History of the Harbor Pilot

An excerpt from "Pilot Lore from Sail to Steam"

"The very earliest record of a professional pilot comes, aptly enough, from the Netherlands, that little country which, by tradition and history, probably stands second to none in maritime activity and valorous deeds at sea. It is from the Dutch words "pijl" and "lood" that we get the modern word "pilot." The first Dutch word means pole and, with the Dutch, stands for everything vertically straight. The second word, it may be easily surmised, means "lead." And so we get the early definition, set by the Hollanders, of a lead that is sent down in an absolutely straight line to ascertain the depth of the waters at any given point.

For ages the navigators of the Old World had been familiar with the plumb and sounding line — even though we cannot state, even approximately, the date when the plumb and sounding line's efficacy was first discovered by a navigator — but it was not until Frans Naerebout, born in Gees, Province of Zeeland, in 1749, announced himself as being a professional "pijl loads" ready to take the sailing ships of his day in and out of the harbors of Holland, the depths of which he had studied until he knew the location of every danger spot, that pilotage, as such, became a science and an art.

From that day to this the work of the pilot has been surrounded by a fascinating mysticism so that, even in this blase modern age, the coming aboard or the "dropping" of the pilot remains a feature of a voyage that even the seasoned members of a freight vessel's crew never fail to take the keenest interest in. On a passenger ship the coming or going of the pilot is something of an event with every passenger, even the most experienced ocean traveler.

The earliest known American pilots were the Seawards, John and James, although the exact period of the Seawards' activities is a bit too far back even for the fairly complete records of the local pilot association or the records in the great libraries. The first Seawards came over in the Mayflower, which probably led to their becoming imbued with the idea that a pilot on the New World shore would be a good thing to have around for the boats from England that were expected to follow the Mayflower.

One of the earliest recorded instances where American pilots followed their profession was during the time of President George Washington where it is stated that the first President "arrived at Elizabethtown, where he was met by the Congress deputation and other dignitaries upon the occasion of his second inauguration..."

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