Sunday 21st Oct, 2018


Photo: Australian Pilotage Group
Photo: Australian Pilotage Group

FROM the 1400s until just a few years ago, harbour pilot boats and launches were the only way of getting a maritime pilot on board a ship – either entering or leaving harbour. Marine pilots were spending many hours of their duty time being ferried around in launches. This was expensive, fatiguing and hazardous to the pilots.

Today around the world, helicopters are increasingly being employed to do the job – both by day and by night – in the interests of safety, effectiveness and efficiency. Many ports in Australia transfer their marine pilots by helicopter, landing on large bulk carriers.

With the steady increase in tonnage, ships have higher freeboards, thus requiring the pilot to climb up to 9 metres on a pilot ladder, followed by a climb of 105 stairs to the bridge. It is no wonder pilots are feeling fatigued and suffering knee and other physical issues.

The US Coast Guard has proven conclusively that the best way to get people off ships safely is by helicopter. Yet, pilots continue to be injured and killed using an archaic ladder-boarding system.

Over the years, regulations from SOLAS have worked to make the operation safer by standardising step length, side ports, better lighting and accommodation ladders when the freeboard is over 9 meters.
The basic challenge, however, remains the same: bring a small boat alongside a ship while underway, usually in heavy seas and swell, match speeds and have the pilot jump from the small boat and then climb the ladder.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots on the West Coast of the US found a complete re-engineering of the pilot boarding system was required. They concluded that the best way for the pilot to be placed on board the ship and to be removed was 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 outcome was to use a helicopter and a hoist transfer.

The Columbia River Bar Pilots report using helicopters for 70% of all transfers with no injuries or deaths with between 2200 and 3000 helicopter transfers per annum. The conditions at the mouth of the Columbia River where the pilots operate are reportedly difficult with heavy swells, confused seas and high winds .

Since 1996 there has been a reliable helicopter transfer system going on at the Columbia River Bar, and since 1976 pilots have routinely been transferred by helicopter in other ports around the world such as Le Havre. 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 going to helicopter hoisting operations?

In 2006 the Australian Transport Safety Bureau issued research and analysis report titled Marine Pilot Transfer – A Preliminary Investigation of Options. This report stated:

  1. The use of helicopters for sea transfers was outside of the scope of this project; however, a brief review suggests this system has advantages for the marine pilot’s health and safety,
  2. Applying this hierarchical approach to improving the safety of the pilot ladder task requires consideration of each of the following:
    • Eliminating the ladder transfer task – not using pilot ladder transfers, but using other means, such as helicopters.
  3. Helicopters are already well known and in use in many ports, and anecdotal reports suggest that this system is effective and poses less risk to pilots than the ladder transfer.

Captain William (Bill) Worth, senior pilot on the Columbia River Bar, said in an interview with Archer Aviation that few things in the maritime industry have remained the same for the past 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,” he said.

“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.”

And faith in the strength and agility of the pilot undertaking this dangerous practice.

Captain Worth continued, saying in one year 20 pilots died on the job worldwide, and five in the US alone, making the profession of pilot an unnecessarily dangerous one. He pointed out that none of the deaths would have happened 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,” he said.

Australian Pilotage Group (APG) is a marine pilot transfer service provider based in Melbourne. We own and operate two AS365N2 Dauphin helicopters, located at Avalon airport. This type of helicopter has been used to transport personnel to and from ships at sea at other ports around the world and is the first choice of the pilots at Le Havre, having been in service since 1986.

We have some of the most highly trained helicopter pilots in Australia working for us, and a long-serving professional marine pilot in the management team. We also have search and rescue capabilities, and we are also able to carry out personnel evacuation in the event of severe weather events.

There is no logical or rational reason not to pursue the safest method of transferring marine pilots, both fatigue-wise and with the added safety to the ship’s crew by not having to lash ladders, hanging over the side of the ship, while its rolling at 2 in the morning.

During a helicopter transfer, the ship doesn’t have to slow down, and the marine pilots can board a couple of miles further off the heads, giving them more time to conduct their passage plans and BRM procedures. Multiple transfers can happen in minutes not hours. It is a ‘win-win’ for the marine pilots, harbour authorities and ship owners.

APG’s Dauphins are some of the best aircraft type for marine pilot transfers in terms of safety, mission capability and versatility. In the standard marine pilot transfer configuration, the Dauphin is equipped with three rear seats and one central swivelling seat used by the hoist operator. The Dauphin offers a modern, safe, and efficient way to increase a port’s productivity while decreasing port congestion. Having been used by Westpac surf lifesaver rescue in Lismore NSW, for 10 years proves their reliability, robustness and safety conclusively.

In a 2010 interview with South African maritime news source Ports and Ships, Ricky Bhikraj, port manager of the Transnet National Ports Authority (Durban and Richards Bay South Africa), said port helicopters enable much faster turnaround times – from up to an hour and a half by boat to 10 minutes or less.

“Something not generally known or fully appreciated is just how much of an asset to Durban and Richards Bay (South Africa) the port helicopters have proved,” he said.

“By operating a 24-hour service they not only improve efficiencies but are immediately available for emergencies and have taken part in numerous successful operations that might otherwise have resulted in a considerable loss of life.

“The most spectacular was probably that of the burning cargo ship JOLLY RUBINO, in which the Richards Bay port helicopter flew at night and in poor weather conditions to rescue the entire crew from the fiercely burning ship.”

* Captain Stephen Rabie is managing director of Australian Pilotage Group

From the print edition November 30, 2017

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