Shaken by deaths in their ranks, pilots scrutinize their practices and equipment

For Capt. Ed Enos, it was among the most horrifying reports he could ever receive: A colleague had been killed during a ship transfer.
Enos, vice president of the Hawaii Pilots Association, received just such news on Jan. 29, 2006. Hawaii pilot Capt. David “Kawika” Lyman died after falling between a cruise ship and a pilot boat.
The Hawaii pilots weren’t the only association that suffered a fatality on the job last year. Between January 2006 and February 2007, four pilots were killed across the United States in falls from pilot ladders. A fifth person — a pilot boat operator — died when his vessel overturned at the conclusion of a transfer.
The rash of deadly incidents has stunned the proud fraternity of bar pilots and has prompted soul-searching among pilot associations. Many groups have undertaken campaigns to upgrade safety equipment carried by pilots and their launch boats.
Pilot associations are increasing their use of life vests, lights, beacons and man-overboard-retrieval systems on their boats. Understandably, the Hawaii pilots were one of the first groups to act.
“This is quite a shocker for everybody,” Enos said of the five U.S. deaths. “We hadn’t had very many accidents nationally for a long time. It gets everybody thinking about and talking about what we are doing. One of the things we did immediately internally is to make sure that everyone is wearing a life jacket — the inflatable collars, with a night light.”
From 1993 through 2005, only about four people lost their lives in pilot-transfer accidents in the United States, according to Coast Guard data. Since the beginning of 2006, the saddening U.S. tally includes these incidents:
• On Jan. 9, 2006, Columbia River Bar Pilot Kevin Murray fell into the Pacific Ocean as he was disembarking from a log carrier using a pilot’s ladder in 18- to 20-foot seas. Murray, 50, drowned.
• Lyman’s accident happened at Kauai. He fell into the water and was struck by the pilot boat. Lyman, the Hawaii association’s former president, was 62.
• Boston Harbor Pilot Robert G. Cordes fell off a ladder near the top of his climb onto a bulk carrier Oct. 24, 2006, at Chelsea, Mass. Cordes, 60, landed on a barge alongside the ship and was killed.
• George Robert Frazier, 55, who operated a pilot boat for the Galveston-Texas City Pilots, drowned Jan. 20, 2007, when his boat capsized following the disembarkation of a pilot from an offshore support ship. The pilot was rescued.
• On Feb. 4, 2007, Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots Association President Lynn Deibert, 53, fell from a ladder into the Atlantic Ocean while climbing aboard a coal carrier off Cape Henlopen, Del. Deibert’s body was never found.
Capt. Mike Watson, president of the American Pilots’ Association, said pilots have also been killed recently in Japan, Uruguay, Egypt, India, France and Scandinavia. The accidents underscore the need for global solutions to improving shipboard ladder systems and safety procedures, as well as the habits of pilot crews themselves, he said.
“This is one of the worst years I’ve seen,” said Watson, who is also president of the International Maritime Pilots’ Association. “It has been a very trying time to witness your colleagues being injured and killed … we are certainly upgrading our safety equipment.”
Many pilot associations, including the San Francisco Bar Pilots, are reviewing lifesaving policies, purchasing new devices and adding more practice drills. California’s Board of Pilot Commissioners has reactivated its safety committee as a result of the heightened awareness.
Capt. Peter McIsaac, president of the San Francisco pilots, said his association decided to improve its man-overboard beacon system. The group spent about $30,000 to buy ORCA receivers for two boats and about 20 new transmitters. They are also modifying their float coats to make it easier to connect a man-overboard rescue line.
“We take the coats to a sail maker, and they install a harness with two D-rings,” McIsaac said. “That way you can just clip right in” to the line.
The San Francisco pilots have studied the recent fatalities and are incorporating similar scenarios into rescue drills. A common thread in the pilot deaths is the inability to rescue the man out of the water quickly.
“We have increased our man-overboard drills, and we’re doing volunteer man-overboard drills where we get a volunteer to jump in the water. We’re going to start doing nighttime man-overboard drills here for the first time ever — to see how our lights actually work and what distance they can be seen,” McIsaac said.
“What the drills have shown is that we need to do more of them,” he said. “I think it’s something we should be doing almost monthly.”
BriarTek Inc. of Alexandria, Va., is the supplier of the ORCA Man Overboard Alarm System, which includes personal beacons, receiver alarm units and direction finders. Only recently did BriarTek, which has sold 80,000 units to the U.S. Navy, begin marketing the system to civilian customers.
In addition to the San Francisco pilots, BriarTek has sold systems to New York’s Sandy Hook Pilots. The spate of fatalities is generating a surge of interest in ORCA among pilot associations, said Joe Landa, BriarTek’s director of product development.
“It has clearly had an impact. They’re all reviewing their safety procedures and equipment,” Landa said. “People have been evaluating our systems for a long time, but this has created a sense of urgency and now they want to get the system.”
At Bridgeport, Conn., the deadly pilot accidents raised the stakes in a dispute over launch-boat safety. The Block Island Pilots, who are the joint rotation administrator for Long Island Sound, switched to a more expensive launch service. Their former provider had two 40-foot boats that were not equipped with adequate man-overboard retrieval systems and didn’t have proper handrails, adequate decks or more than one means of egress from the boat, said Capt. Ken Warner, the Block Island Pilots’ ranking official.
The changeover predates the 2006 fatalities, but the debate involving the original launch service is ongoing.
“We have certainly used these incidents to demonstrate why this is important,” Warner said. “We refuse to use these boats. We just want the safest operation we can have.”
Instead, pilots at Bridgeport are using the pricier service that sends out 65-foot, twin-screw boats equipped with a Jacob’s cradle retrieval system.
A stringent focus on safety gadgets can be uncomfortable for tradition-bound pilots, whose profession is thousands of years old. Their wood-and-rope pilot ladders haven’t changed much in over a century. Some pilots are even reluctant to wear a life vest or float coat.
Floatation devices weren’t mandatory for Hawaii pilots until after the death of Lyman, who was not wearing one.
“Pilots are all independent contractors — a loose-knit group of independent contractors,” Enos said. “Clearly, the life-jacket issue in recent years had become more of a concern in the group. With Dave’s accident, we finally made it a hard-and-fast concrete rule that everybody has to have a life jacket on, period. There was a particular pilot who kind of stiff-armed that for a long time, but even he agrees that we all should wear life jackets now.”
The Hawaii pilots have added extra floodlighting on their launch boats and a loudspeaker system to help them communicate instructions to the ship’s deck hands. Enos said additional improvements probably will be ordered after the Coast Guard concludes its investigations of the fatal accidents and issues reports with new safety recommendations.
Kurt J. Heinz, chief of the Lifesaving and Fire Safety Standards Division at Coast Guard headquarters, confirmed that the Coast Guard may include industry-wide safety warnings in those incident reports. He declined to specify them before the investigations are completed.
One “logical” warning “might be wearing more effective life jackets,” Heinz told Professional Mariner in March. “That’s the kind of thing that might come out of it.”
Although the Coast Guard doesn’t directly regulate pilotage, the agency can influence the safety of pilot transfers because it approves the equipment, inspects U.S.-flagged vessels and has some authority over foreign-flagged vessels as the port-state law enforcer. Heinz said the Coast Guard is working with the International Maritime Organization to boost the amount of attention paid to pilot-transfer safety.
“I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal situations where a lot of pilot-transfer arrangements are not in good shape,” Heinz said. “In the future, we’ll be giving that some more attention.”
Specifically, the Coast Guard is trying to develop a means of inspecting pilot ladders that goes beyond a simple visual inspection. That could result in a mandatory periodic load test, Heinz said. Such a test would be helpful because wood and rope wear out easily in a sea environment, he said.
“It could be materials that deteriorate or just poor maintenance or you get steps broken,” Heinz said. “The nature of a pilot ladder is, when you’re using it regularly, it gets banged between the pilot boat and the ship.”
Another factor that may force pilot associations to address safety hazards aggressively is the threat of costly legal liability. In Oregon, Murray’s widow has filed a federal lawsuit against the owners of the pilot boat and the ship involved in the ill-fated disembarkation. The suit alleges unseaworthiness, negligence and workplace safety deficiencies.
It’s true that the pilot’s job is getting more dangerous, Watson said. The average length of the climb up and down the ladder has become longer — with more and more ships requiring a climb that approaches the IMO’s maximum pilot-ladder height of around 29.5 feet.
“The size of the ships has changed today,” Watson said. “We have cruise ships and car-carrier ships that are very high-sided and bulk ships that are huge. When they’re empty and sitting out of the water, it’s a very high climb to get on that deck.”
One thing that U.S. pilots likely never will accept is any kind of lifeline system that harnesses the pilot to the ship. Such safety lines have been proposed and rejected. A pilot simply must have freedom to move in a split-second, without interference, most pilots feel.
“We take precautions, but sometimes the precaution becomes a hazard,” Francis Burn, vice president of the Chesapeake & Interstate Pilots, said of the harness idea.
Mountain climbers and utility repairmen may benefit from a lifeline system, but they are tethered to a fixed object. Marine pilots transfer between two objects — the ship and the boat — that are moving independently.
The movements of a ship in heavy seas is “the equivalent of an elevator going up and down four floors in a couple of seconds,” said Capt. Rick Hurd, vice president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots. “Imagine yourself tethered to something that’s in that dynamic of a situation. I wouldn’t want it.”
Years ago, mariners had high hopes for one technological answer to the pilot-transfer challenge: the mechanical pilot hoist. The device, operated by the ship’s deck hands, uses a pulley system to raise or lower the pilot in a bucket.
Ships’ crews simply aren’t trained well enough to operate such a device safely, Watson said. He speaks from experience. He once fell out of a hoist bucket when the deck hands on a coal carrier messed up the rigging by tying one of the tag lines to a stanchion. The bucket tipped.
“Pretty soon I was playing Mr. Gymnast, and I’m hanging on by my hands, upside down, in the middle of the air, and I dropped into the water,” Watson said. “We’ve had too many of these accidents.”
While pilot associations are taking some safety precautions into their own hands, they say even more must be done on the ships.
The IMO’s Design and Equipment Subcommittee and Safety of Navigation Subcommittee are considering a series of adjustments to global safety practices. The International Maritime Pilots’ Association has asked for the reforms to standardize dimensions of the ladders and manropes, among other things.
After the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee considers the subcommittees’ recommendations on the changes, new standards could go into effect within the next few years.
Even under existing rules, many ships are below minimal safety standards, according to the APA and IMPA. Often pilot ladders are homemade, rungs are crooked, deck lighting is poor and, sometimes, no ship’s officer bothers to be present for the embarkation.
“Pilots still encounter many, many substandard pilot ladders and accommodation ladders,” Watson said. “And the (ship) crews are not as quality as they used to be.”
Maybe it’s time for individual pilots to speak out more often when they discover hazards on ships, Watson suggested.
“The pilots don’t routinely report every slight violation of the rigging standards. That could be their own problem,” Watson said. “Pilots will go aboard and use this substandard equipment many times because they are dedicated and they say, ‘What the heck.'”

Heinz, the Coast Guard safety expert, said, “If a pilot finds a ladder that is unfit for use, then it’s up to the pilot to wave it off and say, ‘I’m not going to use that ladder.'”

Dom Yanchunas
By Professional Mariner Staff