Pilot Overboard


Every pilot’s nightmare is to fall off the ladder whilst boarding and although such incidents are fortunately very rare, tragically  pilot ladder falls result in 1 -2  deaths per year worldwide. Last February my London colleague, Jon Stafford fell whilst transferring his grip from the ladder to the gate opening in the ship’s bulwark. Fortunately he survived and he hopes that by sharing his experiences he might help increase the safety awareness of other pilots. The following first hand account by Jon brings the reality vividly to life!! JCB

It was a climb  of around 5 metres and I clearly remember how it happened. I got to the top of the ladder and having gripped one of the hand holds in the ship’s rail opening I let go of the ladder to grasp the other and before I got hold of the second hand hold I swung away from the opening, smacked against the ship’s side and that was it, I fell!

I remember looking down to check whether I was falling onto the cutter or into the sea. Fortunately the cutter had moved clear of the ship and was running parallel close to the ship’s side. I knew then that although I wasn’t to suffer serious injury from falling onto the cutter, but I was going into the icy  North Sea in February between the ship and the cutter!

As I hit the water my first thoughts were the propellers of first the cutter and then the ship. I knew that the coxswain would have stopped the engines when he saw me fall but the Captain wouldn’t have time to stop the ship’s engine before I was past and that really scared me. I went down quite deep but I could see the boat’s searchlight and the ship’s lights from under the water as the integral lifejacket in my SeaSafe coat inflated. When I resurfaced I was at the stern of the pilot cutter but the water flow was pushing me hard up against the ship’s side and I knew that it was taking me towards the ship’s propeller. As I slid along the ship’s side I was dragged right in underneath the counter so I tried to keep my feet up to keep my body on the surface.

I estimate that I passed within a metre of the propeller and although from falling to clearing the stern of the ship  couldn’t have been more than 20 – 30 seconds it felt like a lifetime!

Having got past that immediate danger I started to concentrate on recovery. All London pilots undergo training with our cutter crews, who hold regular exercises in  recovering casualties and I now have first hand experience, that  proves the training works really well. Remarkably my brain stayed crystal clear, concentrating  on staying alive.

I knew that my greatest risk now was from hypothermia so I worked at keeping my body heat in by keeping my legs together and jamming my cap down tight on my head.

I then started looking for the pilot cutter. It was dark and there was a bit of a swell running and  I could hear the crew talking to each other but then heard one state that he’d lost sight of me which caused me some concern!

I put my left hand up hoping that the retro-reflective tape on the jacket’s sleeve would improve my chances of being spotted. Fortunately that worked because as soon as I had raised my arm  I heard a shout and the boat came round and alongside me very quickly. The coxswain did it first time, closing  in and stopping the cutter in the perfect position for recovery. The crewman then managed to catch hold of me at the first attempt with the MateSaver pole, something that I know isn’t easy to achieve!

It was only when I was hauled aboard the cutter that  I realised that I’d injured my ankle.

Once ashore, there was a fast response paramedic, an ambulance and three police cars waiting to take me to hospital, where I was treated for mild hypothermia and informed that my ankle was broken.

The experience hasn’t put me off. Climbing a pilot ladder has a certain risk attached to it and falling off  is a foreseeable, but fortunately rare, accident for which we are trained. Using ladders is just part of the job and I now know that the extensive emergency training we receive really does work!”

Jon Stafford

This accident was investigated by the MAIB and the following is an extract from their report. During discussions with the pilot, it became apparent that while climbing a ladder, he tends to keep his weight back for ease of climbing. At the time of the incident, the pilot continued in this position while attempting to transition onto deck. At the top of the pilot ladder he stopped with both feet on one ladder rung and placed his right hand on the after rail handhold. This being substantially outside the span of his shoulders and due to the weight distribution, caused his body to rotate about his right hand and foot as soon as he released his grip on the ladder with his left hand. Potentially, the asymmetric arrangement of the hand holds may have contributed to the difficulty in obtaining a firm grip.One important aspect of this accident is that the space between the hand holds was 105cms which was also addressed in the MAIB report which referred to the following amendment to IMO A889 :..a gateway in the rails or bulwark, adequate handholds should be provided at the point of embarking on or disembarking from the ship on each side which should be not less than 70cm or more than 80cm apart. Each handhold should be rigidly secured to the ship’s structure at or near its base and also at a higher point, not less than 32 mm in diameter and extend not less than 1.2 m above the top of the bulwarks. Stanchions or handrails should not be attached to the bulwark ladder.

This provision has now been included in the latest IMO Resolution on pilot ladders, which will come into force in 2012  along with an updated IMPA bridge poster.

The UKMPA, through IMPA, have been at the forefront of the campaign to improve pilot ladder safety and this amendment along with the ISO 799 standard are a direct result of the hard work put in by pilot organisations around the World which should help prevent accidents such as Jon Stafford’s happening to others. JCB

The full MAIB report : MAIB MOB web

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