Canadian waters. The ports vary in size, from those with just one or two docks, and others with up to 20 docks (Hamilton). Altogether, there are over 50 different docks within the district frequented by vessels, 40-50% of the traffic transits through the District without stopping to load or unload.
In what is something of an anomaly, the District also includes the compulsory pilotage area at the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. The Port, which in recent years might have only seven or eight ships calling during its ice-free shipping season, does not warrant a full-time pilot, thereby necessitating a Lake Ontario pilot based on to travel north when a vessel is expected. Because vessels can stop at port for as long as seven to fourteen days before departing with their cargo, pilots often have a long stay.
Pilots must have extensive experience and knowledge of the district for which they are licensed. Pilots in the Lake Ontario District are highly-experienced mariners, holding various certificates of competency, often having served as Captains or officers on vessels navigating the Great Lakes.
Successful candidates 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 written, oral, and practical examinations.
As is the case in all Great Lakes international districts, pilotage assignments are shared by Canadian and U.S. pilots. There are usually about seven Canadian licensed pilots working in the Lake Ontario District.
The biggest challenge for pilots in the Lake Ontario District is dock proficiency, given the very low frequency of docking assignments at different District docks. Simulation exercises involving docking and undocking maneuvers are performed to maintain familiarity as part of the ongoing professional training programs of pilots. The challenge is particularly acute at Churchill, where few vessels arrive each season.
Since many vessels transit the entire District, for example bringing a full load of steel to Hamilton or, in the other direction, taking on a full load of grain, pilotage assignments from one end of the District at Port Weller to the other end at Cape Vincent, or vice versa, are very long and come with their own challenges. In the spring, summer, and fall, the many sailboats, fishing vessels, and small pleasure crafts, often with little or no knowledge of the “rules of the road", can make the transit taxing, especially if there is fog. One other concern is under keel clearance, which is variable along the route, and very often minimal in the ports, owing to continuous silting and fluctuating water levels.