What Puget Sound Pilots Want You to Know


Container ship off Point Wilson. (Joel Rogers photo)

It may sound counterintuitive, but when a big ship leaves the high seas and enters the restricted waters of Puget Sound, it is entering the most dangerous part of its voyage. Imagine placing a skyscraper full of oil or cargo on its side and trying to steer it through narrowing waterways with many turns and lots of commercial and recreational traffic crossing its path—a skyscraper with a stopping distance of several miles, whose ability to steer gets less effective the slower it goes.

We need highly trained experts with encyclopedic knowledge of our waters in all weather conditions, to guide these big ships into port, because mistakes can be extremely costly. By navigating safely, our maritime pilots protect Puget Sound and the lives and property of those who use its waters. By understanding what they want you to know and do in order to stay safe on the water, you can help.

Freighter “Green Dale,” U.S. flagged, roll-on/roll-off ship, bound for Port of Tacoma, off Port Townsend, passing sloop “Walden” outbound. Photo by Joel Rogers.

I spent an hour in conversation with Severin Knutsen, a Puget Sound Pilot and son of Port Townsend shipwright Leif Knutsen and his wife Joan. I asked, “What’s the main message that Puget Sound Pilots want the public to know?”

“If in doubt about whether you’ve got a problem with crossing the path of an oncoming ship,” he said, “please pass astern of us. Most people can see where we’re going; we’re transiting in the [shipping] lanes, and we’re heading to one of the major ports. But we don’t always know where you’re going. If you can make your actions significant, obvious, and early enough like the rules say, then that’s one less thing for us to worry about in making sure you’re safe. You can help by making, for example, a large and obvious course change early enough to avoid a dangerous situation. When you do that and point your boat astern of our ship, we think, ‘okay, I know what you’re doing now; thank you.’ That’s the easiest way to signal us.”

By rules, Knutsen means the International Collision Regulations, known as 72COLREGS. If boaters are transiting shipping lanes they should know Rule 10, which basically says that a vessel less than 20 meters shall not impede a ship transiting in the lanes. “A lot of people may think, oh we’re sailing, we have the right of way,” said Knutsen, “but it’s not necessarily the case in the lanes.”

Radar image from bridge of outbound ship (center), small vessels in inbound lane. Image capture by Severin Knutsen.

While pilots will often respond to radio calls from small boats who may have doubts about the safety of a crossing situation with a big ship, Knutsen showed me a radar image (below) of what it can be like for a ship trying to navigate safely. “I was northbound in this image,” he said, “but most of these small vessels are in the southbound lane. You can see that if everybody called us, we’d never get off the radio.” Meanwhile, he tries to determine who’s giving way, who is not, and which boats he needs to worry about. Big ships can’t often read small boat names, and most small boats don’t have AIS (Automatic Identification System). So, the primary means of communication for the ship is heading changes. “We try to make course changes significant and early, so people know, ‘okay, the ship’s going that way, I can go this way and stay safe,’ he added. “The other communications tool we have is our whistles.” (To most ears they sound like fog horns.)

The bottom line is, if a ship is blowing its whistle at you, get out of the way. Make a clear course change; go astern of it. It can take a big ship a quarter to a half mile to change course enough to avoid you, and they can sometimes throw big wakes. While there’s a legal requirement that a ship has to be able to see you two ship lengths or 500 meters ahead, whichever is less, it gets especially worrisome in narrow channels when ships are going slower and have less maneuverability. When a ship loses sight of a small boat ahead of it, the pilot will often contact nearby tugs helping him to maneuver, in order to get “eyes on” the boat that might be in a dangerous spot. “Ultimately,” said Knutsen, “we’re charged with protecting the waterways, the environment and the public while we make sure commerce is flowing.”

A boat’s hull material affects how well it can be “seen” by a ship’s radar. A fiberglass or wood boat is not going to come up as clearly on radar as will a steel boat. And in windy conditions where seas can create “clutter” in the radar image, some boats become much harder to see. That’s why a good radar reflector is essential, especially if you’re going to be in or near shipping lanes, which are clearly marked on both paper and electronic nautical charts.

Pilot boat alongside container ship Hugo Schulte, inbound from New Zealand. Pilot ascending ladder to gangway. Ensenada, Mexico. Photo by Karen Sullivan.

If you’ve tried calling a ship and it doesn’t answer, you may be using the wrong frequency. Ships follow bridge-to-bridge radio communications on VHF channel 13, and most do not monitor channel 16, which is the calling and distress frequency used by most small boats. Instead, ships monitor special Vessel Traffic channels whose frequencies depend on geographic location and are listed in an online manual. Also, if you’re using a small handheld radio to call a ship, they may not hear you. “Maybe you can see the ship and it’s five or six miles away,” said Knutsen, “but the range on your handheld VHF radio may be less than you think.”

I asked him whether or when it might be warranted for small boats to use Vessel Traffic Services in situations of low visibility, and he agreed that if caught out in fog in or near a shipping lane, it might be wise to contact them. Vessel Traffic Services actively monitors shipping and gives navigational advice via radio for vessels in busy or restricted waters. “They will often tell us what vessels we’re going to encounter, which ones are slowing down, where there are significant concentrations of vessels, plus weather,” said Knutsen. “So, if you get caught in fog and you don’t have radar or AIS but insist on crossing a shipping lane, it’s a good idea to check in and figure out where the ships are.”

The other thing you should be doing in fog is listening for fog signals, because ships will be sounding them, and they post lookouts to listen for the fog signals you should also be sounding.

Regardless of whether or not you have radar, two other nonverbal means of communication with big ships are extremely useful: marine traffic apps in areas where cellphone coverage is present will show ships many miles away. They can tell you the names, speeds, and destinations of ships coming from well beyond your line of sight. If you know an oncoming ship is going ten or twenty knots, then you can calculate when it’ll be in your location—perhaps in an hour, or thirty minutes. If it takes you that long to cross a shipping lane, you’ll have a valuable tool to decide when or whether to go.

Pilot on bridge of container ship Hugo Schulte, entering Ensenada, Mexico. Photo by Karen Sullivan.

The other useful tool is AIS, short for Automatic Identification System. It transmits (and units receive) geographic location, course and speed along with the vessel name so that people can make radio calls using the name rather than a vague “ship off my port bow.” Some VHF radios can passively receive AIS signals transmitted from ships and give you a “closest point of approach,” should you continue to maintain your current course and speed. But that doesn’t mean you’re transmitting your own location to those same ships. In order to be seen, you also need a transponder. While radar is the best tool for collision avoidance, AIS is an excellent aid to navigation and can help you determine where other vessels are. It can also nonverbally tell a pilot whether or not you’re a threat to safety.

The exceptions in our waters are naval or government ships, which use federally licensed pilots because they are generally exempt from state pilotage laws. The only time they’ll take a Puget Sound Pilot is if they’re moving to a port they’re not familiar with.

Piloting a ship is a complex and sometimes dangerous job that requires up to three years of rigorous training. It turns out that six pilots working in the Pacific Northwest (four in Puget Sound) are from Port Townsend—so it’s another example of the fine maritime traditions thriving in our region.

I asked Knutsen. “Any final advice?”

“If you’re in doubt, just go astern of us,” he said.

Useful Links:

Navigation Rules (uscg.gov)

Amalgamated International & U.S. Inland Navigation Rules (uscg.gov)

Washington state pilotage

Puget Sound Pilots | Protecting Puget Sound Since 1935 (pspilots.org)

Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee (pshsc.org)

Vessel Traffic Service Manual: User’s Manual (uscg.mil)

Karen Sullivan
Karen Sullivan
Karen Sullivan is a Port Townsend writer and poet, former ship captain, marine biologist, and spokesperson for a federal agency. She is a member of the Rainshadow Journal collective and is at work on a book. You can see her other work at https://karenlsullivan.com


  1. This is a great, informative piece. All boaters who consider venturing into the Puget Sound — whether by sailboat, power boat, kayak, or personal watercraft, should take a moment to read it. Thanks for the helpful writeup.


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