Captain Hill Wilson - Marine Pilot and Author of Nautical History

by John M. MacFarlane 2012

Captain Hill Wilson Marine Pilot and Author

Captain Hill Wilson - Master Mariner, Marine Pilot and Author

Captain Hill Wilson was born in Northern Ireland but grew up in Cumberland, England. His father was a Master Mariner so now it seems only natural that he would follow family tradition and go to sea himself. In 1944 he was indentured as a Cadet Officer to the Park Steamship Company in the postion of Cadet Officer. He joined the Algonquin Park (a Canadian ship) and served in the Deck Department before attending the St. Margaret’s Sea Training School, at Hubbards Nova Scotia. He was one of the few students there with any actual sea time so he was able to complete the course in only six weeks. He joined the Aspen Park (based out of Vancouver BC) which began his lifelong links to the west coast.

Hill Wilson

Hill Wilson – Cadet Officer

In the Aspen Park as a Cadet Officer he stood watches but functioned mainly as an underpaid seaman doing whatever task might be assigned. His training consisted mainly of paying close attention to what the officers were doing to manage and command the ship. The off watch Cadets, on many occasions, worked on deck between watches and frequently acted as watchman in port. He recalls that the accommodation was ‘pleasant’, the apprentices ate with the officers and wore a uniform when they were in port.

His career reflects the evolution of the marine industry in British Columbia. After the Second World War, the Western Canada Steamship Company took over the ship and kept existing crews in place. In 1946 his indenture was transferred to the Western Canada Steamship Company and he served in the Lake Tatla as Third Mate and Medical Officer (a result of a qualification he had received in industrial first aid). He served a watch alone on the bridge from 8 am to noon and 8pm to midnight. The Master was available in case of any unusual event but otherwise he had charge of the ship while on watch. He recalls that the crew were a rough and tumble group, trouble-makers were slowly weeded out and over time an efficient and happy group crewed the ship. He saw the world carrying cargoes to India, China, Australia and the UK, among others, while he was a junior officer. His experience and training produced a confident and self-reliant young officer.

In 1948 he was appointed as a Third Mate moving up in seniority in ships of the Western Canada Steamship Company - which had purchased 21 ships from the Park Steamship Company. He served as Chief Officer of the steamship Lake Sicamous. In those days he worked pretty much continuously seven days a week, with no holidays. He was supposed to receive two weeks annual leave per year but he does not recall actually receiving the leave or pay in lieu. Loading and unloading cargo was slow in those days - and turnaround could be up to three weeks while alongside, working to supervise cargo. In British Columbia specialized Supercargoes (a shore side position dedicated to loading and unloading) supervised the cargo handling but this was not the situation elsewhere in the world.

He transferred to Canadian Pacific Steamships (Ocean Service) as 4th Mate and then 3rd Mate in the freighter Maplecove. He resigned to attend Navigation School in Vancouver to study for qualification as a Master Mariner. This was a six month process and critical to moving into a position as skipper. During this time he was encouraged by Captain Mickey Balotti (a well known west coast mariner) to move into tugboats so he could get the sea time and experience needed to write the exam to become a BC Coast Pilot.

Coastal work in tugs turned out to be far more interesting than the deep sea work Wilson had been doing. He was also learning the geography, tides and currents and aspects of the vessels that created the economy. As Second Mate in the tug Salvor he towed huge Davis Rafts of logs. He served as a deckhand on the Salvage Queen (he had to build up his seniority again in spite of his qualifications). He also served in the tug Hecate Straits, towing from Johnstone Strait to Howe Sound. He served in many of the tugs of the Straits Towing Company over those years.

In 1958 a new company, Arctic Shipping Ltd. of Edmonton Alberta, was formed to tow large cargoes into the Arctic from New Westminster BC to service various government departments in the Western Arctic and other civilian operations. Normally cargoes were carried up the Mackenzie River but it was thought in those days that Vancouver could be a better base. An ex-naval vessel (formerly HMCS Armentieres) turned tug, renamed as the A.G. Garrish, was refitted and re–engined to tow a large barge around the north coast of Alaska into the Western Arctic, renamed again as the Arctic Rover. Wilson says that the whole operation was ill-prepared for the conditions that they met during the voyage. Sea conditions were so demanding on the old vessel that the seams in the deck opened up and water leaked through the cracks. Wilson had to stop the vessel 19 times to fix engine problems before reaching Tuktoyaktuk. They towed a newly built barge with hatch covers - carrying huts, insulation, fuel, and other cargo for the DEW Line (distant early warning), posts of the Oblate Fathers and staff of the Department of Indian Affairs.

Much of the Arctic supply shipping was handled by the US Army particularly in support of the DEW Line. Some Canadian companies viewed this as an opportunity missed. As a two-year test of the Pacific Sea Route to the Arctic the results seemed conclusive - they route was not competitive with the Mackenzie River. Although they had good ice conditions they left too late in the shipping season. More to the point they realized that sea charts in the western Arctic were quite inadequate - soundings were very sparse except where the DEW line convoys had previously tracked.

In 1959, the second year, Wilson took a rebuilt Arctic Rover north, carrying a company manager and an ice pilot. Flight-Lieutenant Scott Alexander (a former Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman), was one of the RCAF’s experts on the Arctic, joined the tug as Ice Pilot. Alexander organized and headed the RCAF’s famous Arctic survival school, and helped invent the nylon–pile fabric which substituted for caribou skin in Arctic clothing and which was also used for synthetic fur coats).

They encountered lots of ice that year. They relied on the Gyro compass and the magnetic compass worked to some extent for navigation. They carried a similar cargo as the previous year. They travelled east to Spence Bay and then north to Sheppards Bay on the Boothia Peninsula. The cargo was unloaded manually as the the cranes and other equipment turned out to be over-sized or inoperable. Navigation was hair-raising with no soundings showing up on the chart. They would experience deep water when suddenly a pingo (an ice pinnacle) would show up on the depth sounder (rubbed off by sea ice to a depth of 18 feet). The ship drew 17 feet, often causing concern of grounding - or worse. The towline to the barge dangled deep in the water too but with luck they were successful.

On his return Wilson returned to coastal towing. His Arctic time did not count for qualification as a Marine Pilot - that had to be British Columbia coastal time. His time in command of tugs on the Pacific Coast was exactly what was required. In 1960 he took command of the famous salvage tug Sudbury II and towed surplus American ships to Japan for scrapping. He passed his selection for Pilot and joined them in 1966. By 1991 he was the Senior Pilot on the Pacific Coast.

Captain Hill Wilson Marine Pilot and Author

Captain Hill Wilson – Marine Pilot

A Marine Pilot is a professional licensed mariner whose role is to advise the Captain of a ship on the safest route to be taken to bring a vessel into its port of call. Although the Captain of the ship is very familiar with his own vessel and crew, he is not necessarily familiar with the specifics of each port where his vessel must go and therefore he requires the local expertise of the Marine Pilot to ensure that the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo arrive at their next port of call in a safe and efficient manner. Marine Pilots are intimately familiar with the coastlines, inland waters, shoals, harbors, ports, weather, tides, shipping regulations and restrictions of the area for which they are licensed and use their years of experience to prevent the vessel from grounding on any underwater shoals or colliding with any other vessels. Marine Pilots are also familiar with the different propulsion systems, hull design, and rudder characteristics of the various types of ships and how these will react at different speeds and in different wind, tidal and current conditions. The Pilots are responsible to their respective countries to ensure that the coastlines and sensitive marine environment remain unspoiled. Most countries of the world have their own Marine Pilots that go aboard vessels to guide them into port. (Source:

Wilson served as a Director, Secretary/Treasurer and then as President of the British Columbia Coast Pilots Ltd. Marine Pilots manage themselves and provide qualified personnel to guide shipping on the coast. There are rigorous requirements to qualify as a Marine Pilot.

Within Canada, the federal Pilotage Act dictates the provision of pilotage services. The Pilotage Act is part of the larger Canada Marine Act and requires the maintenance of four separate Pilotage Authorities; the Atlantic, St. Lawrence, Great Lakes and Pacific Pilotage Authority. Each Authority is mandated to provide a "safe and efficient" pilotage service for the area under its control and may do so by hiring employee Pilots or by contracting with a private company for the services of marine Pilots. In British Columbia, the Pacific Pilotage Authority employs 8 Fraser River Pilots for pilotage duties in the Fraser River and has a contract for services with The British Columbia Coast Pilots Ltd. for the entire coastline. (Source:

The Marine Pilots of Canada's West Coast - The First Century 1858-1958

The Marine Pilots of Canada's West Coast – The First Century 1858–11958

Wilson has been interested in the heritage of the Pilotage on the Pacific Coast for many years and has undertaken extensive research and writing, eventually publishing three books. He is currently editing at least one more book, with others in the planning stage.

  • – A School of Seamen –A Pride of Ships is the story of the St. Margaret’s Sea Training School, Hubbards Nova Scotia 1942–1946.
  • – The Marine Pilots of Canada’s West Coast –The First Century 1858–1958.
  • – The High Tradition of the Sea –Its Ships and Men

Besides his Second World War decorations he has received the Korean Medal and the Korean Volunteer Service Medals for his service carrying cargo into the port of Pusan during the Korean War 1952-53. In 2002 he received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal and in 2005 the Commendation of the Minister of Veteran's Affairs.

Captain Hill Wilson has devoted much energy to enhancing the position of Master Mariners, pilots and other ship's officers as National President of the Canadian Merchant Service Guild. He recommended that all mariners be covered by the same Guild. During this time Marine Engineers were brought into membership with ships officers. As a direct result in the late 1950s the Company of Master Mariners of Canada was formed which today represents their interests.

I first met Captain Wilson in 1988 when he was the President of the Board of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. In his usual calm and steadfast manner he initiated the difficult process that put the Museum back on the path to sustainability. That effort rescued the Museum from a threatened imminent closure. It took a lot of resolve and was an example to me of what it took for him to see through the accomplishments of his several careers. He continues to make contributions to maritime heritage and to the welfare of mariners.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Captain Hill Wilson –1 Master Mariner, Marine Pilot and Author. 2012.

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