Pilotage is local knowledge. When you come to getting into a port or a shallow area with strong currents you have to have someone local on board who understand the situation whether you like it or not.
John Rich, 2009.
John Rich, born in 1933, came from a long line of Bristol Channel Pilots, stretching back to the 1700s. In 1948 at the age of 15 he joined the pilot service as an apprentice. Licensed in 1959, by 28 he was driving the largest tankers in the world to Avonmouth.
The ever-changing tides, currents, mud banks, rocks and sandbanks in the Bristol Channel make it necessary for arriving and departing ships to use local pilots to guide them through safely - without their expertise Bristol's success as an international trading port would have been limited. Many other British ports have river pilots, and their skills and knowledge is central to Britain's success as a maritime trading nation.
Bristol Channel Pilots have played a formative role in the history of Bristol, from preventing Irish Catholic troops from landing during the Civil War, to rescuing shipwreck victims. The pilots often came from Pill, where being a pilot was a family tradition. They developed their own specialist boats, called cutters, which were rugged, fast and manoeuvrable, enabling them to race for jobs piloting arriving ships. It was a hazardous but lucrative job.