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Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake DesVergers

In May, the Inspections and Compliance Directorate of the U.S. Coast Guard issued a Marine Safety Alert. The bulletin, titled “Man Overboard! An unusual fatality calls for reassessment of hazards and risks,” was published to educate owners and operators of deep-draft vessels on the circumstances surrounding a tragic incident that left one mariner dead. 

While this incident took place on a commercial merchant ship, the safety lessons learned are easily transcribed to any private or commercial yacht of any size.

In the autumn of 2018, an 1,100-foot (335m) container ship was arriving at the Port of New York and New Jersey. Surrounding winds were about 40 knots, with 12-foot swells and water temperatures of 60 degrees. 

The vessel maneuvered at about 10 knots to make a lee. It was preparing to embark a ship’s pilot via a side shell access port. The ship was hit by heavy seas that forced the side shell hatch door open. This resulted in flooding of the embarkation space. 

The ship’s bosun and ordinary seaman (OS) were manning the port side shell access door and pilot embarkation space. This was located behind a hydraulically operated bi-fold hatch door. The side port was located forward of the accommodation and about 13 feet above the waterline. 

The bosun and OS were unable to monitor the sea conditions from their position behind the hatch door. As the two crew members were in the process of opening the door, large waves unexpectedly struck and violently forced the door open, flooding the space. 

The OS was not wearing a harness, safety line or personal flotation device. The receding flood waters subsequently swept him out to sea. The bosun was forced onto the deck. The pilot ladder fell on him and fractured his leg. The side shell door also sustained structural damage during the incident. USCG Sector New York launched an extensive search and rescue mission that was unsuccessfully terminated after 28 hours. The OS was lost and presumed dead. 

Even though the side shell hatch door was located on the port side and was being brought onto the vessel’s lee, the crew’s inability to observe and assess the sea conditions, combined with the ship’s roll and sea state, presented significant risks.

This casualty reiterates the dangers of personnel exchanges at sea, especially in heavy weather conditions. The transfer of personnel on yachts is a common occurrence. The use of tenders for crew and guests is a standard operation. In such regular occurrence, complacency often can replace proper preparation. 

What should a yacht’s captain and crew do? 

First, for yachts using ISM and mini-ISM, review the Safety Management Manual, procedural manuals, and guidance that relate to personnel transfers. If any of their contents are incorrect or inadequate, report them to management for updating.

Second, captain and officers are to reinforce the importance for crew members to wear personal flotation devices and safety lines when working over the side, when exposed to the elements, or when there is an absence of a barrier that prevents an accidental water entry. Special care must be made to the quality of equipment, plus the proper training and use by crew.

Third, captain, officers and crew must identify potential hazards. If necessary, a formal risk assessment should be conducted to determine if documented procedures must be created. The assessment must include a consideration of weather conditions prior to opening any side shell hatches and/or working over the side.

Fourth, communications between the watch officer and crew must be abundant and uninterrupted. Standing orders must be clear and provide suitable supervision of activities, considering the sea state and other changing conditions.

And finally, conduct regular drills for man overboard. Ensure the proper use and familiarity of all safety equipment, plus the proper locations for recovery.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau (yachtbureau.org). Comments are welcome below.

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