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Hang on: revisit safety of over-the-side yacht work

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Former deckhand Matthew Carroll’s first time in a bosun’s chair, clipped on and suspended over the side of a megayacht, was scary.

“I did not let go of the rail, even though I knew my knots and had set it up correctly,” Carroll said as he demonstrated safe equipment used in training sessions.

“I knew of a crew who broke his back when he fell; that was present in my mind,” he said. “There is always a risk. You’re either on your knees or reaching out. It’s not a natural position.”

From there, Carroll successfully squeegeed countless windows on yachts including M/Y Casino Royale, M/Y Usher and M/Y Dream for eight years before becoming marketing coordinator at Bluewater Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale.

He has been acutely aware that safe procedures are vital to all crew who work over the side. But adherence to rules is required only for certain compliant yachts. M/Y Medora is not a classed vessel, but Capt. Brendon Pomeroy’s crew use a compliant rail system, harness and safety line anyway.

“It is super dangerous to work over the side,” Capt. Pomeroy said. “I see crew all the time working without a harness on commercially flagged boats. I’m not required to do this, but I’m electing to.

“This is an important topic to talk about,” he said as he described the yacht’s procedures. “We have no walk-around deck on the second level so we have a U-track installed to clean and maintain the yacht.”

When the yacht was recently painted, the access track and other hardware were taken off. That’s when Capt. Pomeroy took a second look.

Technician Scott Smith checks and double checks compliant safety access systems, including annual load testing. PHOTO/HOUSTON C. MURPHY

“When we removed the existing sail track, we found that there was a considerable amount of corrosion on the track itself, especially where the stainless steel fasteners were coming into contact with the aluminum track, and causing corrosion due to dissimilar metals,” he said. “The bearings on the existing car were worn out and flat.”

These rail and car systems are installed by companies such as Nance & Underwood Rigging and Sails in Ft. Lauderdale. General Manager Houston C. Murphy is a big proponent of crew safety.

“At least three recent falls have occurred here within the last year,” Murphy said. “I cannot say worldwide how many people are hurt using systems designed to hold fenders or using poorly designed systems.”

He understands that the hardware is not considered attractive on many yachts, and he has been told that owners don’t want to see the rail run the length of the yacht. The company offers a powder coating to hide them. Murphy plays by the book and recites requirements from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for certified tracks, systems, installations and annual inspections.

“Crew have to have a five-point safety harness while in the bosun’s chair,” Murphy said. “The track has to have two cars to hold a person, and some have three.” The third car can hold cleaning supplies and tools.

“You need to know how to raise and lower yourself, for example, if you want to go down to a window and back up,” he said. “We have guys that show crew how to properly use their hiking gear.”

He thinks non-compliant yachts can still follow safe procedures.

“The problem we have had is that they don’t follow rules until someone gets hurt,” Murphy said.

It’s just that fear that leads Capt. Pomeroy to take extra precautions with compliance and training for work-over-the-side equipment.

“It’s worth it to spend more; it is cheap insurance,” Capt. Pomeroy said. “No one uses it without being trained on how to attach, utilize and detach. We often have contractors, like varnishers, polishers and painters, that need to use the track as well, and they are trained same as crew.”

Capt. Christopher D. Hezelgrave has an Alpine guide climbing background and said he sees the persistence of using incorrect knots and insufficient secondary security.

“I have faced a lot of resistance when telling crews not to secure harnesses with a bowline among other issues,” Capt. Hezelgrave said in an email. “I think climbing courses would benefit crews no end.”

A certified track, improperly installed, fails. PHOTO/HOUSTON C. MURPHY

In January, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) issued a Marine Safety Alert following a fatality of a crew member on board a bulk carrier. Although the ship was not Marshall Island flag, International Registries considered the information important for yacht crew, according to Peter Chesla, safety and technical manager for yachts at the company. The RMI Maritime Administrator issued a Yacht Safety Advisory (YSA).

“The YSA was issued to owners, captains and industry stakeholders as a reminder that even if you have a Safety Management System in place, the crew must fully implement the SMS requirements, including ensuring properly using safety equipment, adequate supervision of work teams, and the proper equipment and training are in place, among others,” Chesla said.

But for crew cleaning yachts, it’s just part of the job. Medora Mate Tom Coleman enjoys working over the side. Occasionally, he and his wife go to a rock-climbing gym; they’re not serious climbers, but he’s comfortable at heights. He learned many of his safety techniques from years working racing and sailboat charters in the Caribbean.

“At 120 feet up the mast, that will will cure your fear of heights, Coleman said.

But he notices some yacht crew work with unsafe equipment or procedures.

“Occasionally, when I see those crew, I wonder why they are doing it that way?” Coleman said. “I have never been in a situation where I was asked to work when it was unsafe. You do wonder if crew don’t know better. Are people ignoring rules or under pressure to get things done?”

Will Williamson stresses safety as an instructor at Bluewater. He said over-the-side-work ranks as one of the more risky crew tasks.

“I cringe when I hear some of these stories,” Williamson said. “You’re taking your life in your hands.”

He encourages crew to take responsibility to check their own gear and be informed.

“If you’re new to something and someone tells you to go do it, you have every right to say, ‘time out’,” Williamson said.

Most maritime training facilities do not teach a course specifically focused on working over the side, but basics are covered in classes such as the Efficient Deckhand Course and Able

Seaman. But references are available for everyone to read, especially on non-compliant yachts.

“The bible is the Code of Safe Working, chapters 14 and 17,” Williamson said in reference to the MCA’s Code of Safe Working Practices.

There are things all crew can do to make their work over the side better, according to both Carroll and Coleman.

Will Williamson, instructor at Bluewater shows the author a safe rig for over-the-side work. Photo by Matthew Carroll

“It seems like it should be easy but there are many steps involved,” Coleman said. “It’s a multi-step job. Get into the habit of doing everything right. If you miss steps, it doesn’t work.”

First, the rail has to be installed correctly, as Capt. Pomeroy learned when the yacht was painted. M/Y Medora crew use the two-line system, one line for the crew in a harness and another safety line, which is the standard system for classed yachts.

Once Coleman has clipped his line to the access rail, he checks the clips by leaning back to confirm they will hold. And after working, he waits to unclip when he is safely inside the rail.

“How you get into the system is important,” he said. “For our boat, I can stand on railing, sit on counter and clip in before going over. I’m never at risk of falling while clipping in.”

But he has seen that many rails don’t extend to an accessible part of the yacht, instead crew have to be over the side before they can reach to clip in.

“The first part of the rail, where I get on, is an area where I don’t need to clip in to clean there,” Coleman said. “But the track needs to go that far to clip in.

“If you do it right, it’s safe,” he said. “But if you’re doing it wrong, it is not worth. You don’t want to flip or lose concentration for a few seconds.”

Carroll said it is important to always have one line clipped at all times. And both men said it is important to have another crew member nearby while working overboard.

“In reality, yachts don’t always have someone there,” Coleman said. “Some yachts don’t have enough crew to have a person stand watch, so charge your radio.”

He advises to lay out all the gear.

“It doesn’t take any time to visually check the harness and harness lines,” he said. “Sometimes, you put on the harness and it’s all twisted. It’s better to stop and look at it first.”

Then think through the entire job for scope and supplies, he said.

“Set out the water hose, know the distance of the work,” Coleman said. “You don’t want to get to the end of the rail and not have enough hose. Fill the vinegar, top off the cleaning products, have a microfiber cloth and tie your sunglasses on.

“When you’re cleaning the windows, have the interior staff check from the inside,” he said. “You want to do a good job so you don’t have to go back.”

“You want to be redundant, be comfortable, and check your gear,” Carroll said. “Be aware, be awake. This is one of the more risky things crew do, and yachts are not designed in a friendly way for this.”

“You can do something a hundred times,” Coleman said. “But it doesn’t matter if you get injured on the one-hundred-and-first time.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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One thought on “Hang on: revisit safety of over-the-side yacht work

  1. Michael Dias

    In regard to tracks, the old stainless one do not slide well under load and are very heavy. Being in the marine industry as a captain, and yacht racing all my life, I suggest you look at Harken products which are superior products in every way and they also have been working on over-the-side safety as of late.

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