WAYPOINT - Seamanship Matters - Look out for ladders

02 Feb 2022 The Navigator

A pilot ladder is an outlier among safety equipment. As seafarers, we always inspect our safety equipment before trusting our lives to it; however, Pilots have no choice but to rely on pilot ladders that they can’t inspect before boarding. This leaves seafarers – both ratings and officers – responsible for Pilots’ lives

Seamanship is an odd thing. We often think of it as the practical, “fun” side of the job: maintenance, ropework, problem solving and the like, but we often forget the other side: responsibility and professionalism.
Officers are responsible for ensuring that the pilot ladder is rigged correctly. Unfortunately, on many cargo ships, the officer isn’t on deck while the ladder’s being rigged – the deck crew actually rig the ladder. The officer is up on the bridge, waiting for the Captain to relieve them. An officer may only have time for a five-second inspection with a dim torch in the dark as the Pilot’s boat lines up for its approach. In those conditions, could you tell if the ladder is in good condition and properly rigged? If you were to decide it isn’t, do you have a plan for what to do?

The “textbook” answer is to inform the Captain, who will back you up and tell the Pilot boat to stand off until the problem is resolved. But what if you’re already using the spare pilot ladder, and it’s unsafe? Or if it’s physically impossible to rig the pilot ladder correctly due to poor ship design?

Yes, it should have been noticed much earlier. No, seafarers should never be in that situation. Unfortunately, too many seafarers have been there, trapped between safety and commercial pressure, and in the case of pilot ladders, it isn’t the seafarers’ lives on the line.

Seafarers are the last line of defence: We must be willing to speak up and stand our ground

Everybody’s responsibility
Despite the impressive range of mistakes seafarers make with pilot ladders (see #DangerousLadders on Twitter for some interesting examples), the practical seamanship side of pilot ladders is simple: they must meet certain construction standards, be in good condition, and be rigged in line with the rules. However, “simple” and “easy” aren’t the same thing. Ships should be designed to permit safe and compliant rigging of pilot ladders.

Ships should carry appropriate equipment, which should be inspected and tested regularly. Ship procedures and manning should allow officers sufficient time to inspect pilot ladders properly before the Pilot’s boat approaches. However, if all of these precautions and systems fail, seafarers are the last line of defence: we must be willing to speak up and stand our ground.

It’s simple to identify cracked or splintered steps, chafed or worn ropes, lopsided ladders or insecure attachment points. As a seafarer, you can’t control everything, but you must take responsibility regardless. If, the first time you’re involved in rigging or inspecting a ladder on a new vessel, you realise that it’s impossible to comply with the rules, report it both verbally and in writing.

“We’ve always done it like this on this ship,” isn’t a good excuse if a Pilot dies falling from your ladder.