From galleons to container ships: the Dunkirk Pilotage 1566-2010

« The pilotage is a service rendered to the captains at the entrance to ports, harbours and shipping channels by personnel commissioned by the State »

This short definition contains in itself the essence of the business of maritime pilots.

Formerly the word PILOT was used for someone, on board a ship, who knew the art of navigation, knew how to measure the height of the sun and the stars to determine the position; The CAPTAIN was the leader of the maritime expedition and not necessarily a sailor.

The word “pilot” comes from the Dutch “peillood“ (soundings). Indeed, in ancient times, the pilot was the man of soundings (loci manens) and, in modern Dutch, he is called “loods” as lead (lood) was formerly used for sounding.

The first local regulation concerning pilots in Dunkirk dates from 1566 from the orders of Philip II of Spain (at the time, Flanders was Spanish). It is in fact to have someone “practical” (in Spanish the pilots said practicos) capable of guiding the heavy galleons carrying troops in large numbers amongst the traitorous sand banks of Flanders, invisible but so dangerous.

In August 1588, the invincible armada in flight was saved by the science of three boatmen from Dunkirk: Michael Jacobsen, François Ryndt and Jacques Rycx, who entered into history.

Admiral Jacobsen called “the fox of the sea” was an ancestor of Jean Bart through the maternal line!

Histoire Pilotage du Dunkerque

Dunkirk became French in 1662 and its pilotage was attached to the Navy Admiral. In 1681 the great order concerning the Navy by Colbert organized the profession, in 1685 there were nine pilots who lived around Dunkirk Harbour – the Old Harbour today. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which concluded the defeat of Louis XIV, closed the port and, until the rupture of the cofferdam in 1720, the pilots returned to deep-sea fishing…

Therefore traders demanded their return and, in 1740, a new regulation of the pilotage emerged. In 1747 the pilots moved to the Leughenaer tower which dominates the harbour entrance and basins.

The revolutionary period was very bad; only 442 boats came in 1793, 335 in 1794, and Bonaparte neglected Dunkirk in favour of Antwerp: 232 vessels in 1806, 132 in 1809, 22 in 1813!!

Fortunately the great industrial development of northern Europe from 1830 boosted the port’s activity, accentuated by the colonial policy of the Second Empire and the arrival in 1848 of the railroad. 2400 ships entered the port in 1840 and almost 4,000 in 1850. The support of the Minister Charles de Freycinet, the hard work of the MP and engineer Florent Guillain in the French parliament and the strategic position of Dunkirk during the War of 1870 allowed, in the late nineteenth century, the building of the large modern docks accessible by locks as modern as the docks.

Pilots, increasingly recruited among the deep sea going Captains, actively participated in the growth by equipping themselves with sailboats patrolling the approaches to the North Sea to meet the three or four masted ships: in Dungeness, northwest of the sand banks and at the Dyck sand bank. The names are still known: Allemès, Cordier, Bommelaer (Uncle Cô), Fiquet, etc. … They were the first pilots in France to organize themselves as a professional corporation (1905).

The 1914-18 war was marked by the transition from sail to steam through the modern ideas of the new generation. After the war, the traffic grew exponentially. On 28 March 1928, the parliament passed a law which reorganized the French pilotage, it is still in effect! Dunkirk became the third port in France. When it came to World War II, pilots were involved in all maritime operations, in particular dynamo operation. Too unassuming, these heroes have never made the most of their actions it is the STATION which was cited in the Order of the Navy.

In 1946, there was nothing left of the port of Dunkirk: in unspeakable conditions pilots brought in cargo-ships: the Jupiter on the 9th August 1946 and by the “big lock” the “Alsacien“ and the “Jean LD” on the 12th October 1947. Having used from 1947 to 1954, old minesweepers, substandard and rotten, the pilots put their famous CORVETTES, floating service stations, in Dyck (north of Calais). They were replaced in 1990 by helicopters…Ships taken are increasingly heavier, ore carriers weigh one hundred and fifty thousand tons, oil twice that weight. We entered the era of gigantism, pilots were prepared: with their helicopters and their shore control station, they ensure the safety of our marine waters and are the leading players in the port activity. What is more, they are irreplaceable! Today, they manoeuvre the 350 metres long container ships – it is far from galleons ten times shorter – but the Flanders sand banks, passes, shoals, currents, winds and storms, they are still there.


Pilot (r) – member of marine Academy