The first registered pilots, George Tobin and Thomas Sutton were granted pilot's licences in 1839,
Since 1839, pilot services have been provided to ships bound for Melbourne, Geelong or Westernport Bay by the Port Phillip Sea Pilots, an organisation fully owned and operated by the pilots themselves. The company provides its services to shipping 24 hours a day, every day.
Melbourne pilots are experienced ex-ship Masters with extensive local knowledge of the channels, depth of water, currents and dangers within and around the port for which they are licensed. A pilot is responsible for the safe conduct and navigation of the ship from the time he takes control from the ship's Master after boarding at sea, until the vessel is safely moored at the wharf, or vice versa. This includes all steering and engine orders, the placement of tugs and direct orders to the tugs by portable VHF radio.
The original pilots camped on the beach at Queenscliff on the site of the present Pilot Station, and were taken to and from ships by 30ft. whaleboats which were often manned by convicts, Today the pilots board from a fleet of six fast pilot launches. The pilot boarding ground for Port Phillip lies 3 to 5 miles south-west from the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse. The control centre at the Queenscliff Pilot Station is equipped with radar and VHF, and is manned at all times by Master Pilots. The pilots work a roster system of two weeks on and one week off, and they take it in turns for a week as pilot in charge of the Queenscliff Station.
Pilotage is compulsory for all vessels over 35 metres L.O.A bound for or leaving from berths in Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, except for coastal vessels whose Masters hold a current Exemption Certificate.
Pilot launch George Tobin, named after the first Port Phillip Pilot
At the Queenscliff marina, the powerful launches used by the pilot's service can be seen at the dock opposite the maintenance facility managed by the Port Phillip Sea Pilots.
Pilot launch Hawk IV docked at Queenscliff
When an incoming vessel requires a pilot, radio contact is made with the service. A launch is used to convey the pilot outside the Heads where the pilot boards the vessel and takes control until the vessel docks at Melbourne or Geelong.
Pilot launch approaching an outbound container vessel off Point Lonsdale
Vessels embarking on an outwards journey are often accompanied by pilots as well, and the launches are used to recover the pilot from the vessel once it is clear of the heads.
Three pilot launches moored at the Queenscliff Marina
Port Phillip Sea Pilot Vessel At Work
Port Phillip Sea Pilot Vessel Leaving The Trecherous Heads