How to Become a

Boat or Ship Pilot

The complete career guide to be a Boat or Ship Pilot: salary, job growth, employers, best schools, and education you may need to get started.

Why We Love It

  • $83,150
    Potential Avg. Salary
  • 10.3%
    Job Growth Rate
  • Growing Demand
    Job Outlook
  • Don't Take Work Home
    Career Attribute

Boat and ship pilots help navigate vessels through unique or dangerous waterways. Unlike ship captains who navigate ships over long distances, boat and ship pilots generally board vessels solely to navigate through specific waterways that have unique piloting requirements. They are not part of a ship’s crew.

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What is a Boat or Ship Pilot?

The following job responsibilities are common for individuals in boat or ship pilot roles:

  • Navigate boats and ships through waterways that have unique or dangerous conditions
  • Effectively operate a variety of styles of boats and ships
  • Work with ship captains and crew to determine destinations and any unique piloting requirements

A Day in the Life

When people think of a boat or ship pilot, the captain of a ship generally comes to mind. However, a ship’s captain is not the only individual who steers a ship safely to its destination—boat and ship pilots also play an integral role. Boat and ship pilots are not part of the crew for any single ship. Instead, they pilot a variety of boats and ships through waterways with unique or dangerous conditions. For example, boat and ship pilots may help ships dock at harbors, traverse waterways with strong currents, or navigate narrow or hazardous passageways.

Boat and ship pilots guide ships every day through the same passageway, becoming very familiar with the specific conditions of their navigation path. This allows boat and ship pilots to navigate a variety of types of ships through the passageway effectively and safely. They deal with obstacles like strong currents, narrow navigation spaces, and high water traffic. They generally board ships from a small boat and take the reins from the captain temporarily to guide the ship through a designated area.

Because a variety of different types of boats and ships may need to navigate the waterways controlled by a boat or ship pilot, pilots need to be capable of piloting various types of vessels and must be willing to work with ship crew members to learn any special requirements of piloting a ship. They may pilot small ships like yachts, transport ships like barges, and enormous vessels like cruise ships. They may work on freshwater passageways or off of the ocean in ship harbors.

Typical Work Schedule

Boat and ship pilots may need to assist with waterway navigation at all hours of the day and all days of the week, so pilots may need to work a variety of schedules. However, unlike boat captains who may need to be away from home for months at a time, boat and ship pilots are able to go home after work each night because they conduct their duties in the same location each day.

Typical Employers

Boat and ship pilots are generally hired to work for companies in the water transportation industry. They may work for harbors, inland water transportation companies, or certain government institutions.

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How To Become a Boat or Ship Pilot

The requirements for becoming a boat or ship pilot vary greatly depending on the locations where responsibilities are conducted, the types of ships being piloted, and the individual federal and state licensing rules. Boat and ship pilots must earn two different types of licenses: one is issued by the state, and one is issued by the Coast Guard from the federal government. The reason for the multiple levels of regulation is due to the requirements of the different types of boats handled and water conditions in different locations.

Many states allow aspiring boat and ship pilots to learn the trade in an apprenticeship program. In an apprenticeship program, aspiring pilots study under a mentor—a highly experienced ship pilot—and assist with hundreds or thousands of trips before being allowed to navigate ships on their own. During the apprenticeship, a deputy pilot license may be earned, allowing for limited piloting of certain types of vessels. Eventually, after many years of training and experience, pilots can earn a full pilot’s license.

Some states may award pilot licenses to individuals with no prior seafaring experience, while others may require professional ship captain experience. Often, ship pilots are experienced captains who are looking for a new role that doesn’t require long periods away from home, and some other boat and ship pilots are retired military professionals who were trained in the Navy or Coast Guard. Aspiring boat captains should learn the requirements of the state they want to work in before forming an education and training plan for starting a career as a pilot.

Boat or Ship Pilot Salary Data

We’ve provided you the following to learn more about this career. The salary and growth data on this page comes from recently published Bureau of Labor Statistics data while the recommendations and editorial content are based on our research.

National Anual Salary

Low Range




High Range


National Hourly Wage

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High Range


How do Boat or Ship Pilot salaries stack up to other jobs across the country? Based on the latest jobs data nationwide, Boat or Ship Pilot's can make an average annual salary of $83,150, or $40 per hour. On the lower end, they can make $53,450 or $26 per hour, perhaps when just starting out or based on the state you live in.

Salary Rankings And Facts

  • #127 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Average Salary Nationally

Highest Education Among Boat or Ship Pilots

  • 1.6%   Doctorate
  • 1.6%   Masters
  • 18.9%   Bachelors
  • 9.4%   Associates
  • 26.3%   College
  • 31.4%   High School
  • 10.8%   Less than High School

Job Growth Projections and Forecast

2014 Total Jobs


2024 Est. Jobs


Job Growth Rate


Est. New Jobs


How does Boat or Ship Pilot job growth stack up to other jobs across the country? By 2024, there will be a change of 3,600 jobs for a total of 38,700 people employed in the career nationwide. This is a 10.3% change in growth over the next ten years, giving the career a growth rate nationwide of Above Average.

Growth Rankings And Facts

  • #187 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Avg. Growth Nationally

What Companies Employ The Most Boat or Ship Pilots

Industry Current Jobs New Jobs Needed % Increase
Inland water transportation 8,400 1,700 2%
Support activities for water transportation 7,600 600 1%
Deep sea, coastal, and great lakes water transportation 5,000 400 0%

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