A late 19th-century pilot boat rides off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, at the outer entrance to New York Harbor, in this image from the early 1900s.
Pilots appear in the earliest maritime history, using their skills and local knowledge to guide boats in and out of harbors; in Greek annals, they were often fishermen who knew the local waters. As trade increased, piloting became even more important, with shippers eager for a safe passage. The job became more sophisticated — and competitive.
By the turn of the 20th century, the vessel shown here was pretty much the standard design. It carried a schooner rig (the cutter was also popular) and was built for speed to beat the competition to the incoming ships, but it could also reef down and ride out rough weather. The large number on the sail was for easy identification of both boat and captain; the “2” identifies the Ambrose Snow, one of several Sandy Hook pilot boats that served New York and New Jersey ports.
Perhaps the most celebrated pilot was Capt. Dick Brown, the 19th-century Sandy Hook mariner. In 1851, the New York Yacht Club was searching for the right man to captain the schooner America, its entry into England’s celebrated regatta, the Hundred Guinea Cup, which would go on to be known as the America’s Cup. Designer George Steers’ challenger was big and tough (she was sailed across the Atlantic to compete in the regatta) and a schooner, to boot. Brown, Steers said, was just the sailor to skipper her, “an excellent and suitable man.”
The yacht club was persuaded, and the rest is history. Brown and the crew he trained had America so far ahead at the finish line of the royal regatta around the Isle of Wight that when Queen Victoria asked who was second, the reply was, “There is no second.”
New York Yacht Club member George L. Schuyler called Brown “careful, reliable [and] faithful, one of the best men in his position I ever saw.”
And a Sandy Hook pilot.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue.