Pilot ladder concerns

The poor management and sub-standard quality of ships’ rope ladders are putting the lives of marine pilots at risk, according to new findings by the MAIB.

The poor management and sub-standard quality of ships’ rope ladders are putting the lives of marine pilots at risk, according to new findings by the MAIB.

Amongst the many important safety issues outlined in the MAIB Annual Report 2021 published in June is a notable increase in poor quality rope ladder management.  

The UK-based MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) says it received 194 reports about sub-standard pilot rope ladders during 2021. Of those, 172 pilot ladders were not rigged in compliance with SOLAS guidance, and 22 were observed by the pilot to be in a materially poor condition. The branch is, therefore, now asking that all such incidents — no matter how minor — are reported to them directly so that a clearer and more comprehensive picture of the true extent of the problem can be accurately ascertained.

Hazardous operations

“The size and technological complexity of ships may have increased, but marine pilots still have to embark and disembark moving vessels using a basic rope ladder,” explains Bill Evans, the MAIB’s inspector of marine accidents. “And those transfers can be hazardous operations, so it’s absolutely essential that the ladders are correctly rigged and supervised. 

“The ship’s crew must inspect the ladder before and after its use to verify that it is still in good condition,” he advises. “They must also ensure it is still in date by checking the maker’s plate; inspect its ropes to ensure they are in good condition; check the steps to ensure they are undamaged, clean, evenly spaced and horizontal; and be prepared to replace the ladder if there are any signs of damage — no matter how small. Someone’s life may depend on it. 

“To rig a pilot ladder correctly, it must be secured to strong points on the ship’s deck by a rope stopper attached to the ladder’s side ropes. Some reported incidents of substandard rigging have included the use of shackles or guardrails, which should never be used.” 

Scary moments

The vulnerability of pilots putting their trust in a simple, long rope ladder is reflected in the experience of Captain Agha Umar Habib, a highly experienced pilot working in Sohar Port, Oman. 

In July 2019, he stepped from his pilot boat, at night, onto the hanging ladder of the bulk carrier MV Opal Fortune. Moments later the ladder’s ropes snapped and he fell into the sea.  

“My instinct was to open both my arms to avoid being crushed between the pilot boat and the ship,” he recalls. “But then I saw the ship’s propeller coming towards me, churning slowly, so I began swimming as fast as I could to get away from it, while taking off my backpack which was slowing me down and pulling me under. By now, the pilot boat had turned around and was trying to find me in the darkness. I started shouting out to them and, thankfully, they were able to locate me. Those fifteen minutes in the sea were the scariest of my life. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next — or if I would survive.” 

Social media awareness

Concerns about the integrity and management of pilot ladders have now become so widespread within the industry that a dedicated Facebook page — #dangerousladders — has been set up to record deficiencies and help improve pilot transfer arrangements.  

The brainchild of marine pilot Captain Kevin Vallance, the social media site has proved to be enormously popular and helpful. It currently has more than 4,000 members, and anyone applying to join, whose Facebook shows they have links with seafaring, will be accepted. 

“One shipping company had two of their vessels included on our page on the same day,” says Vallance. “When their shore management became aware of the situation, they got in touch to thank us for raising the noncompliance and helping them to take immediate action. 

“It’s a sad fact that accidents and near misses continue to occur during pilot transfers with frightening regularity,” he adds. “Surveys into pilot ladder safety consistently reveal that unacceptably high numbers of pilot transfer arrangements are not compliant with the regulations. What should be a routine shipboard operation — regulated within the SOLAS convention Regulation 23, updated in July 2012 and the IMO Resolution A 1045 (27) from 2011 — is still found to be regularly deficient. It is vital that all personnel involved in the transfer of marine pilots are aware of the regulations and are able to identify when boarding arrangements are deficient and therefore unsafe for their intended purpose and the pilot.”

Read the MAIB Annual Report 2021.

ABP (Associated British Ports) has produced a poster outlining best practice in pilot boarding arrangement requirements.  

Captain Agha Umar Habib was interviewed by maritime pilotage consultant and former head of the UKMPA Don Cockrill MIMarEST – read the full conversation here

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Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.