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France: Pilot flags

Last modified: 2004-02-28 by ivan sache
Keywords: pilot | anchor (white) | station de pilotage de la seine |
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[Pilot flag]by Zeljko Heimer

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Description of the flag

Red flag including a white rectangle including itself a blue rectangle in the middle.

Source: Album des Pavillons [pay00]

Zeljko Heimer, 27 September 2001

Former flags

Pilot flag, 1917

[Pilot flag, 1917]by Zeljko Heimer


  • National Geographic (1917) [geo17]
  • Webster's New International Dictionary (1924) [wbs24]

Pilot flag, 1842

[Pilot ensign 1842]by Phil Nelson

Source: R.H. Laurie's flag chart (1842), reproduced in Wilson [wil99]

Piloting station of the river Seine (Station de pilotage de la Seine)

[Station de pilotage de la Seine]by Zeljko Heimer and Ivan Sache

The lower valley of the Seine links two of the biggest French ports, Rouen and Le Havre. Navigation in this area is particularly difficult and requires an experienced pilot.

In the past, there were a lot of islands between Rouen and Le Havre, which complicated navigation. During big high tides, a tidal bore (in French, mascaret) was caused by the inflowing sea waters squeezed between the banks of the river. The bore was able to reverse the normal flow of the river and moved counter-current at a very high speed. The bore was particularly violent during equinoctial tides and reached its maximum speed near Caudebec-en-Caux, in a place called Barre-y-Va (lit., bore goes there).

In 1843, six months after their marriage, Léopoldine Hugo and her husband Charles Vacquerie were caught by the bore, which sank their small boat near the family manor in Villequier. Leopoldine's father, the poet Victor Hugo, never recovered from the loss of her prefered daughter and his son-in-law. He expressed his sorrow in some of his most inspired poems, to be found in the collection Les Contemplations.
The islands were removed and the banks were corrected, so that the tidal bore is now very weak and no longer dangerous for navigation.

Piloting on the Seine was prescribed by king Henri III on 1 April 1566. The royal ordinance on piloting was written by Admiral of France Jean de Mouy. The regulation remained unchanged until 1792, prescribing:

  • the territorial limits of the piloting station;
  • the way the pilots were appointed;
  • the collection of taxes;
  • the signaling of dangerous places;
  • the amount of the fee, which depended of the origin (local or not) of the boat, its nationality and the direction of navigation.

The regulation also prescribed the number of pilots, 100 in Quillebeuf and 49 in Villequier. King Henri IV appointed only 99 pilots in Quillebeuf, the 100th pilot being His Majesty Himself. The first pilot boat was used in the XVIIth century. Professional misconduct was severely repressed. If a pilot deliberately beached a ship, he was sentenced to le dernier supplice, that is immediate hanging, on the beaching place. If the mistake was undeliberate, the pilot was whipped. If the pilot was drunk, he was fined. In those early ages, the pilots used sticks and sounding lines to assess the water depth. The few available maps were obsolete and inaccurate. Modern computerized maps are made today using ultrasound probing.

In 1891, chief pilot Amédée Dormoy reorganized the piloting stations. He purchased three cutters which met the ships in the estuary of Seine. Before, the ships had to stop in Le Havre to pick up a pilot. The cutters proved to be unefficient when steamers became the most common ships on the Seine.

Today, the pilots are brought on board by a small orange motorboat called pilotine when reaching the harbour of La Carosse in Le Havre. The pilot guides the ship to Caudebec-en-Caux. A new pilot then guides the ship to Rouen. The station was formerly located in Villequier, and moved to Caudebec in 1985. When reaching Rouen, the ships might require the assistance of tugboats.

The use of a pilot is mandatory for all ships longer than 45 m. Two major pilots are elected in Le Havre and Rouen, respectively, by their peers, for two years. They set up the daily navigation plan called équation. There were 117 pilots on the Seine in 1960, 68 in 1999 and 65 in 2002, including one of the only women pilot in the world. The pilots of the Seine downstream (Le Havre-Caudebec) are nicknamed Margats (seabirds), whereas those of the Seine upstream (Caudebec-Rouen) are nicknamed Perroquets (landbirds). The pilots of the Seine are also competent on the Channel, between Caen-Ouistreham and Dieppe.

The station is organized as a workers' cooperative, placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Transportation. A pilot must be aged between 24 and 35, have a Captain diploma and have some seniority on merchant or State ships.

The flag of the Piloting Station of the Seine is red with a white anchor. It can be seen on a painting by Eugène Grandin showing the pilot boat Emile Duchemin, one of the three cutters purchased in 1891. The Emile Duchemin was sunk by an English steamer on 24 November 1894.

I have also seen the flag as a car sticker in Le Havre, the cars being probably owned by pilots.

More details on piloting in the Seine valley are available in the Musée de la Marine de Seine in Caudebec. The information given above was extracted from the Sequana-Normandie website.

Ivan Sache, 16 October 2003