Gangways and Pilot Ladders

March 12, 2019 1:08 pm

It may seem to be one relatively small step, but for marine pilots, the leap of faith into the unknown can be fatal. Accidents are still happening, where pilot ladders, gangways, and accommodation ladders are faulty or rigged incorrectly. Here KVH Videotel looks at the reasons why and assesses what can be done to stop this.


Whether it is a pilot launch coming alongside, or the pilot strolling down from the wheelhouse to the deck. In the seconds it takes to either step from boat to bottom rungs, or to put a pilots’ weight over the side – a life can literally hang in the balance.

Even in fine weather and with good, correctly rigged equipment, boarding or disembarking operations via a pilot ladder is a hazardous undertaking. Throw some damaged elements or a lack of knowledge in, and it becomes potentially lethal.

A recent study by The International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA) highlighted major cause for concern, as it was found that problems persist. IMPA found that vessels are not always maintaining and deploying the access arrangements in accordance with best practice. A problem which obviously massively increases the risk of an incident.

IMPA’s annual pilot ladder safety survey has been finding that the same problems repeatedly dog the industry and place their members at risk. It seems. unfortunately, that the message is not getting through.


The aim of the survey was to monitor compliance levels and to investigate and highlight standards of pilot ladders and associated equipment. The 2018 results show some small improvement in the level of compliance, yet still one in eight pilot transfer arrangements fail to comply.

From this data, we see that 12.5% of pilots are having their lives placed in jeopardy. The problems do not stop there though, it is not only pilots who use these means of transfer or access. Superintendents, surveyors, auditors, even flag or port officials – all may at some point find themselves on a pilot ladder, and can only hope they do not end up in the water!

IMPA repeatedly stresses the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Regulation 23 is not optional or aspirational, and the concept of caring for pilot transfer arrangements is not a nice one to have. It is a fundamental necessity to save lives.

The organisation stresses that Classification Societies should ensure that when signing off boarding arrangements for vessels, their primary consideration is safety and that shipowners’ superintendents should ensure that the equipment purchased actually meets requirements.


In the world of mainstream shipping, it seems that bulk carriers and general cargo ships are the most consistent offenders. Accounting for some 33% of non-compliance. There is obviously a need for urgent action on such vessels, but problems do persist elsewhere too – and there are no vessel types immune from the need to improve.

The IMPA results indicate that despite many initiatives to improve safety and awareness, the level of non-compliance has remained unchanged over the last few years and remains steady at between 15% and 20%.

Unfortunately, it seems that deteriorating standards of seamanship are evident, and there are major concerns about how seafarers perceive the boarding arrangements and of what they think is acceptable when it comes to ensuring they are properly secured.

The requirements laid out in SOLAS regulation V/23 seem straightforward, but all too often the basics are being overlooked. The rules set out pilot boarding arrangements, the responsibilities for ship’s personnel in rigging pilot transfer equipment, as well as requirements for associated equipment, clear access, and lighting.


The correct arrangements used for pilot transfer must enable pilots to embark and disembark safely, that is the most basic requirement. Still though, things go wrong with disastrous and tragic implications.

From the appliances not being properly maintained and stowed, through to issues relating to the rigging and operation. For a theoretically straightforward task, there are so many things that can, and sadly do, go wrong. According to the 2018 data, the top two pilot ladder defects noted related to steps not being horizontal and the ladders not resting against the ship’s hull.

Imagine for a moment you are having to climb one of these ladders. The vessel moving in a swell, wind blowing, and as you reach up you find yourself swinging out from the ship’s side, having to climb like Tarzan up a vine. Or, the steps fall off to one side as you place your feet on them – encouraging your whole body to slip off. Dangerous, terrifying, and completely avoidable.

Other common problems include the use of stepsnot of suitable material”, broken steps, and steps not equally spaced. There are issues of pilot ladder positioning, often too far aft or forward. Housekeeping is an issue too, with dirty or slippery steps reported – and sometimes they are painted, which adds to the difficulties.


Pilot Ladders should be no more than 9 metres in length, but all too often this is not adhered too. Where the freeboard is greater than this, then the ladders should be used in combination with an accommodation ladder. Though this brings with it a whole new set of problems.

Marine safety organisations, such as CHIRP report receiving multiple concerns relating to failings when rigging accommodation ladders in conjunction with pilot ladders. This is a problem which seemingly compounds the original safety concerns, and there appears to be a worrying lack of seamanship and even common sense when it comes to appreciating the physical demands of such arrangements.

The IMPA findings reveal problems such as accommodation ladder not leading aft, lower platforms with stanchions/rails incorrectly rigged or with accommodation ladders at too steep an angle, with reports of ladders lying at >45 degrees. Other issues identified include pilot ladders not being attached 1-5m above the accommodation ladder, lower platforms not horizontal or even ladder(s) not secured to ship’s side.

It is not solely issues relating to the ladders themselves, their construction or fitting. There are wider safety problems being reported. The issue of inadequate lighting, with areas of excessive dazzling or shadow is a problem. While the lack of lifebuoys with self-igniting light are a concern, perhaps compounded with sometimes there being a lack of VHF communication with the bridge. Some pilots even reported having no responsible officer in attendance.


Where there are problems it seems clear that there are failings which run deeper than the pilot ladders alone. Poor maintenance, a lack of equipment, incorrect rigging – these are symptomatic of a badly run ship. There are also issues relating to risk assessments.

Boarding arrangements can clearly endanger lives, so all must be done to mitigate the potential problems. The message is therefore to ensure gangways and ladders are properly rigged, maintained and supervised by a responsible officer when in operation to ensure safe practice and smooth running of the vessel.

It should also be noted that vessels are often detained due (in part) to gangways and ladders being defective. Port State control inspectors take a dim view of these such failings, not least as they are often seen as highlighting failings elsewhere, or weaknesses in the safety management of a vessel.

Training is key, and with the right information, support and guidance, seafarers can ensure they take the right actions, that the equipment is cared for and deployed correctly. Allied to this, awareness and appreciation of the problems associated with pilot transfer arrangements are key. Mistakes can be fatal, and the lives of those accessing vessels literally hang in the balance.

For more details of the KVH Videotel safety training packages click here – we would also like to hear your views of pilot ladders, and how you feel the industry can do more to help those who use them.