"A life not bad for a hearty lad,
Though surely not a high lot;
Though I'm a nurse, you might do worse
Than make your boy a pi-lot."
— W.S. Gilbert
A water pilot (also maritime pilot, especially when in a seaway) is a specialist navigator taken on by watercraft to steer them through a complicated stretch of water. Pilots are typically employed in harbours, rivers and canals or straits and use their familiarity with the body of water to direct the watercraft through it without collision, grounding or other mishaps. In the "pre-navigation" era, a pilot might also serve as a sort of local guide or walking rutter, using their familiarity with a given coastline to deliver a ship to its destination. A pilot may also be desirable in a shallow water archipelago of the sort found in the Pacific, where a multitude of uncharted reefs, rocks and shoals can play havoc with your hull … but in the early modern era, make sure any native pilot understands just how deep your draft is compared to the proas and similar craft he is probably used to. Piloting is normally a local skill and not transferable from place to place.
Where they exist, pilots are highly likely to be regulated and controlled, whether by professional licencing, custom and practice, guild monopoly or unofficial cartel.
The requirement for a pilot is generally determined by the size of the vessel compared to the body that it is entering - and pilotage may well be required by law as well, especially in places where shipping accidents could cause severe disruption (most harbours, for example, require pilotage as a condition of use). There is likely to be a size limit, even for compulsory pilotage.
Pilotage may also serve as a form of tax on users - even where a pilot is not strictly necessary (perhaps because the ship's crew is extremely familiar with the port), it may be necessary to carry one anyway and pay an appropriate fee and the need to ship a pilot may also serve as a barrier to smuggling.
In the absence of a competent pilot, a ship may be able to rely on a detailed set of maritime charts, or a rutter covering the area in detail, or may find themselves literally "swinging the lead" …which still won't help with finding direction, or avoiding currents and similar things.
Game and Story Use
- PCs up to no good may have the added fun of trying to find a suitably cooperative pilot. This is probably easier when leaving port than when coming in.
- A pilot may notice something amiss aboard a ship - whether the PCs (due to a failure of the point above), or on some other ship that provides adventure hooks.
- Pilot boats looking for custom are often the first craft to hail an approaching vessel (unless the body they operate in is failry aggressively guarded) and so may be first finders of all sorts of things.
- Trying to avoid shipping a pilot may or may not lead to legal trouble, but will certainly require some skilled navigating to avoid trouble.
- A bad pilot may well get the ship into trouble anyway and then blame the crew, claiming they ignored his advice - as the local man, he likely has an advantage over the strangers in the crew. Unless, of course, he is known to be incompetent (but then how has he managed to keep his job…?).
- In an Age of Discovery campaign, your local pilot provides the adventure hooks as the PCs sail between islands, telling tall tales of the strange beasts and haunted ruins that they are approaching (…or sailing over…).
- In fantasy campaigns, mermen, selkies and the like can provide interesting alternatives to a traditional pilot.