A horrible, unnecessary way to die

A horrible, unnecessary way to die.

Maritime pilots are essential for the movement of commercial vessels in and out of ports worldwide, and every man and woman I have worked with serving in that capacity was a solid professional mariner. 

Being a pilot has always been a dangerous undertaking, especially when embarking or disembarking a moving ship. In the last 25 years hundreds of pilots worldwide have died horribly, their heads and bodies smashed after landing on the pilot boat in falls of 30 feet or more, being crushed between the ship and pilot boat, or cut to pieces by a propeller. 

To their credit, regulatory agencies have tried to make things safer by establishing rules governing the construction and use of pilot boarding equipment, with standards found in Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Chapter V, Regulation 23 and 46 CFR 163.003. 

When a ship’s freeboard is less than nine meters (29.5 feet), the use of a single rope pilot ladder no less than five and no more than 29 feet long is permitted. Most pilot ladders are made of manila fiber, and consist of ropes, steps, and spreaders—large steps designed to help keep the ladder from twisting. On each side of the ladder, the rules specify that there should also be a manrope, a type of rope rail that the pilot can grab if he or she slips. 

Before it is rigged, the regulations mandate that the crew checks the condition of the pilot ladder. All damaged pilot ladders, as well as those 30 months or older, are prohibited from being used and must be replaced. The ladder is to be firmly secured at the top, and able to be accessed by the pilot when the ship is listing up to, but no more than, 15 degrees. 

If a vessel has a freeboard of more than 30 feet and is not equipped with an inward opening side door in the hull that can be used for pilot access, a “combination arrangement” employing both a pilot ladder and an accommodation ladder is mandated by the regulations. 

The pilot ladder is rigged next to the accommodation ladder, which has a flight of steps leading aft up to a steep 45-degree angle, and is fitted with two horizontal platforms—one at the top and the other at the bottom. The upper platform is intended to allow the pilot to walk directly onto the vessel’s deck (usually the main deck.) The lower platform gives the pilot something to step onto after climbing the pilot ladder and should be rigged at least 16 feet above the waterline. 

In accordance with SOLAS V Regulation 23, since 2012 newer vessels have been permitted to use a lower platform that is fitted with a trapdoor which opens upward, enabling the pilot ladder steps to be rigged through it. 

In order to give the pilot easier access, the steps are supposed to extend at least seven feet above the platform. It is expressly prohibited to hang the pilot ladder from the bottom of the accommodation ladder’s platform, which would force the pilot to pull himself or herself up through the trapdoor while at the same time trying to gain a footing—a dangerous arrangement. 

On December 30, 2019, Captain William Sherwood, a licensed New York marine pilot with over 35 years of experience, was killed while boarding a U.S.-flag containership off Ambrose Light. 

Eight months later in October 2020, another New York pilot, 40-year-old Captain Timothy Murray, died in a fall from a foreign-flag tanker. Both of these professional mariners ended up broken on the pilot boat deck after plummeting from ships using this non-compliant trapdoor arrangement. 

Those are just two examples of what can happen to pilots when the regulations are ignored. It’s good that rules have been established to protect pilots boarding commercial vessels, but they also need to be enforced. That responsibility lies first with the vessel’s owner/operator, and then with the ship’s captain and deck officers. Recently, the International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA) announced its findings that close to one out of every five ships are violating at least one of the regulations governing pilot boarding arrangements. 

Captain Arie Palmers, a registered pilot in the Netherlands who is a member of the IMPA’s Safety Campaign, has photographed and monitored non-compliant ship boarding arrangements for a number of years. From his experience and observations, he believes the number of non-compliant vessels is closer to two-to-three out of every five. 

“There are a 1,000 ways to rig a pilot ladder, but there is only one safe way to do it right,” he says. 

You can check out his Facebook Page at #DangerousLadders, and see for yourself the unsafe situations that he has photographed and logged. On a worldwide scale, one that encompasses the “big picture” before any more pilots needlessly die, it is time for regulatory agencies to consistently enforce the law. 

For that reason, I believe that one, or all of the following should occur: 

1) The U.S. Coast Guard or Marine Inspection Service in every country must check and confirm, before any U.S. or foreign-flag commercial ship enters or leaves its waters, that pilot boarding equipment is rigged in accordance with SOLAS and/or CFR requirements. 

2) A crewmember who feels that, for any reason, the pilot boarding arrangement onboard the ship is unsafe, should be able to anonymously notify local authorities of his or her concern online, by phone, text, or in writing – and have those concerns responded to quickly without being ignored or fearing any retribution. 

3) Pilot Associations worldwide should order all their members to refuse to board a vessel that has boarding equipment they feel does not meet required standards – without penalty. No mariner should end up dying due to established regulations not being followed. 

Pilots are our fellow maritime professionals. They protect and watch out for us by bringing our ships safely in and out of port through dangerous situations and we need to do all we can to protect them as well. 

Till next time I wish you smooth sailin.’