Delmarva River & Bay Pilots

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Learn about the people responsible for guiding ships through our rivers and bays.

A few years ago, I was hiking the dune trails at Cape Henlopen State Park when I noticed a small boat sidled up to one of the large tankers in the Delaware Bay. I could just barely make out a man climbing up a rope ladder onto the larger vessel. I wondered out loud at what might be going on out there when a friend I was with told me about river pilots. I have found them fascinating ever since. For those who do not know about this amazing profession let me tell you a bit about it.

Pilots are boat captains who specialize in guiding visiting ships through the often challenging and changeable waters of the bays and rivers leading to busy harbors. They board the ships and take over serving as the boat’s caption until they safely reach their destination and help them navigate back out to sea when they depart. Pilots have to know how to handle increasingly complicated maritime technology and ever changing waterways. They are crucial to the shipping industry which is one of the driving engines of the world economy.

Aspiring pilots go through a daunting training process that takes as long that of a surgeon. A college education at a merchant marine academy is followed by several years working up to first mate, then master, and then junior pilot. This is followed by an impressive test during which the candidate actually creates several nautical charts from scratch and from memory. These must include detailed descriptions of the channels, currents, buoys, and hazards found on the body of water where they hope to work.

Once certified a senior pilot must also be exceptionally physically fit and have the nerves of a trapeze artist in order to climb a rope ladder several stories tall in heavy seas and stiff winds. A fall can be fatal. Another risk they face is that occasionally after leading a departing vessel back out into the open waters of the ocean, sometimes the conditions are too rough for them to disembark. These pilots might find themselves the bored passenger taking a cruise half way around the world before they can make passage back to their home port.

There have been river pilots since the days of the early Phoenicians. The first pilots in colonial America were natives. There is a long tradition of pilots in Europe so it is no surprise that the profession followed their fleets to the new world. Shipping companies traveling the Delaware Bay have employed local pilots since 1650 and on the Chesapeake since 1661.

The first European Chesapeake Bay pilot was a man named John Clark. Spaniards wanting to claim the region for their own took him captive when he boarded their ship to assist them through the waters off the Virginia capes. When he refused to guide their fleet through the shoals of the lower bay in order to conquer the area they took him across the Atlantic to spend several years in a Spanish prison. Eventually he made his way back to England and then the notable sailor served as a mate on the Mayflower’s famous voyage to Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Early on local watermen often competed with the officially sanctioned pilots to reach vessels needing assistance first and earn their fee for guiding them. By 1720 this problem was addressed by the legislature and licensing for pilot boat captains was clarified. This was updated again with the pilotage act of 1755 which set prices, schedules, and the requirements for being a licensed pilot. It also set rules for all commercial vessels entering the Chesapeake Bay requiring them to pay to be guided by a pilot. Those that tried to save money and follow another ship who had already hired a pilot were charged half price when they reached the harbor. Captains who tried to navigate the waters on their own did so at a considerable risk to life and property. The wreckage of their ships tells the tale of their hubris or penny pinching - or both.

Just prior to the Revolutionary war county courts took over the appointing of port wardens, harbor masters, and pilots. It was during this era that the pilot profession became even more dangerous. During the Revolution and the War of 1812 one third of all the Maryland and Virginia pilots were killed by the British Navy while trying to coerce their services.

After the war pilots began to organize themselves and advocate for better pay and working conditions. On April 9, 1792 Delaware River pilots went on strike. The port wardens threatened to bring in strike breakers. The pilots responded by announcing they would sell their boats and quit, leaving the shipping lanes frozen without qualified pilots. The strike was then settled and the pilots’ demands were granted.

The shipping industry supported a burgeoning economy of shipbuilders and other ancillary businesses on Delmarva. Pilots became highly respected and wealthy. In the 1870's it was not unusual for as many as 12,000 vessels a year to stop for pilots near the breakwater of Cape Henlopen.

Unfortunately, with all that traffic came numerous shipwrecks. Boats have mechanical failures. Sometimes they hit unseen hazards underwater. Sometimes they collide. One Lewes pilot Jacob Teal, survived a ship that burned to the water line after being hit by lightning. There were so many deaths associated with accidents near Lewes, Delaware, that quite a few sailors were buried in unmarked graves among the dunes there. It has been said that storms would often reveal the bones of those poor unfortunates. And as in neighboring communities up and down the coast, the salvage or wrecking business was a common occupation attracting many a down on their luck fortune hunter.

The pilots also were often the first responders to maritime disasters. This was even more dangerous than their usual tasks. During a terrible blizzard in March of 1888 the seven-man crew of the Enoch Turley, had to be rescued near the Lewes breakwater when their ship ran aground. It was a Delaware River pilot boat out on a mission to assist other stranded boats. The number of rescued seamen rose from seven to 178 that day with the crews from several other ships in trouble in the lower Delaware Bay.

The sailors aboard the Enoch Turley survived that harrowing experience. But they were not so lucky, when a year later during another storm, they were swept out to sea, never to be seen or heard from again. A Philadelphia newspaper reported the plight of their families who had not only lost their loved ones but were now left destitute. Losses from storms had taken its toll on the industry and the owners of the Enoch Turley only had resources enough to rebuild their boat so they could not help the families. Tragedies like this led to the formation of the Delaware Pilots Association in 1896. In this case, it also led to the construction of an improved breakwater in Lewes. Legend has it that the ghost ship Enoch Turley can be seen along the waters near Lewes on stormy nights, trying to make its way back to safe harbor.

Pilots are part of an ancient time honored tradition serving as unsung heroes on the waters that surround us. Today the pilots who guide ships through the Chesapeake and Delaware estuaries and the C&D Canal are also an important part of our homeland security force being the first American eyes and ears on incoming cargo vessels from around the world.


The Pilots' Association For The Delaware Bay & River

The Association of Maryland Pilots

Virginia Pilot Association

American Pilot's Associaiton

Portrait Of A River Pilot
UD Messenger - Volume 8, Number 1, 1999
University of Delaware - Portrait of a river pilot by Ed Okonowicz, AS ’69, ’84M

Meeting the mighty ships of the Delaware Bay - just another day at the office
Newsworks - Cost to the Coast - May 19, 2013

A Pilot's Life - A Photographic Essay
Delaware Beach Life - By Pam George - Photographs by Stuart Griffin

River pilots navigate risky duty, tiring hours
Philadelphia Inquirer - By Christine Schiavo December 6, 2004

Delaware River Pilots
YouTube Video - first - WHYY

Pilot loses his license after ship struck pier while he wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses
Professional Mariner - by Casey Conley - November 25, 2013

Lewes Historical Society
Historical Timeline

Capt. Dick Buckaloo III: A man whose ship came in
Cape Gazette - By Carol Martino - February 24, 2015

Mariners' Advisory Committee for the Bay & River Delaware

Chesapeake Passage
Chesapeake Quarterly - Story and photos by Michael W. Fincham - 2005

Lewes Canl Front Park History

Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast 1632-2004
By Donald Shomette - John Hopkins University Press

The Blizzard of March 1888
by George M. and Suzanne B. Hurley

Pilot Boat Enoch Turley Missing
Philadelphia Times - April 26 1889

Jacob Teal
Biographical and Genealogical History of the State of Delaware, Volume II
J. M. Runk & Co., Chambersburg, PA., 1899

Haunted Delaware: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the First State
By Patricia A. Martinelli
Some Lewes residents claim that they have seen the Enoch Turley floundering out by the breakwater on stormy nights "trying to make it's way back to port"

Pilots: Pilot Schooners of North America and Great Britian
By Tom Cunliffe