Michael Watson, noted leader of maritime pilots, dead at 72

Michael Robert Watson, of Annapolis, was a state and national maritime pilot leader who had a key role in the dredging of the Baltimore port shipping channel.
Michael Robert Watson, of Annapolis, was a state and national maritime pilot leader who had a key role in the dredging of the Baltimore port shipping channel. (Ellis J. Malashuk / Baltimore Sun)

Michael Robert Watson, a longtime state and national maritime pilot leader who had a key role in the dredging of the Baltimore port shipping channel, died of a heart attack July 23 at his Annapolis home. He was 72.

Mr. Watson, the president of the American Pilots’ Association in Washington, had previously held the top post at the Association of Maryland Pilots for two decades. The national group represents groups of pilots in every state and three that operate on the Great Lakes. Its members pilot more than 95 percent of all international trade vessels navigating U.S. waters.


Born in Washington, D.C., he was the son of Richard L. Watson Sr., a farmer and federal government official, and Lois Hogan Watson. He was raised in McLean, Va., and was a 1961 graduate of McLean High School, where he won science awards. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., in 1965. He then was commissioned into the Naval Reserves. He served on Military Sealift Command ships and supplied troops in South Vietnam. He left military service as a lieutenant.

“Captain Watson was a true friend to pilots throughout the U.S. and the world,” said Paul Kirchner, the American Pilot Association’s executive director. “He was a strong advocate and steady voice for the piloting profession. He worked tirelessly to find ways to enhance pilotage requirements and standards, as well as to advance the standing of pilots within the maritime industry.”


In 1970 he joined the Association of Maryland Pilots. He became a full licensed pilot in 1974 and was elected president of the group in 1982. Captain Watson served as president until 2000, when he was elected to serve as president of the American Pilots’ Association. He was re-elected in 2004, 2008, and, most recently, in 2012.

“My father had many accomplishments, but above all, he was a family man. He made us feel like we were the most important people in the world,” said his daughter, Natalie Watson of Tinton Falls, N.J.

Mr. Watson, who was known as Captain Watson as a bay pilot, was call a “voice of reason” as an advocate for the Port of Baltimore. He was named the 1988 Port Leader of the Year.

“Captain Watson was instrumental in making it possible for big container ships calling at Baltimore to use the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal,” said a 1988 Sun story. “The pilots’ association under Mr. Watson worked closely with the Army Corps of Engineers to make the canal safer for larger ships.”

He also was a key leader, The Sun story said, in winning approval from the federal government for the dredging to deepen the port’s channel to 50 feet.

“Mike was the one who worked with me to get the 50-foot channel,” said former Maritime Commissioner Helen D. Bentley. “He was a very hard hitting, stubborn guy. Even though we were good friends, we would argue on items more frequently than not. But he was persistent and insistent. That’s why he was elected national president.”

In 2002 he was elected vice president of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association and became its president in 2006. A month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Watson testified before a Senate committee examining security of foreign ships entering U.S. waters.

Under normal circumstances, an APA member pilot is the only U.S. citizen on a foreign ship moving in the fragile port and waterway system that is the lifeline of this country. “In the traditional state pilot system, pilotage is a public service,” he testified. “Pilots are frequently referred to as the eyes and ears of a port and they are in a unique position to detect suspicious or unusual activities.”

Family members said he worked with Congress, the Coast Guard, NOAA and the Army Corps of Engineers on legislation, policies and initiatives that increased navigation safety and facilitated the efficient flow of commerce.

Interested in finance, he was a chairman of the Baltimore Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. He also was a director of First Mariner Bancorp., was most recently chair of its board.

He was awarded U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Commander’s Award for Public Service, Outstanding Professional Achievement Award from the Merchant Marine Academy, Maryland Governor’s Citation, and the U.S. Coast Guard Certificate of Merit.

Family members said he enjoyed sailing and fishing with them off the Thomas Point Light. He was also a hunter.


Services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at All Hallows Chapel, 864 W. Central Ave., Davidsonville.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 45 years, Geraldine Pitts Watson of Annapolis; another daughter, Alicia Watson of Annapolis; a brother, Richard Watson of Romney, W.Va.; a sister, Patricia Lewis of Solomons Island; and a grandson.


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