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Port Phillip Sea Pilots

Home > Melbourne > Escape the City | Lookouts
by Ian Gill (subscribe)
I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published June 19th 2013
Show Me The Way - Port Phillip Sea Pilots
For many of the ships entering and leaving Port Phillip Bay the services of a highly experienced Sea Pilot are essential. The entrance between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean is about 3 kilometres wide but the many reefs projecting into the waterway limit the navigable channel to about 1 kilometre. This, together with the very strong tidal flows through it, makes The Rip one of the most dangerous channels in the world. Many ships have been lost in these waters and the need for skilled pilots was not lost on Victoria's early settlers.

Queenscliff Ships Shipping Bellarine Port Phillip
The original Port Phillip Sea Pilots operated from this beach beneath Queenscliff's Shortlands Bluff


The history of the Port Phillip Sea Pilots can be traced back to June 1839 when the Governor of the then Colony of New South Wales granted a license to George Tobin to operate a Pilot service out of Queenscliff. Tobin's crews operated from the beach below Shortland's Bluff, very near the site of the present day Sea Pilots Station, and ferried Pilots to and from ships in whaleboats.

Queenscliff Ships Shipping Bellarine Port Phillip
The present day headquarters is found very near the spot from which George Tobin and his crews operated the Bays first Pilot services


The discovery of gold in 1851, not long after the colony of Victoria gained independence from New South Wales, led to a massive increase in the number of ships entering and leaving Port Phillip and several were lost when inexperienced Captains attempted to navigate The Rip without the services of a Pilot. These losses led to the Government taking over responsibility for the service and the introduction of three cutters Boomerang, Corsair and Anonyma.
By 1854 there were 56 pilots on the payroll and, anxious to rid themselves of the cost of the service, the Government invited the Pilots to purchase the vessels and operate as a private cooperative.

Queenscliff Ships Shipping Bellarine Port Phillip
Powerful, high-speed launches carry the Sea Pilots to and from ships requiring their services


In 1901 the service took delivery of its first steam powered cutter, the Victoria, and from then until 1979 operated a number of small ships transporting Pilots to and from vessels outside the heads. This procedure involved transferring the Pilot from the Pilot Cutter to the ship in a small workboat. It required the ship to stop beam on to the wind and sea so that the workboat was protected on the vessels lee side during the transfer. It was a slow and inefficient process which led to the Pilots engaging in a world-wide study to find a better, more efficient system.

Two options were trialed, high speed launches from which the pilot transferred directly to the ship, and helicopter transfers.
The helicopters proved to be not cost-effective and led to the introduction of a fleet of Pilot Launches, the fore-runners to the bright orange vessels which can be seen today darting through the heads to and from their Queenscliff base.

Queenscliff Ships Shipping Bellarine Port Phillip
Port Phillip Sea Pilots guide an estimated 4000 ships through the treacherous Rip every year.


Working around the clock the Port Phillip Sea Pilots attend to more than 4,000 ships a year operating to and from the ports of Melbourne, Geelong and Western Port and ranging from small coastal traders to container ships displacing up to 70,000 tonnes.

One of the best vantage points to observe the Pilot Boats and shipping entering or leaving the Bay is from the public car park immediately behind Fort Queenscliff and adjacent to the white lighthouse. This site is one corner of the triangular waterway, formed by Shortland's Bluff, Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean, which is The Rip.

Other great vantage points can be found at Point Lonsdale Lighthouse or Rip View Lookout, on the cliff-top overlooking Pier Beach at Point Lonsdale.

Queenscliff Ships Shipping Bellarine Port Phillip
Queenscliff's marine disaster bell bears testament to the dangers for shipping entering and leaving Port Phillip Bay
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Why? Give in to the lure of the sea
When: Anytime
Where: Pilot Station, 2 Tobin Drive Queenscliff
Your Comment
It's very scenic. Great pics and digging the history.
by Katy Holliday (score: 3|1133) 2195 days ago
Very interesting. I will lookup when IT visit Queenscliffe on my trip around Australia. I will be going across on the Sorento ferry in the nextfew weeks and look forward to seeing the pilot boats. Bob Davey - Queensland
by bobda (score: 0|5) 2194 days ago
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