Florida pilot applies some lessons
learned from his brush with death

After his harrowing accident, Capt. Frank Knowles added some safety features to the RIB pilot boat: a rigid aluminum ladder and a 4.5-inch step rail with a nonskid surface. 

Capt. Frank Knowles says he owes his life to four fellow mariners and the design of his association’s pilot launch.

Knowles, a 35-year veteran of Florida’s St. Andrew Bay Pilots Association, slipped and fell into the water during a disembarkation from a freighter Jan. 16 near Panama City.

It was a perilous slip-up. The water temperature was in the 50s and the air temperature was 41° F, with rain and winds gusting up to 25 mph. The 67-year-old pilot struggled in the cold water for almost a half-hour before a trio of men were able to lift him back into the pilot boat.

Knowles is grateful that the pilots’ launch, a rigid inflatable boat, or RIB, has air-filled tubes on its sides. The 67-year-old pilot said those inflatable tubes prevented him from being crushed between the pilot vessel and the 293-foot containership Campeche Bay.

The alert launch captain, J.R. Williams, grasped onto Knowles and held him against the side of the boat until other helpers arrived. Tommy Nichols, a deck hand on a nearby fishing boat, jumped into the water and helped to lift the pilot to safety. “When (Nichols’) boat got up there, he just automatically jumped in the water to help me,” a grateful Knowles told Professional Mariner. “I’ll tell you, I was exhausted. He held onto me and kept my head above water.”

The fishing boat captain and another crewman also played a role in saving Knowles’ life, according to a report by the Florida Board of Pilot Commissioners. Their Reel Commotion, a 65-footer, was about 300 yards south of Campeche Bay when the distress call went out.

“We consider your parts in this near disastrous event to be brave and heroic,” the state pilot board wrote in a congratulatory letter to the four men.

“Due to the design of the vessel, there was no way for Capt. Knowles to get back on board the pilot boat without more assistance,” they said. “Mr. Nichols, who was on the fishing vessel passing by the scene, actually jumped into the frigid water with Capt. Knowles, literally risking his own life for the sake of another.”

The fishing boat captain, William “Bubba” Lang, maneuvered his vessel in a way that shielded the launch from the worst conditions. Lang first dropped crewmen Patrick Rietkerk onto the pilot boat to assist the launch captain.

“Capt. Lang then positioned his vessel upwind of the pilot boat to create lee for the others,” the state pilot commissioners said. “It was an agonizing 20 to 30 minutes in the water, making this rescue effort even more dangerous.”

Knowles told Professional Mariner that his terrifying episode holds many lessons that he would like to share with fellow pilots and other mariners.

Knowles, who is about 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds, was not wearing a life jacket during the pilot transfer. “That will never happen again,” he vowed. Knowles also wishes he had been wearing better shoes: he was wearing tennis shoes instead of his usual Docksiders.

Knowles feels that perhaps the ordinary nature of the transfer caused him to let his guard down. Campeche Bay, which carries U.S. goods to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, calls regularly at Panama City. Knowles is very familiar with the Cyprus-flagged vessel and its crew.

“It just seemed like it was routine,” he said. “That’s one of the things I realize now, that you get kind of complacent doing things over and over.”

Knowles said he slipped while transferring from the Campeche Bay’s accommodation ladder to a narrow step rail on the side of the launch.

“When I stepped on that rail, my feet went out from under me and I went flying up in the air,” he said. “I landed on the tube on the side of the pilot boat. Then I slipped off the tube, and I was hanging onto the safety lines on the side of the boat.”

Knowles credits the RIB with sparing his life in the moments after he fell. The 27-foot boat was built in 2000 by Northwind Marine Inc. of Seattle.

“It didn’t hurt, because those tubes were soft,” he said. Without them, “the ship would have squashed me. I would have been squooshed to death.”

The accident spurred Knowles to improve the safety features on the boat. He replaced the 1.5-inch rail he slipped on with a new 4.5-inch step that has a nonskid tread plate.

When Knowles fell, Williams dropped a rope ladder into the water, hoping Knowles could climb to safety. But Knowles said his feet kept pushing the flimsy ladder under the boat.

After the accident, a friend of Knowles who is a skilled welder designed a rigid aluminum ladder. It connects to the side of the boat, curves around the inflated tubes and reaches about 3 feet down into the water.

“Every boat should have a way for a person to get out of the water, even if he’s injured,” Knowles said. “There should be some kind of ladder that goes into the water so you can get out, and I’ve got one now.”

The Campeche Bay crew also reacted alertly when the pilot fell into the water. The captain ordered a turn “hard over to kick the stern away,” Knowles said.

Florida’s pilots are thankful for the “courage and selflessness” of the fishing and pilot boat crews. Their daring and levelheaded actions prevented “what would have been a very tragic story,” the state commissioners wrote.

“This performance deserves the utmost gratitude that any seafarer can express,” they said. “We all hope to have the good fortune when faced with such an accident to have individuals like you around to help in our survival. … The four of you have touched the lives of every pilot in the state.”

By Professional Mariner Staff