Crewman lost at sea after falling off ship while handling ladder

A crewman on a bulk carrier fell overboard in rough seas near the mouth of the Columbia River and was never found. The U.S. Coast Guard said he had been stowing a ladder to a pilot boat and was not wearing a life vest.

Coast Guard Sector Columbia River received a call from the 591-foot Matisse at 0050 on April 21 reporting that a crewmember had fallen into the water about five miles southwest of the entrance to the river. The man was wearing a yellow work helmet but no life jacket, the Coast Guard reported.

Sector Columbia River dispatched a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Astoria and a 47-foot response boat from Station Cape Disappointment in Ilwaco, Wash. The Coast Guard crews arrived on the scene about 20 minutes after the call and began searching for the man, assisted by mariners aboard Matisse and the crew of the bar pilot vessel Columbia, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer Nate Littlejohn.

Crews conducted a “rigorous and thorough” search throughout the night, the Coast Guard reported, recovering a yellow work helmet and a life ring that had been thrown toward the man in the water by a member of the Matisse crew. The man was not found, however, and the Coast Guard suspended the search at 0730.

Capt. Robert Johnson of the Columbia River Bar Pilots said the crew aboard Columbia heard the captain of Matisse announce on channel 13 that a man had fallen overboard seven minutes after the pilot vessel left the bulk carrier.

“They turned around and went back to the ship,” Johnson said. “They were able to mark its position (when the pilot boat left) and then searched back from that.”

Johnson said Columbia is equipped with a FLIR system that was used during the search. Two crewmen were stationed on the deck, with the pilot and boat operator in the wheelhouse.

“They stayed out there until 5 in the morning or something like that,” he said. “The man must have gone down fast, because they were there within seven minutes and there was still no sign of him.”

Visibility was approximately 10 miles during most of the search, with 11-foot swells and 9-knot winds. The water temperature was 50 degrees, with an air temperature of 45.

“Much later in the search, toward dawn, fog did roll in and hamper (Coast Guard) efforts,” Littlejohn said. “Rain was not a factor.”

The missing crewmember, described as a 35-year-old Filipino man weighing 130 pounds, was stowing a Jacob’s ladder to the pilot vessel when he fell overboard, Littlejohn said. The Coast Guard did not have the man’s name and a body has not been recovered, he said.

The Marshall Islands-flagged Matisse, owned by Portunato Shipmanagement of Genoa, Italy, was leaving the United States with a cargo of steel when the incident occurred, Littlejohn said. The ship’s point of origin and destination were not known. Todd Zilbert, a Portland, Ore.-based attorney who represents the ship’s owners, declined to provide information about the route of Matisse or the identity of the missing crewman.

The incident remains under investigation by the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Portland, Ore. Littlejohn said the Matisse’s crew was cooperative with the Coast Guard during the search and has been cooperative during the inquiry.

By Professional Mariner Staff