Seaman trying to secure loose line on bulker is washed overboard

An able seaman on a 738-foot bulk carrier was lost overboard when two large waves knocked him off the vessel's aft deck and into the North Atlantic.

Aleksander Cieslak, 40, of Poland, was working aboard Elbe Max on Feb. 17 when he lost his balance after being hit by a wave and was then washed into the sea.

U.S. Coast Guard aircrews and a good Samaritan vessel searched for him, but he was never found, the Coast Guard said.

The incident happened at about 0600, 430 nm southeast of Newfoundland, Canada. The ship encountered 24-foot seas and winds over 40 knots, said Lt. Michael Patterson, a Coast Guard spokesman in Portsmouth, Va.

Elbe Max is operated by Enterprises Shipping & Trading SA of Athens, Greece. Under supervision of the captain on the bridge, Cieslak was part of a team of crewmembers who ventured onto the deck to retrieve a wayward rope, said Alex Tzortzopoulos, Enterprises' manager of quality, safety and environment.

The ship's chief officer and three other crew "went on the main deck aft to secure a mooring line which was broken loose," Tzortzopoulos said in a statement to Professional Mariner. "The hazard was that it could tangle in the propeller, rendering the vessel (disabled). At some point, two consecutive waves hit the deck and washed (Cieslak) overboard."

A cry of "man overboard, starboard side" was broadcast to the bridge via handheld radio. The first rescue attempt was made by the ship's crew, who launched one life buoy with a self-activating smoke signal and light. The captain ordered a Williamson turn to swing the vessel back around, Tzortzopoulos said. Conditions were difficult.

"It was very rough out there that day. It was heavy seas," said Cullen Rafferty, a Coast Guard search and rescue coordinator at Portsmouth.

A distress call was first received by Canada's Joint Rescue Coodination Centre (JRCC) watch-standers at Halifax and Newfoundland. Based on the location, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the rescue response, said Maj. Denis McGuire, officer in charge at JRCC Halifax. The ship was 1,100 nm east of Boston.

The U.S. Coast Guard diverted a C-130 Hercules plane that had been on ice-patrol watch near Newfoundland to begin searching for the missing mariner. The victim was wearing gray overalls with a personal floatation device underneath.

"The crew of the Elbe Max initially attempted to throw a floatation device to the person in the water, but the attempts were unsuccessful, and they lost sight of him," Patterson said. "The C-130 located the life ring, but there was no person in the life ring."

One participant in the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System, or Amver, was in the vicinity. Rafferty said BP Shipping's British Esteem, a 599-foot tanker, heard the pan-pan broadcast and followed search-pattern instructions until nightfall.

"The Amver vessel was unable to continue the search due to a decrease in visibility and the sea conditions," said Patterson.

A second Coast Guard C-130 launched from Elizabeth City, N.C., and relieved the first aircrew. That second aircraft searched for several hours. The operation was suspended at 2010, Rafferty said.

Cieslak had worked with Enterprises Shipping since 1995, Tzortzopoulos said. He left behind a wife and a 16-year-old daughter.

Elbe Max's owner is British Virgin Islands-based Waxstone Shipping Inc. The dry-bulk carrier, loaded with 69,000 tons of coal, was sailing from Newport News, Va., to Hamburg, Germany.

By Professional Mariner Staff