OPINION | Pilot boarding – the bigger picture

Photo: Safehaven Marine

There are many factors within the whole process of pilot embarkation. There remains an excellent focus on ships’ rigging of pilot ladders – to minimise their movement and to improve their integrity. However, the fact that pilots are still falling (even when ladders are legally compliant) suggests that we need to broaden our perspectives. Recent fatalities in the Baltic, London, Lisbon and Bombay pose many questions: wise pilots learn from the misfortunes of others, and there will be lessons in every incident, whether fatal or near-miss.

This paper does not seek to provide answers, but will attempt to raise some issues for consideration, since no system is ever so good that it cannot be improved. There will doubtless be many alternative opinions – but debate is healthy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution (different ships, different long splices?) and increased spending does not always equate to greater safety, whereas smarter thinking always does, and its free!

Pilot boat self-righting

Pilot boats must be fit-for-purpose i.e. seaworthy, stable, strong, powerful, comfortable, and manoeuvrable. Two pilot boats were sunk in the Baltic recently: whether operator error or design, self-righting would seem one obvious factor. There will be others.


Pilot boats are intended for hard usage their entire lives: going alongside a ship at speed in a seaway entails major stresses. Strapping an old tyre overside would appear to be an admission of failure.


Seating to minimise skeletal injury. Coxswain’s overview of whole pilot ladder i.e. window arrangement; user-friendly instrumentation; auto-pilot (discussed later); intercom cabin and foredeck. Hadrian’s rail; embarkation area to be as clear as possible if pilot falls back to deck. Cameras to record operations for training and assist in S&R.

Propellers vs. waterjet

There are pros and cons for both. Jets are more fuel-efficient above 25 knots (can reach 40 knots), more manoeuvrable, safer for MOB and less vulnerable to damage. They are expensive to buy and maintain however.

Attitudes and culture of boat crew

Whilst boat designs can be standardised, coxswains are unique individuals. Whether they learned from older coxswains on older boats, did they learn the right techniques? Is there a culture of, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”? Is there freedom to experiment, train or adapt e.g. when boat design has changed? Has he autonomy i.e. is he a master of his own craft? Is there pressure to take risks – whether from some internal bias or pressure from the port or pilot? Is there a better way?

Boat-handling techniques

It seems obvious to avoid one’s own wash and to keep well clear of the stern, being aware of how the ship moves when altering course. Yet one of the Baltic capsizes suggests otherwise. Pilot boat cabins being struck by the stern of a ship does occur. One coxswain in the Thames Estuary was notorious and had near capsized at least twice.

Making a lee

So obvious, why mention it? Ideally, put the wind and/or swell abaft the weather beam. Is there sufficient sea room? Is the pilot station best located for sea and traffic conditions? Consider the Columbia Bar method: the helm is put over towards the pilot launch. The stern-sweep creates a smoothed sea. If the pilot falls in, then the stern is already moving away from him and there is also less chance of the launch getting stuck alongside the ship.

Getting alongside the ship

Speed is essential for steering both ship and launch (eight to 10 knots?). Once the boat crew and pilot have sighted and approved both ladder and sea conditions, the boat closes alongside. The ship will have been asked to set the bottom of the ladder to match the freeboard of the launch, but this is an inexact science and often the ladder is too long or too short. If too long, then the ladder may be damaged between the two hulls. If too short, then it will be difficult to embark. It can be very time-consuming adjusting the ladder height. Is there a different technique?

Creating a vee

I heard of this technique from Taranaki, which operates the Mikotahi. The boat comes alongside forward of the ladder, pivots on her shoulder to about 20 degrees, and then slowly drops astern to put the ladder into the apex of the vee wedge. Even if the pilot ladder touches the sea, it cannot be crushed between the hulls, nor pile-up on deck creating a trip hazard.

It is an easy step across for the pilot who likewise has no fear of being crushed if the pilot boat lifts on a wave. This technique can be used by other designs, if broad shouldered and with sufficient power. Parallel-bodied boats may not be suitable, and too much power on the outboard prop causes that side to dive, heeling the boat.

Grabbing the ladder (or trapeze)

Taranaki also pioneered the “I surrender” vs. “Statue of Liberty” pose. From analysis of past incidents, Taranaki pilots observed that just before they fell, they were hanging on by one hand, with their back to the ship. The instant of grabbing the ladder is the crucial moment of transition from boat to ladder; if the boat should drop before the pilot has his foot on the ladder, then his hands must take all his weight. Though photographic evidence is rare, there is old footage from an incident in the Baltic, which supports this theory.

Consider “those magnificent men on their flying trapeze”: where a trained acrobat must take all his weight on his arms, he keeps his hands level. This technique might make a crucial difference in those marginal conditions when the boat’s movement can be unpredictably lively. (“I will stay with what I have always done” vs. “though few of us have fallen in the water, we still all wear PFDs”). It is often the most experienced pilots who fall.

Pilot jackets and PFDs

Once again, these must be fit-for-purpose. The PFD must be capable of keeping an unconscious wearer’s airways clear of the water. One cannot take this for granted: some years ago, we tested various jackets and PFDs in the water and two of the three jacket designs we tested failed. One turned the wearer face-down, the other smothered him between bladders. Crotch straps keep the bladders tight to the chest and stop them riding up past the face.

Wearing of backpacks

Most pilot professional bodies advise against wearing of backpacks. Several reasons spring to mind: extra weight behind upsets balance; extra weight adds to the shock loading in a fall; straps might impair inflation of the PFD; a Norwegian pilot’s backpack created buoyancy behind, turning him face-down. Even conscious, he was in difficulty.

Wearing of helmets

Helmet design ought to be specific to the hazards. Does the helmet protect the pilot from falling objects? From a fall onto the deck? From hitting the ship’s side? How does it perform when falling from a height into the water? Does it choke the pilot or break his neck (as the cork lifejackets did on Titanic)? Does it keep his head buoyant and airways clear? Is it highly visible? Non-slip shoes and gloves.

Search and rescue of man overboard

Despite all of the above, the pilot can still fall into the water. How well is the boat equipped and how well-trained are the pilot and crew? In the Lisbon incident, there were many holes in their systems. Regular drills in realistic conditions ought to be an easy argument. How do we locate the casualty, then bring the boat to him. How do we recover him on board? Is there a case to be made for autopilot to free up the coxswain for some precious minutes?

Emergency first aid and golden hour

What do we do with a shocked and hypothermic pilot? What if he has sustained crush injuries or is bleeding severely? Are there any simple techniques? How best to get the casualty to an ambulance? Is the berth accessible for stretcher transfer ashore?

Further discussion

The AMPI 2019 Conference will focus on some of the above. We hope to continue the debate at the NZ Pilots Conference (Dunedin 2020) and include pilot boat crews in those discussions. One possible area of research in the interim is photographic analysis of how pilots actually climb ladders; it is such an automatic response, that we are often unaware of how we perform this critical part of our daily lives.

See all the other content from this month’s Pilotage Week right here, including reviews, features, opinions and news.

Hugh O'Neill

Hugh O'Neill is a marine pilot at Port Otago, New Zealand, and the editor of NZMPA Magazine.