Bar pilot rescued after falling into sea while trying to transfer from bulk ship to boat

A Columbia River Bar Pilot was treated for hypothermia after falling into the Pacific Ocean during an attempted transfer between an outbound ship and the pilot boat.

The accident happened alongside the grain carrier Navios Ionian at 0140 on March 5 about five and a half miles offshore, near Buoy 2, said U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Nathan Littlejohn. The pilot was climbing down the ship’s ladder en route to the pilot launch Chinook.

The pilot, who was wearing a float coat, grabbed a life ring that the ship’s crew had tossed. The ring’s strobe lights and smoke signal ensured that Chinook’s crew never lost sight of the pilot, whose EPIRB failed to activate, said Capt. Gary Lewin, the association’s administrative pilot.

Lewin said there were 25-knot southwesterly winds and a 10-foot westerly swell when the pilot had finished guiding the 623-foot Greek-flagged ship over the bar.

“In heavy seas, we always do a jump with man-ropes,” Lewin said. “But if you jump at the wrong time, you can fall. The pilot tried to abort the jump, but couldn’t get back on the ladder and ended up sliding down the ladder.”

The man-rope maneuver involves first descending the pilot ladder with either one or two extra ropes hanging down alongside. When the pilot is ready to jump off the ladder to the boat, he or she grabs the man-rope, swings outward and slides down the rope and into the boat.

Chinook is crewed with an operator and one deck hand. During ship transfers, the deck hand is strapped into a rail system near the side of the boat, with both hands free to assist the pilot during the jump.

“He made a grab for the pilot, but wasn’t able to hang on,” Lewin said. “The deck hand kept his eye on the pilot and was pointing. They never lost sight of the pilot.”

The pilot remained in the water for an estimated 12 to 13 minutes. Lewin said a hydraulically operated “horse collar” system was used to corral the pilot and drag the pilot toward the boat’s stern. At the same time, a man-overboard life raft with sea anchors was deployed. The pilot became entangled in the extra ropes from the raft, however, and the crew ended up lifting the pilot via a bucket on the stern.

“That (raft) actually got in the way of the rescue, and we probably won’t use that anymore” when the person in the water can be seen, Lewin said.

The water temperature was in the high 40s. The pilot, who has two decades of experience, was hospitalized for a few hours for treatment of mild hypothermia, Lewin said.

The pilot was wearing a required float coat, but was not wearing the recommended helmet with reflective tape. The pilot was carrying a water-activated light and water-activated EPIRB. The beacon, however, never activated and may not have been rigged properly to the jacket. Lewin said the EPIRB may have been inside the pilot’s fanny pack, which detached and disappeared.

“Had we lost sight of the pilot, the EPIRB would have been of no assistance,” he said.

Upon receiving the report of the person in the water, the Coast Guard launched two motor lifeboats. A rescue helicopter was preparing for takeoff when the report came in that the pilot was safely aboard Chinook. Littlejohn said the Coast Guard is not investigating the accident further.

In the summer of 2011, another Columbia River Bar Pilot fell into the water while disembarking the log ship Dry Beam. That pilot was unhurt. Dry Beam was the same ship from which another bar pilot was descending when he fell into the sea and was killed in 2006.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots use a helicopter for most ship transfers. They still use ship-to-boat transfers when visibility is too poor for the chopper to fly. Each pilot also reserves the right to choose whether to use the helicopter or boat, and sometimes the pilots purposely use the boat to “stay rehearsed,” Lewin said.

As a result of the two recent falls, the Columbia River Bar Pilots may consider making additional safety equipment mandatory. They also may require annual or semiannual checks of all safety gear to ensure that it is properly rigged and the batteries are fresh. Lewin said that an internal investigation continues and that the association’s safety committee is working on formal recommendations.

By Professional Mariner Staff