by Dr George Said
Until not so long ago, civilian harbour pilots did not require any qualifications at all to achieve a pilot’s licence. During the 180-year British Period in Malta, the Maltese were allowed to administer their part of the harbour as long as they did not interfere with or hinder the activities of the Royal Navy. The British Fleet had its own pilotage, towing and mooring facilities. The Maltese were therefore given a free hand in running their own port section. Dockyard tug masters were permitted to act as pilots for all merchantmen and liners. Other persons who were well acquainted with the Grand Harbour and its characteristics also took on the job as pilot. Individual agents who represented various shipping lines employed their own pilots. Competition was fierce and it was not unheard of that a group of pilots who became involved in some heated industrial argument would resort to physical and verbal violence. Pilots used to embark the principal vessel via the pilot launch, which was literally a traditional Maltese harbour craft made out of wood and propelled by oars, known as ‘dgħajsa tal-pass’ with the words “Pilot Boat” painted crudely on the bows. Ships without agents were arduously fought for, and people of an older generation can still tell amusing stories of three or four pilot boats departing frantically from Customs Steps and all racing towards an open hatch in the same ship. It was literally a case of survival of the fittest.
The Pilot Boat carried a blue flag flown on an eight-foot stem mast. Each boat contained four men, two of which had to be licenced pilots, the other two being oarsmen. The boarding point for the pilots was Ricasoli Point, but this largely depended on the weather conditions. Pilots wore a bowled hat with a ribbon with the word “Pilot” printed in large lettering on it. They also had to wear a badge with their licence number on their right arm.
After boarding, the pilot was obliged to ask the master or the first officer whether the vessel carried gunpowder or any other combustible material on board. Masters who declared that their vessels were carrying more than three barrels of any such material were made to extinguish all naked flames and had to hoist a red flag on the main mast. After this safety practice was complied with, the ship was given the green light to proceed into Valletta. The pilots were also given a special allowance for boarding a quarantined vessel, and this allowance varied depending on whether they victualed aboard such vessel or not.
Traditionally, the harbour pilots’ job was handed down from father to son and was granted on a closed-shop basis. Nowadays, however, applications are open to the public and to anyone that can fulfil the requirements so that the average harbour pilot is a person who is fully qualified according to the law and who has spent a considerable amount of time at sea.
For a detailed history of the maritime pilotage in Malta, please click here.