Boston pilot becomes third to die in fall from ladder during 2006

A veteran Boston pilot fell to his death on Oct. 24 while climbing a pilot’s ladder as he tried to board the 46,000-gt bulk carrier Baldock, moored at the Eastern Minerals Terminal at Chelsea, Mass.

Robert G. Cordes, who had been a full pilot with the Boston Pilots Association since 1976, was climbing the rope ladder, with wooden steps, when he fell off the ladder, near the top, according to Lt. Gregory Callaghan, senior investigator at the United States Coast Guard Sector Boston.

The pilot fell from the ladder onto a deck barge that was moored alongside, according to Callaghan. Cordes, of Winthrop, Mass., was taken to Whidden Memorial Hospital in Everett, where he was pronounced dead.

The accident occurred at 1330 hours on a calm day. Baldock had unloaded a cargo of salt and was empty and stationary when Cordes climbed the ladder. Callaghan said the pilot had to climb “just about 9 meters” (29.5 feet) to board the ship.

This was the third death in 2006 involving a U.S. pilot transferring between vessels. On Jan. 9, a Columbia River Bar pilot was descending a ladder from a cargo ship to a pilot boat in 18- to 20-foot seas when he fell into the Pacific Ocean and drowned. On Jan. 29, a 30-year veteran from Hawaii fell between a cruise ship and a pilot boat in 5-foot seas and was killed.

The high number of pilot deaths this year has led the American Pilots’ Association (APA) and the International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA) to ask for new regulations to make pilot transfers safer. The United States, Brazil and IMPA submitted a proposal at the 82nd session of the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), held in Istanbul in November and December, according to Paul Kirchner, executive director of the American Pilots’ Association. U.S. pilots have several concerns about the ladders they use. “There’s two things,” said Kirchner. “Improve the standards and strengthen the enforcement of the existing standards. Pilots are still seeing a lot of substandard and illegal ladders. Some are not maintained properly; others are not rigged properly.”

Because the Baldock investigation was continuing, Callaghan said he could not go into details about the ladder. “I can say there appears to be no abnormalities in it,” he said.

Kirchner also said he would have to wait until the investigation was complete before he could make detailed comments on this incident. “But from what I understand there was some question about how high the ladder was,” Kirchner said. “It can’t be more than 9 meters, and if it is, there is supposed to be an accommodation ladder that comes down and meets it.”

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Chapter 5, Regulation 23, includes the following rules for pilots ladders: Each step much rest against the ship’s side; steps must be equally spaced at intervals between 11.8 and 15 inches apart; the side ropes should be two continuous, uncovered ropes no less than .7 inches in diameter; steps should be secured so that they remain horizontal; and spreaders that are at least 71 inches wide must be placed as the fifth step, with no more than 8 steps between spreaders. In addition, any ship with a freeboard of more than 29.5 feet should have an accommodation ladder, preferably with rigid stanchions and handrails.

The proposed new rules made at the 82nd session of the MSC include: the banning of mechanical pilot hoists; the banning of all outward-opening shipside doors for pilot transfer; a maximum diameter for man-ropes; a smaller range in the space between steps (12.2 to 13.8 inches); requirements on the installation of step fixtures to stabilize steps and support side ropes; changing the maximum angle of slope for the accommodation ladder from 55° to 45°; and requiring the accommodation ladder to be at least 23.4 inches wide.

It has been a tough year for pilots, Kirchner said. News of Cordes’ death came at the start of the APA’s biannual convention in Orlando, Fla. “It’s something that has shaken up our group,” he said.

By Professional Mariner Staff