Recently I was asked by a friend, who is sailing as a mate on a tugboat, “what is the best way to prepare over the long term for a pilot entrance examination?” Here was my response:
There are several things you can do to set yourself up to be successful not only in taking a pilot exam, but in doing the actual job.
Start looking at the different pilot groups and consider how each group has very different jobs. For example, in Puget Sound you’ll find mostly large cargo including bulk, containers, and tankers; one pilot might stand up to a 10 hour solo watch; there will be lots of shiphandling and working with tugs, and you’ll have close to a split schedule of work, but lots of highway driving to get to jobs. In Southeast Alaska, you’ll work with mostly cruise ships; there will be two pilots on the ship for days at a time; there will not be as much direct shiphandling, and you’re looking at 4 months of work in the summer season and then the rest of the year off. And so on; different regions present very different schedules, challenges, and incomes.
Once you get a sense of which type of piloting job appeals to you, research the hell out of their entry requirements and their training program. Some offer stipends, some require an Unlimited Tonnage Master while others only require a 1600 Ton Master’s license. Some are 2 year training programs, some are 4, and some vary in length based on your progress as a trainee.
Once you think you know which group you want to go for, plan all of your sailing to set yourself up for that goal.
Be a lifetime student of people. What? Yes, people! Pilots must immediately incorporate themselves into the bridge team the moment they step onto the bridge. If the team is uncomfortable with your decision, you need to recognize it from body language or other subtle cues immediately and ask yourself if you effed up, or maybe you just didn't explain your plan well enough. It is a new day in piloting and no longer are pilots the stoic stranger on the bridge. You've got just a few seconds to earn the team's trust.
Be a lifetime student of shiphandling. Watch how people handle ships, boats, barges etc. in various environmental conditions. Think about power, maneuvering levers, pivot points, and the effects of the wind and current. Take every class and read every book you can get on shiphandling to the point where you recognize that different authors have different theories, and try them out for yourself when you get an opportunity. If you don't have the conn, pretend you do and give commands in your head, trying to predict what the ship will do and then reflect upon the job and decide if it could have been done differently; specifically, more elegantly. Talk to every shiphandler you respect and pick their brain. Some newbies aren’t able to verbalize what they are thinking while shiphandling, but don't get frustrated and don't fall into the habit of holding back when you aren’t sure what you are trying to convey. Pilots MUST be able to verbalize their plan to the bridge team, as well as execute it in the moment via spoken commands. Pilots don’t touch the throttles or wheel at this level. All verbal.
Be a lifetime student of the COLREGs. Not the USCG exam version of the nautical rules of the road; I'm talking the Craig Allen/ Farwell's insight into the rules. You should consciously put every vessel interaction you encounter into the context of the COLREGs. Read Farwell's like it is your bible, because if it isn't now, it will be when you become a pilot.
Be a lifetime student of tides, currents and wind. Start a “Ports Journal” for every port you visit and jot down the environmentals you are expecting (what is predicted) prior to arrival; then write down how you think that current will push your vessel and what you should expect to steer to counter it. After the fact, review what you actually experienced. For example, Juneau has a crazy hydraulic current that only occurs when the tide is +10' or more, as the flood spills over the Mendenhall Bar. What the what? Exactly. Many ports have wildly unusual local phenomena such as this, and local knowledge is the key to approaching these unique situations. The more you get into the habit of paying attention to local and seasonal effects, the better you get at planning your shiphandling vs. reacting to the unexpected.
Be a lifetime student of natural ranges. Every place you visit, whether it is just once, or on your milk run, start looking out the window for natural ranges to help you determine if you are getting set, or if you are encroaching on a "no-go" area. Write these down in your Ports Journal. Also, when you find a range and are on it, look at the RADAR and memorize that view as well. Incorporate all of these tools into the "do things correlate?" question you should be asking yourself constantly.
Be a lifetime student of navigation. Note this is pretty far down the list. By now, we can all navigate, right? But what the really excellent navigators do is make it look damn easy. They understand how the outside environmentals are affecting the ship, they always know where they are, and they are constantly not only looking out the window, but integrating and correlating the data from all of their equipment. We are required to use "all available means" to safely navigate, so I'm not going to badmouth ECDIS, but you had better understand the inherent limitations of electronic charts and, more importantly, recognize when the ECDIS, RADAR, and depth finder do not jibe with what you are seeing when you look out the window.
Finally, learn to critique your skills in a constructive manner and practice, practice, practice. After every single maneuver I did as Mate and Captain, I would later ask myself why I did certain things and what could I have done differently or better. Then - and this is important - I would incorporate those lessons learned into my next maneuver and start the cycle over again. By being willing to deconstruct your skills without beating yourself up, you will create a habit of continuous improvement and will enter a pilot training program far, far above the skill set of the average trainee.