North P&I club members raise concerns on rise in pilot helicopter transfers

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An increasing number of ports around the world are using helicopters to transfer the pilot to and from the vessel instead of the more traditional pilot boat, according to new information from North P&I Club.

The Club noted a rise in queries from its members on helicopter transfers as they become more common in ports around the world. While this does mean that pilots can be transferred in increasingly challenging weather conditions, the marine liability insurer warns that the practice introduces new, but manageable risks that ships’ crews should be aware of.

“As an increasing trend, this is something that should be put into safety management systems [SMS] and risk assessments,” North P&I Loss Prevention executive John Southam told Safety at Sea. “It should be a bespoke assessment for this operation. Pilot boarding tends to be a day-to-day job, but they are all a bit different – especially for helicopter pilot transfer, crew should conduct a risk assessment for that port in that operation.”

North P&I recommends that the ship’s master should read and understand the latest copy of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) Guide to Helicopter/Ship Operations. Additionally, the port’s guidelines and requirements should be sought and adhered to.

After consulting the above, the insurer said that the ship’s crew should draw up a bespoke risk assessment to be used in conjunction with any existing SMS procedures for this type of operation. Generic “one size fits all” risk assessments should not be used, it advises, as each port and operation will have different and changeable risks.

“Transferring a person via pilot cutter is in itself a risky operation,” said Adrian Durkin, director (Claims) at North P&I. “The simple fact that it’s by helicopter doesn’t necessarily change the complexity. As it stands, there are no changes to insurance, but keep a weather eye to see if there is an increase in burdens of liability that are put on the vessels.”

In addition, North P&I emphasises the importance of communication in transfer operations. It states that the ship’s master and helicopter pilot should agree on the most efficient form of communications and ensure there is no cross-talk on the channel, as well as prepare the deck for landing, importantly removing any debris from it.

Southam stressed the importance of steering clear of a helicopter’s downdraft and winch wires, which are “capable of serious injury and potential fatalities”. “The winch wire must touch the deck fully before any one going near that pilot – it is not a tight line,” he stressed.

As always, the insurer says that crew should wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), with all necessary fire-and-rescue equipment at the ready during transfer operations.

“Hopefully, the process will be less questioned and crew will get more experience, but they should never get complacent,” said Southam. “It is worth repeating that there should always be a bespoke risk assessment, inclusion in the safety management system, and a toolbox talk on the risks each time a pilot transfer via helicopter takes place.”