Bar pilots’ helicopter rescues crewman who fell overboard

The Columbia River Bar Pilots’ helicopter crew hoisted a man to safety after he fell overboard from a containership shortly after it crossed the Columbia River Bar on Nov. 28.

The crewman was retrieving the pilot ladder on the 852-foot Qingdao when he fell. He managed to grab hold of the hand rope rigged next to the ladder. As the ship moved ahead at 19 knots, he continued to hold on while he was dragged on the surface.

The accident was witnessed and word immediately passed to the bar pilot, Capt. Charles Lane, who was still on the bridge. Lane put the ship into a turn to port to direct the propellers away from the man overboard, then put out a mayday call to the helicopter that was on its way to pick him up from the ship. The wind was 15 to 20 knots with 12-foot seas; water temperature was 45°.

The pilots’ Agusta helicopter was on the scene within minutes, and winch operator Mike Bruhn could see the man clinging to the rope. “He looked like a dolphin jumping in and out of the water,” said Bruhn. “He must have had incredible strength — or desperation — to have held on.”

When helicopter pilot Gene Hill put the helicopter into position above the port side of the ship, Bruhn could no longer see the man, who was dangling underneath the accommodation ladder, so Hill relied on the ship’s crew on deck to direct him. It took four passes to get the harness within his reach. Then the crewman was able to get one arm through the rescue harness and let go of the rope. He was drawn up and placed on the accommodation ladder, where other crewmen could help him to safety.

“The helicopter crew did a remarkable job coordinating with our pilot aboard the vessel — even using hand signals to communicate effectively with the Chinese crew aboard the ship,” said Capt. Gary Lewin, administrative pilot for the Columbia River Bar Pilots.

By Professional Mariner Staff