We spoke with Kevin Obermeyer, President and CEO of the Pacific Pilotage Authority, to find out more about the process of becoming a marine pilot.

Where do you begin your career if you want to be a marine pilot in Canada?

If you come out of high school and go to BCIT and get your deckhand’s certificate, and then start working this coast, over the next 10 –15 years you will keep going to back to school to increase your certification. The minimum certification that we will allow to write the exam is a 500 gross tonnage near-coastal Master’s certificate. After that you will need at least 700 12-hour days experience as a captain.

How well must a pilot know the BC coastline in order to qualify to take the exam?

A candidate must first have sufficient sea-time on the West Coast — at least 700 12-hour days as a captain. Then you have to complete a two-year familiarization program that requires ride-alongs with a pilot up and down the coast, at your own cost. The minimum number we want you to do is 10. Most people do around 40 – 50. Then you can apply to sit the exam.

There are three exams. The first is a general knowledge paper based on the requirements for a 500 tonne near-coastal Master’s exam and includes stability, navigation, chart work, etc. It’s all the stuff you would have done going up through the ranks to your 500 tonne certificate so it’s really a refresher of what you already know.

The second paper is a local knowledge paper and emphasizes your knowledge of the coast. We can ask you anything about this coast — ‘what colour is the light on a particular rock?’ The committee can literally ask anything with respect to local knowledge. The exam will always contain at least four or five chartlets which will contain the outline of a location somewhere on the BC coast. You need to recognize the area and then put in all the navigational aids, any navigational hazards, name all the major points of interest and include clearing marks to avoid any identified dangers, to name a few.

If you succeed in getting more than 70 per cent in the first two papers, you will be invited to attend the oral session. The session is three-and-a-half to four hours long and includes six ‘runs’ on the coast from one place to another and can be located anywhere on the coast. All you have in front of you is some blank paper, a set of tide tables, a pencil and an eraser. You can bring a calculator.

You have no chart in front of you. You’ve got to take the ship, say, from Kitimat to Triple Island through Douglas Channel and whichever route the examiners ask you to take. You’ve got to do the entire run from memory and can get stopped along the way to provide additional information about a specific area. You really have to know this coast like the back of your hand in order to succeed.

If you pass all three exams with a minimum of 70 per cent you get placed on an eligibility list to wait until we require an additional pilot. If you’re the first name on the list when we need another pilot we will call you, and your apprenticeship program begins.

What happens then?

For the first two to three months you will ride along with the licensed pilots, further enhancing your local knowledge and gaining first-hand knowledge in big ship handling.

Then you are sent on to two courses. There’s a one-week ship model course, usually in Europe, where you pilot 1:25 scale models that behave exactly like a real ship but everything happens six times faster due to the scale, which means that an apprentice can practice berthing a vessel a lot more times on the models than they can in real life.

I went and joined the apprentice on one of those courses. I’d spent 15 years at sea and I thought I was a really good ship handler. At the end of the third day, I’d learned so much more. It was a real eye opener.

Then you return for a further week of training in a full mission bridge simulator under the guidance of a senior pilot on the examination committee. All the major ports on the BC Coast have been digitized and are included in the simulator training including Vancouver Harbour, Deltaport, Victoria, Nanaimo, Seymour Narrows, Johnstone Strait, Campbell River, Prince Rupert and Victoria — it’s all on simulation.

When you successfully complete those two courses you go back and do ride-alongs with the pilot but now they will actually give you the conduct of the ship. At the end of about nine months, there will be a final assessment before you are awarded your Class Two Pilot licence and then you are able to handle the smallest ships on our coast on your own.

How long does it take before you can pilot the largest ships?

After six months, we will move you up in size and after another six months, you’ll graduate up another size. After your first year, you will be assessed again and you will be given a Class One Pilot licence, albeit still restricted in ship size. The size restrictions and formalized training will continue until you reach your seventh year as a licensed pilot.

Even when you are able to pilot the largest ships and are doing jobs regularly, there is training on an ongoing basis. As a minimum, every pilot has to complete refresher training, either man model or full bridge simulator, once every five years. This keeps their skills up-to-date on changes to vessel design, size and manoeuvring characteristics. This entire regime of gaining experience and undertaking training will carry on right through your career until you retire.