Man Overboard: Urgent Recovery from Cargo Ship Transfer


A crew transfer vessel in a northern European port had come alongside a cargo ship to transfer two passengers and their luggage. The first passenger successfully climbed the pilot ladder and boarded the cargo ship. The second passenger had started to ascend the ladder while the transfer vessel moved clear of it; as he continued to climb, first one foot and then the other slipped from the rung. Unable to either regain his footing or support himself, he fell from a height of 2m into the water between the two vessels, reports MAIB. 

The incident

The crew transfer vessel was immediately moved astern and its skipper continued to back it away from the cargo ship until the casualty could be seen in the water, drifting down the side of the ship’s hull. His lifejacket had inflated correctly and he was floating, with his head supported clear of the water. 

The skipper of the transfer vessel called “Mayday” on very high frequency (VHF) channel 16. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew threw a life ring and a separate line, which the casualty was able to grab hold of. They used the line to pull the casualty back along the hull towards a point close to where the pilot ladder would be lowered, ready to recover him onto it. However, the casualty was unable to climb the ladder after it was prepared and lowered and, despite a crew member descending the ladder to assist him, he lost his grip on both the ladder and the lines and once again drifted away along the ship’s hull. 

The skipper of the transfer vessel decided to attempt a recovery and maneuvered into a position from which his crew were able to securely catch hold of the casualty with a boat hook. The skipper then left the helm and assisted his crew to follow the vessel’s man overboard (MOB) procedure and recover the casualty using a boarding ladder and davit. Despite being in the water for about 10 minutes, the casualty was able to walk to the waiting medical care when he was recovered ashore.

The lessons

On this occasion the casualty was successfully recovered; however, depending on environmental conditions and the individual’s health, 10 minutes is often the upper time limit to complete an MOB recovery before the victim becomes incapacitated by cold water. Even with the assistance of a crewman, the casualty quickly lost the ability to self-recover once the pilot ladder was lowered and had to rely on others to rescue him from the water.

The hazard of an MOB during crew/passenger transfers via pilot ladder requires risk mitigation such as the preparation of a detailed emergency response, conducting regular practical drills, and discussing which vessel will take the lead in recovering the casualty. It may be too late to start thinking about MOB procedures when you or a colleague are in the water.

The use and automatic inflation of the casualty’s lifejacket were instrumental in keeping him afloat, minimizing the expenditure of valuable energy, and helping to manage the inevitable stress of suddenly being submerged in cold water. Without the lifejacket, an increased level of medical intervention would have been likely. Lifejackets must be well-maintained and correctly worn to increase the chances of a successful MOB recovery.

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Source: MAIB