More needs to be done to protect pilots during transfers

When I was a cadet at the California Maritime Academy, my first trip on the training ship Golden Bear was a South Pacific voyage. We arrived at our last port, Honolulu, on a beautiful March day. That morning I watched as the pilot boat came alongside and the pilot, a distinguished looking man wearing a Hawaiian shirt, climbed the pilot ladder and then made his way to the bridge. Under his guidance, the training ship made the tight turns and close quarters maneuvers needed to dock in a narrow slip, just forward of a Russian trawler. It was impressive to see the expert ship handling a pilot routinely does.

Last year, I was saddened to hear that the pilot who brought us in that day, Capt. David Lyman, had been killed on the job off of Kauai. Climbing down the pilot ladder of a cruise ship he’d just guided out of port, he fell in the water as the pilot boat was coming alongside and was hit. His obituary in the Honolulu paper talked of his love for the sea, his 30 years as a pilot and the family he left behind.

Every time a pilot goes between a pilot boat and a ship underway, he or she risks injury or death. In fact, Capt. Mike Watson, president of the American Pilots’ Association, recently told me that in the last two years nearly 20 pilots have died on the job. Many commercial mariners have stories of close calls during a pilot transfer. One close call I witnessed happened when I was the second mate on a car carrier running from Japan to the West Coast.

It was February, and we were off the Columbia River entrance preparing to board a pilot, the ship rolling and pitching in what I figured were Force 8 southerly winds and a 10- to 12-foot westerly swell. The chief mate, an AB and I stood by one of the side doors, from which our pilot ladder was let down. The ladder was constructed, in accordance with 46 CFR 163.003, of Coast Guard-approved hard plastic rungs connected by synthetic line. Because it hung down where the inward curvature of the hull prevented it from lying flat against the ship, in bad weather like this the ladder would swing precariously.

The pilot boat maneuvered alongside; the pilot ready to make the jump. Timing it just right, he leapt from the boat, grabbing our ladder tightly with both hands as the boat veered out of the way quickly, narrowly avoiding hitting our hull as we rolled to that side.

The pilot climbed the ladder slowly while it swung from the motion of the ship. When a large swell caught us just right and lifted our stern sharply, the ladder’s tension slackened, and then snapped down tightly — the force of it jerking the pilot’s left hand grip loose. Struggling to hang on as the wind and waves pounded us, it seemed that any second he was going to fall into the frigid North Pacific. Miraculously, he held on with his right hand, then regained both his handholds and continued climbing up the ladder. When I met him on deck, he was shaken, and I could still see the fear in his eyes.

The International Maritime Pilots’ Association (IMPA) is seeking changes to Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) Regulation V/23, and International Maritime Organization (IMO) Resolution A.889 (21). Aimed at making pilot transfers safer, tshe proposals range from adjusting the mandated spacing between rungs on the pilot ladder by a few inches, to a complete ban on the use of pilot hoists.

What impresses me is that these recommendations come from the men and women whose lives are at stake — the pilots themselves. That’s why I think that the industry should fully embrace them. From my perspective as a ship’s officer, however, I also feel there are some other changes that could be done on the ship to make pilot boarding safer.
Several years ago while on vacation, I got a call from a local maritime employment company. A Russian fishing ship docked in Seattle had been having problems, and for a week the Coast Guard prohibited it from leaving port. Their departure was finally approved on one condition: in addition to a pilot and a Russian translator, they had to have a U.S.-licensed master for the four-hour trip from Seattle to the pilot station in Port Angeles. The company offered me the job and I agreed to do it.

After some initial confusion about the Russian translation of port and starboard, everything went smoothly. Near the end of the trip, I went down to where the pilot ladder was rigged and couldn’t believe what I saw. Paint and grease were splattered on the rungs, and a frayed line used to secure the ladder didn’t look strong enough to hold. I told the boatswain. He changed the frayed line and did his best to clean off the grease, but I was still hesitant to use the ladder.

A few minutes later the pilot came down from the bridge, and I asked him what he felt about the ladder’s condition. He replied, “I’ve seen worse, Kelly. Besides, it’s either go down the ladder or make the trip to Russia.” He climbed down. Then, it was my turn. I said a little prayer, took a deep breath and went down without incident.

SOLAS Regulation V/23 currently requires “regular” inspections of the ship’s pilot ladder to ensure that it’s safe to use. From the look of the pilot ladder on the Russian ship that night, “regular” inspections didn’t happen too often. In my opinion, Regulation V/23 should require monthly inspections of the ship’s pilot ladder. I also feel that in accordance with the regulation, companies that comply with the International Safety Management (ISM) Code could establish procedures for these inspections. In addition, I think that it should be required that any pilot ladder beyond a certain (officially approved) age be replaced by a new one.

Professionally, nothing is more important to me than the safety of my fellow mariners, including the pilots who work the vessels on which I sail. I realized early in my career how valuable a pilot’s expertise is when bringing ships safely in and out of port.

Unfortunately, there is no way any new pilot boarding regulations will bring back the 20 pilots who died on the job recently — but I am certain that they could save lives in the future.

Till next time, I wish you all Smooth Sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at
By Professional Mariner Staff