Ship pilots who use helicopters say they reduce the risks

Capt. William Worth, of the Columbia River Bar Pilots, descends from a helicopter to the deck of a bulk carrier just north of the Columbia River entrance buoy. The helicopter, an AgustaWestland 109 Power with two 640-hp Pratt & Whitney turbines, has flown over 4,000 hours for the bar pilots. (Peter Schwarz)

Few things in the maritime industry have remained the same for the last 200 years, other than the methods used by pilots for boarding ship. Boarding ships by rope ladder comes from a time of wooden ships and iron men, a time when men were sent aloft to furl sails in storms, and when injury and death were considered part of the job for seamen.

Boarding ships using the system that is still used by most pilot groups is a leap of faith — faith in the knots tied by unknown crewmen, faith in the strength of the pilot ladder, faith in the ability of the pilot boat operator to match the speed of the ship and to rescue the pilot should he miss the jump and fall into the sea.
The loss of 20 pilots in one year — five in the United States alone — is unacceptable. With approximately 1,000 pilots in the United States working an average 20-year career, a rate of five deaths per year would put the odds at one in 10 for a pilot to lose his life on the job. That is much worse than coal mining or king crabbing.
Why does this continue when the solution has been well proven on the Columbia River Bar for the last 11 years? None of these deaths had to happen if the pilots had just used the helicopter boarding system. This system puts a pilot safely on the deck of a ship without the need to put absolute trust in crew that may or may not know what they are doing.
Last year I got ready to get off of a ship at sea. This was a brand new ship with Indian officers and Vietnamese crew. As I got to the pilot ladder, I noticed that it was secured by a mass of knots (none of which I could identify) the size of a small basket. I insisted that the chief mate and I retie the ladder before I would attempt the climb. The mate’s comment was classic. He said of his crew, “If you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot.”
As a pilot on the Columbia River Bar for the last 15 years, I have climbed a few pilot ladders. When I first came to sea in the 1970s, we had a crew of 42 men, including a boatswain and two day men. Maintenance of the pilot ladder was a routine operation that included replacing the seizings, laying it out regularly and keeping it clean. This took the better part of a day. These ladders were heavy wood and manila rope, and took at least three men to rig them. Today we are working with a 23-person crew, the ladders are either on a reel or stowed in some remote locker, and most ships just don’t have the manpower to properly maintain them. The recent trend of making them very light so that two men can handle them makes them a real test of courage for a pilot hanging between the pilot boat and ship.
My foremost complaint is with the ladder with two nylon lines and orange steps. Nylon stretches, so when a pilot makes the first step he immediately goes down between the pilot boat and the side of the ship. The bounce continues with each step as the pilot continues up the side.
These ladders are so heavy that most ships with small crews fasten them to verticals for days at a time. Some have a small block and tackle permanently affixed to the bottom of the ladder. This treatment causes deterioration from the constant sunlight and sea spray.
Rigging some of these ladders takes the whole deck crew and galley men. When you add the need for an accommodation ladder for the high-freeboard ships, it is a mate’s nightmare. Rigging a pilot ladder on a ship entering port and maintaining it are onerous tasks with a fully rested crew. It is rare with small crews that these duties are given the priority they deserve. For a pilot, this is life-support equipment. From the safety record, it is obvious that it is being neglected.
The U.S. Coast Guard has proven conclusively that the only way to get people off ships safely is by helicopter, and yet pilots continue to be injured and killed using an archaic system. Over the years, regulations from SOLAS have tried to make the operation safer by standardized step length, side ports, accommodation ladder when over 9 meters (29.5 feet) of freeboard, and better lighting; but the basic challenge remains the same: Bring a small boat alongside a ship while underway, match speeds and have the pilot jump from the small boat to the ladder and climb. Powered hoists and magnetic or pneumatic suction cups to hold the ladder alongside are, at best, stopgap measures.
What was needed was a completely independent boarding system, a way for the pilot to be placed on board the ship and removed without having to rely on the ship’s crew. This system had to be able to get the pilot onto the deck of the ship without subjecting him or her to the dangerous transfer and climb between two moving platforms. The ideal solution is to beam the pilot to the ship as in Star Trek, but until that becomes possible, the next best thing is use a helicopter and a hoist.
Since 1996 there has been a reliable helicopter transfer system going on at the Columbia River Bar, with over 70 percent of the transfers being made by helicopter. Since 1986 pilots have routinely been transferred by helicopter in some ports in South Africa, France, Germany, Belgium and Australia. The systems are safer by far than the boat systems they have replaced, and the helicopters have continued to work in weather too severe for pilot boats to operate safely. So what is the holdup in universally going to helicopters?
First, helicopters don’t work well in restricted visibility. If you are going to work ships in dense fog, pilot groups need to have a boat backup. Fortunately, most of the time when the fog is thick, the seas are smooth, and many ports have made the decision not to move ships in dense fog. Minimum visibility for helicopter operations is generally set at one mile and 300 vertical feet in daylight and three miles and 700 vertical feet at night.
Second, pilots are marine-oriented. They understand boats and are reluctant to try something entirely foreign, like a helicopter. There are few industries as resistant to change as the maritime industry. Sailing pilot boats were still in use in the 1960s, and the bar pilots were still rowing to work in small boats when we put satellites in space. No amount of statistics will convince pilots that helicopters are much safer than boats. However, actual experience with twin-turbine helicopters and top flight crews will eventually convert even the most devout boat fan that this is the better way to go to work.
Third, the fear of higher cost. This objection has been completely disproved with the helicopter system used by the Columbia River Bar Pilots. The system essentially paid for itself through increased efficiency and reduced need for standby pilots waiting on pilot boats. The speed of the transfer system allows containerships and car ships to maintain sea speed during the transfer and to stay on heavy oil rather than shifting to diesel for maneuvering, as the ships are handled without the need to change speed.
Fourth, reluctance to fly. Some people just prefer to have their feet in contact with the earth or the deck. Going to work in a helicopter means putting your faith in a crew controlling a machine that ship pilots are not trained to operate. (Since the bar pilots began using helicopters, only two of them have taken flight lessons in a helicopter.) In the rope ladder system, ship pilots make the decision as to when to transfer. This puts their fate in their own hands. In the helicopter system, once pilots hook up to the helicopter, their fate is in the hands of the hoist operator, and that takes a level of trust that is unique in the industry.
Last, shoreside management, as all captains know, answers all questions with an automatic “no.” It then becomes the job of the ship’s officers to change their minds. Several companies have simply issued a blanket prohibition on the use of helicopters for transfer of pilots, whereas a poll of captains found almost universal enthusiasm for a system that eliminates a labor-intensive responsibility for a rope ladder system designed for operation by large crews of well-trained seamen.
All of the resistance to helicopters has been visited before in other industries. Virtually all of the personnel shifts to the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are now done by helicopters. Their safety record for the transfers, which have become routine, is excellent.
The Coast Guard and Navy used to transfer personnel ship to ship using a basket and high wire; that is a thing of the past. Transfer of pilots using rope ladders is just about the lone holdout to an outdated system that needs to change.
Hopefully some good can come out of the recent staggering losses to ship pilots if pilot groups and shore managers can bring an open mind when considering a shift to helicopter operations. Helicopter transfer of pilots will reduce risk, make the operations of the customer more efficient and reduce the liability of both groups. Harbor operations in calm seas, as in Australia and Durban, South Africa, or in heavy weather operations, as in Rotterdam and the Columbia River, require different types of helicopter operations, but both reduce the dependence on a rope ladder system that is a relic of the era of sailing ships.
William Worth is an oceangoing master mariner with 19 years at sea and 15 years as a member of the Columbia River Bar Pilots. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard license as master, oceans, unlimited tonnage, as well as an FAA license for single-engine aircraft (including seaplanes) and helicopters.
By Professional Mariner Staff