The Pilot's Tale

Tony Porter: Humber Pilot

Hull on Film: Tales From A City Exhibition (2018) by Yorkshire Film ArchiveYorkshire Film Archive

Tony Porter - Humber Pilot (2018) by Yorkshire Film ArchiveYorkshire Film Archive

The Pilot's Tale: Tony Porter

Born in Nottingham, Tony Porter first went to sea on the top sail schooner ‘Malcolm Miller’, which was run by the Sail Training Association, before an apprenticeship with Ocean Fleets in 1974 saw him sailing for West Africa on the MV ‘Dunkwa’.

Tony was promoted to 2nd Mate in 1978 and subsequently took part in the Falklands campaign as 2nd Mate of the ammunition-carrying MV ‘Lycaon’.  He qualified as a Master in 1987.

Tony Porter: The Pilot's Tale (2018) by Yorkshire Film ArchiveYorkshire Film Archive

The Humber estuary is a notoriously difficult channel to navigate. It is over 38 miles long and 20% of the total land surface of England drains into it. The rivers Aire, Derwent, Hull, Don, Ouse, Trent and Wharfe all reach the sea in the estuary. The tide can rise over 5 metres and there can be a 7 knot current. The position of the sand banks and the channel itself constantly change.

Humber pilotage began in 1512, when King Henry Vlll ordered the brethren of Hull Trinity House, a religious guild providing support and almshouses for the needy, to assign “Good Men” to pilot “Strange” ships into and out of Hull.

Whitton IslandYorkshire Film Archive

30 years later, Henry VIII made it compulsory for all foreign ships to have a pilot, with Trinity House examining and licensing pilots for the work. Since 1849, the Pilotage Act has allowed for British Masters and Mates to be examined and issued a pilotage certificate.

There are no longer any self-employed pilots on the estuary, and the service is now managed by Associated British Ports.

Humber EstuaryYorkshire Film Archive

Pilot Boat, Hull (1982)Yorkshire Film Archive

In 1991, after a lifetime spent at sea, Tony re-trained to be a Hull pilot. The training took six months, with 139 training trips and stiff exams at the end.

“My first solo trip as a pilot was the 'Egret'. She was 25 years old, with a magnetic compass and a great big wooden wheel! Just as she was swinging to pick me up the fog descended. Steering in fog with a magnetic compass is a nightmare.

Fortunately there was another vessel, so I stuck to her stern light and followed her up. By the time we got to where the Trent and Ouse separated, the fog had lifted. The fun still wasn't over as whilst we were still some distance from the berth I explained to the German Skipper that we would be using the anchor to swing off the berth, so please have it ready.

He dropped the forward window, that was held up on a leather strap like an old fashioned train window, and shouted instructions to his Ghanaian crew on the focsle, who promptly let the anchor go when we were going about 6 knots round a bend, still about half a mile from where we had to be!”

Whitton IslandYorkshire Film Archive

Tony Porter describes being run aground on the Whittons:

"On 3rd July 1991 I was on the 'Sea Medway', with a pilot in the Hawk anchorage, and we were bound up to Goole. It was my second trip of the day, having come down on a ship from the Trent.

“As part of our training, I had been out on the buoy tender previously to shift the buoys to mark the changed channel across the Whittons. I wondered at how difficult the turn would now be from Read's Island up towards Brough, especially with a tide running. It turned out to be a busy tide with many ships heading upriver, and it was dense fog.

“The pilot I was with decided to do everything himself due to the conditions, so I was a bystander. After Hull it all became a bit of a procession, with the front runners being reluctant to speed up. Along Read's Island an impatient pilot at the back decided to overtake and get to the front. All went well until he came to the acute starboard turn, 90 degrees or more as I recall. He turned too soon and caught the buoy around his rudder and propeller and dragged it out of position.

"It was then like a motorway pile up, with pilots not knowing where to make the turn and just getting washed aground. Some made it, but not us. We were there over a tide. Some of the vessels coming down on the ebb had a similar problem and ended up aground too. The Humber tug 'Riverman' helped us off the next morning.”

Tony Porter - The Pilot's Tale (2018) by Yorkshire Film ArchiveYorkshire Film Archive

After nearly 10 years’ service as a pilot Tony, and all the self-employed Humber pilots, were de-certified by the Harbour Authority who replaced them with their own staff.

In 2002, he went to work in the oil industry with Swire Pacific Offshore as Master on their vessels. Tony ended his time at sea in 2013 as Master of the Singapore Navy's submarine rescue ship.

“My sailings are now confined to my wife and I spending 6 months a year on our narrow boat. For Hull's year as City of Culture I relived old times by bringing our boat 'Holderness' down the Trent and Humber to Hull and Beverley, and then back up the Humber and Ouse to points north.”

Credits: Story

We are indebted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work to preserve these films and make them accessible for future generations. The research has been extensive and the exhibition contains only some of the stories we have discovered. To see further films visit

It is not possible to list everyone who has helped with this project – we are hugely grateful for the generosity of responses we have received, from families, historians and volunteers. In particular we would like to thank.

Gary Bales BEM, Jonathan Barker, Pete Bass, Val Baxter, Keith Bolton, Mike Crawley, Tom Goulder, Tony Porter, Malcolm Dunn, Daniel Morgan.

Curator: Martin Watts, Hull on Film
Editor: Andy Burns, Yorkshire Film Archive
Writer: Ruth Patman Yorkshire Film Archive
Archivist: Megan McCooley, Yorkshire Film Archive

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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