How is Rigging And Maintenance of Pilot Ladder Done On Ships?


On a small cargo ship, a pilot was about to disembark with a good lee. The bottom rung of the pilot ladder was slightly above, and clear of, the deck of the launch. The pilot inspected the ladder as best he could from the main deck to ensure it was properly rigged and secured and free of any obvious defects. All appeared correct.


But as soon as the pilot committed his full weight to the ladder, the ropes on each side of the ladder parted simultaneously at the point where they went over the rounded fishplate at the sheer strake. The pilot fell two metres to the deck of the pilot launch, bruising and spraining his right foot and ankle which took the impact of the fall. His injuries could have been much worse had the freeboard of the vessel been greater.

On investigation, it was found that the root cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot ladder due to inadequate maintenance and inspection.

Pilot ladder is a special type of rope ladder used on board ships for embarkation and disembarkation of maritime pilots. It is one of the very first things, which will give an impression to the pilot about the crew and the master on board – an extremely important thing to consider for the ship’s crew.

The pilot ladder should therefore be maintained in good condition and rigged properly for safer transfer of personnel. Needless to say, even the minutest negligence can lead to a major mishap.

The crew in charge of rigging the pilot ladder should use their knowledge and also follow the instructions from the bridge. As seen in the above accident during pilot transfer using ladder, a person’s life is directly at stake and chances of accidents are extremely high. Officers and the crew involved with the process should thus consider all safety precautions required for the process.

IMG_20140703_143815Rigging of Pilot Ladder:

A pilot ladder should be capable of covering the whole length from the point of access to the water level. The height from water level is informed to the bridge by the port control or the pilot himself depending on the height of the pilot vessel.

Here’r few points to consider while rigging the pilot ladder:

- The top portion or head of the pilot ladders should be secured at the strongest point of the vessel

- Pilot ladder should be positioned and secured, so that it is clear of any discharges from the ship, with parallel body length of the ship and as far as practicable within the half way length (midship) of the ship

- All steps of the pilot ladder should rest firmly against the ship side. In certain ships, where constructional features such asfenders or rubbing band prevent the implementation of above safety features, special arrangements are to be made for safe embarkation and disembarkation

- Two man ropes not less than 28 mm and made of manila rope or other material which gives firm grip for climbing the ladder, should be rigged along the side of pilot ladder if requested
- During night, the whole length of the pilot ladder, point access and egress should be well illuminated. A life buoy with self igniting light and a heaving line should be kept ready. Hand hold stanchions and bulwark ladder are to be used if required.

- If the point of access from sea level is more than 9 meters, a combination ladder should be used. A combination ladder is a conjunction of pilot ladder and accommodation ladder .This is a common arrangement found on vessels with high freeboard. The accommodation ladder is rigged in such a way that it leads aft of the vessel and has a slope angle of not more than 55 degrees.

Pilot boarding a ship from a pilot boat, prior to entering a harbour (Image credits : Danny Cornelissen)

Pilot boarding a ship from a pilot boat, prior to entering a harbour (Image credits : Danny Cornelissen/ Wikipedia)

Actions to be Taken by Officer of the Watch before using pilot ladder:

The following steps are to be taken by the officer of the watch for utmost safety during using pilot ladder:

- Collect the necessary information like VHF channel used by the pilot, position of pilot ground and other services. These information can be obtained from Nautical Publication NP 286 ALRS (Admiralty list of radio signals) for the particular port or from guide port entry. Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) of the particular area also provides such information.

- Maintain watch on VHF channel, which is used by the pilot. This is mostly a dedicated channel different from the channels used by port control and Vessel traffic scheme (VTS).

- Calculate the ETA (Estimated time of arrival) to the pilot boarding ground, observe prevailing weather condition and sea state and the same has to be reported to the master

IMG_20140703_143823- Contact the Pilot on the VFH channel and give information such as ETA to pilot ground, draught and freeboard of the vessel, length of vessel, type of propeller, vessel current speed over ground and course made good etc.

- Ask and receive information such as berthing prospectus, the side pilot ladder to be rigged, height of pilot ladder from water level, speed and course to be maintained and report all the data received to the master.

- Monitor the pilot vessel, maintain proper communication between the pilot vessel and own ship. The officer responsible should be present near the point of access to receive the pilot on board or when he disembarks. Pilot on board and disembarkation time should be noted and recorded.

Maintenance of Pilot Ladder:

Pilot ladders are to be regularly inspected for wear and tear of side ropes, missing wedges and damages on the steps. The steps should never be painted and should be kept clean, free from oil and grease.

All the steps should be equally spaced between the side ropes and the distance between two steps should be uniform.

Steps should be always horizontal. Any faulty steps found should be replaced immediately.

The side ropes are made of manila rope. They should be continuous and free from ties and joints below the first step of pilot ladder. The shackles used to secure the pilot ladder should have equal strength and durability same as that of side ropes used.

Once the pilotage operation is over the pilot ladder should be secured instead of left hanging on the ship’s side. The pilot ladders should be be stowed in dry and well ventilated space, clear of deck and fitted with cover to prevent the ladder from sunlight, chemical and paint spills.

It is to note that Pilot ladders are solely used for the purpose of embarkation and disembarkation of the personnel. It should never be used for any other purpose like draught reading or any other maintenance work. Pilot ladders should be well maintained and properly stowed which ensures safe, convenient and unobstructed passage while pilot transfer. More information on pilot ladder construction and specifications can be found in SOLAS chapter V under regulation safety of navigation.

The above mentioned are some of the most important points that should be considered for maintenance and rigging of pilot ladders on board ships.