On the use of helicopters by ship pilots

I read with interest Capt. William Worth’s article on pilot transfers (PM 110). He raises some very valid points, both pro and con, about helicopter transfers, as well as the challenges faced on today’s ships with the boarding ladders.
From my own experience, one of the latent consequences of pilots boarding by ladder from boat is that in rough sea conditions, the pilots want to board closer to the harbor than the sea buoy or designated pilot station. This occurs in US as well as international ports. My most memorable experiences include:
Georgetown, Guyana; night departure down a newly dredged channel, several miles long, no buoys, one set of ranges at the harbor entrance, and the pilot’s last words, “Just keep her steady” as he left the ship. The channel was straight, but the local currents were not. About midway out to the sea-buoy, we found the mud bank on the north side, and then spent the better part of an hour working the ship back off with twin screw twists.
Pusan, Korea: daylight arrival, through a maelstrom of local transit traffic between the sea buoy and the harbor breakwaters; the pilot by radio, “Just keep it coming,” finally boarding in between the breakwaters, with an outbound ship on the far side. That was one of the shortest Master-pilot conferences I’ve had: “Hello – hard port.”
St. Petersburg, FL; (not my ship) in the wake of a late port evacuation order by the COTP, because of a threatening hurricane, a bulk ship ran aground near offshore (within the buoyed channel, inshore of the sea-buoy) after the pilot disembarked well near to shore, as the sea state near shore was too rough for a safe transfer. I’m not sure what a helo could have done in those conditions, but it was evident the boat-pilot-ladder combo was no-go.
I would also note that the design of the boat, and especially the boarding platform on the boat, is significant. The best I’ve seen was in Houston some years ago; a catamaran hull, with large boarding platform equipped with handrails, built out in line with the hull side, so that as the boat came alongside the ship, the platform virtually rested up against the hull / ladder. The cat hull leant great transverse stability to the operation. However, this boat / rig was quite expensive.
And that points to the key to change which is found in Capt. Worth’s observation: “The system essentially paid for itself through increased efficiency . . .” The industry runs on money. If the Columbia River Bar Pilots have a cost comparison they are willing to share with their brother pilot associations around the country, we may see more groups motivated to change.
All the best,
Jon Fadely
Director of Marine Operations
Mercy Ships

By Professional Mariner Staff