The French Connection:

                       Brief history of Mobile Bar Pilots

Pilots and Mobile, Alabama date back to the French arrival there in 1702.

Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville founded Fort Louis de La Louisiana to take advantage of the natural harbor located southeast of Massacre Island and inshore of Pelican Island.   The harbor conditions at the time were described as very favorable for shipping and commerce: “In the port there are five and one-half to six fathoms of water, very little swell, and the bottom is all sand and mud.” Additionally, “It is capable of containing more than fifteen vessels of forty to fifty cannons and many other smaller ones.”

The first known professional pilot found working Mobile Bay was Nicholas La Voye.  Little is known about La Voye other than that he ran the vessel ESPERANCE aground near Massacre Island, much to the chagrin of its skipper, Ensign Jousellin de Marigny.   

In 1705, three ships - Saint-Antoine, Precieuse and Nuestra Señora de la Rosario - were lost around Mobile Bay.  Sailing conditions in the anchorage outside the bay were known to be “very good” except when the winds were not favorable for entering.  And ship traffic in the period was described as light but, nevertheless, the three casualties clearly suggested the need for permanent harbor pilots.

First Permanent Pilot

After several vital supply ships were lost attempting to enter the bay, the King of France appointed Simon Causott - a resident of Massacre Island - as the first permanent pilot.  Causott’s assignment was to safely navigate ships across the sand bar at the bay’s entrance.  

French influence would last until Mobile came under the jurisdiction of the United States in 1813.  The Bar Pilots shortly later lived in the Navy Cove community known as Pilot Town.  The pilots initially worked independent of each other.  When a ship was spotted on the horizon, a race would ensue and the fastest boat won the job.  But this system of competitive pilotage proved to be inefficient and problematic.

In order to improve their service, the pilots needed to be stationed at the sea buoy instead of Pilot Town. There was just one problem, maintaining a pilot boat large enough to handle the rough weather in the open seas was too expensive for one man. In 1843, four pilots found a solution. They formed a consortium, purchased a new boat, and took turns with the jobs. Within a decade, four other consortiums had formed to operate on the Mobile Bar.

The Civil War

The outbreak of the Civil War resulted in the destruction or confiscation of all of the antebellum pilot boats. When the war ended, the sixteen pilots pooled their resources and formed the Mobile Bar Pilot Association. The exact date is not recorded, but it likely happened around June 23, 1865, the date that President Andrew Johnson officially ended the blockade.

In the early 1800’s, Mobile Bay was too shallow for ocean-going vessels to sail to Mobile harbor, so the vessels anchored in the lower bay and their cargo was transferred into smaller boats. Beginning in 1831, the Mobile Ship Channel was incrementally dredged. This led to a second system of pilotage. Bar Pilots navigated the ships into the lower bay anchorage, and after the vessel’s draft was lightened, Upper Bay Pilots guided the vessels into Mobile harbor. In 1888, dredging began that would eliminate the need for the lower bay anchorage. 

Pilot Groups Merge

This led to the merger of the two pilot organizations in 1894. The company was known as the Mobile Bar and Bay Pilots Association until it was reorganized in 1931, and the name was shortened to the Mobile Bar Pilots Association. In 1997 the company was once again reorganized and is now known as Mobile Bar Pilots, LLC.

Pilots Lost on Duty

Over the course of the last 304 years, 162 mariners have served as pilots for the Port of Mobile. Four of them have died while on duty:

Johnnie Johnson 1864-1928: Captain Johnson was crushed to death between the pilot boat and the pier at Fort Morgan during a gale on May 20, 1928.

John Edward Wilson 1886-1944: Captain Wilson died while piloting a ship in the vicinity of the Middle Bay Lighthouse. 

John Alex Norville 1894-1947: Captain Norville was lost at sea after falling from a pilot ladder on March 8, 1947.

Walter Andrew Johnson 1964-2015: Captain Johnson died shortly after boarding a ship at the sea buoy on January 9, 2015.    

Mobile Bar Pilots Today

Today, there are 13 Mobile Bar Pilots  and 6 apprentice pilots in training.  They operate two pilot boats, the Alabama and Mobile which have been docked on Dauphin Island since 1965.   The pilots handle an average of 3,000 transits each year including containerships, crude oil tankers, product tankers, military vessels, bulk carriers with coal, steel, and grain as well as general cargo vessels with rolled/coiled steel and wood products.  There are two large repair shipyards in Mobile that require pilots to handle numerous vessels that call these facilities.  They also see numerous specialty vessels constructed for work in the oilfield.  And commencing November 2016.  The Mobile pilots will board the Carnival Fantasy on a weekly basis. 

The Mobile Bar Pilots enjoy one of the safest records in the industry and are highly regarded supporters of the Mobile community.   

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