It has taken the drowning at sea of trainee marine pilot Thandeka Mzimela (33) at Transnet National Ports Authority to realize that there is a gap in the training of the marine pilots and to do something about it.

Pinky Zungu marine pilot and Deputy Harbour Master at the Port of Durban said they had approached the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) to assist with the training of marine pilots.

At the start of the month NSRI put a number of trainee marine pilots and pilots through a quick training course in Cape Town so they could get a feel for what they were going to do in a safe environment. The organization trains its own volunteers in how to safely board a ship for when they are called on to do medical evacuations.

A transfer from a pilot boat or tug boat is the most hazardous part of the job, said Zungu. “The onus is on the person to be alert and be fit to carry out the job particularly when the weather is bad. No one picks you up and puts you on the other side (on the ship).”

“The first person up a ship is the most dangerous as they do not have a safety line. They then throw a safety line to the next person to board,” said Mark Hughes Operations Director for NSRI.

While strict safety measures, such as harnesses and two-man ropes, are in place in other industries involving scaling heights there are none for marine pilots, he said.

Explaining the boarding of a ship Zungu said the pilot boat takes you out to sea and alongside a moving ship. You have to jump from the pilot boat onto a free hanging rope and wood ladder dangling on the side of the ship while both vessels are in motion. You need to time the jump and then pick yourself up the ladder as fast as you can. The first five steps are the most crucial. In high swells the ship will be rolling from side to side or back and forth when you make your jump and you hang on for dear life and climb.

“The pilot boat peels off as soon as you jump so that it does not lift on a swell and hit you on the bum and should you fall you won’t fall onto it,” she said. Getting off the ship, once the pilot has taken the ship out of the calm waters of the port, is just as hazardous. “Once you have climbed down the ladder on the last step you swing yourself back and jump and land on the pilot boat deck.”

The ports of Durban and Richards Bay are two of very few ports globally that use helicopters for marine pilot transfer. “The helicopter is a luxury and you can count the number of ports in the world that use them on one hand,” said Zungu.

Pinky Zungu with her team of marine pilots, from left, Sandile Madonsela, Kwazi Kabugbane, Don McGhee and Fani van Rooyen who rescued vessels in distress during the severe October storm.
Pinky Zungu with her team of marine pilots, from left, Sandile Madonsela, Kwazi Kabugbane, Don McGhee and Fani van Rooyen who rescued vessels in distress during the severe October storm.

While marine pilots have on-land  in-house training on the do’s and don’ts of being hoisted up and down onto a ship from a helicopter there is no formal training for boarding a ship up a rope pilot ladder. It’s a matter of observing a senior pilot and then trying to do it.

But one cannot blame Transnet for a lack of training. There are various institutions training for the marine industry but none in the commercial maritime world offers marine pilot training, said Hughes. This was also the experience of TNPA which searched world-wide for a formal training course before approaching NSRI.

Australian research has shown that Ship’s Pilots and Deck Hands are the most dangerous jobs with 54 deaths per 100 000 workers. Compare this to South Africa’s murder rate of 34 people per 100 000, said Hughes.

“Climbing a moving vertical rope ladder with wooden steps is very different to a fixed ladder. The physical exertion is a lot different. The pilots have to be mentally and physically prepared for what they are about to do,” he said.

He pointed out that some trainees were agile and were able run up the ladder and others (that were not so agile) tried to copy them becoming tired. They have to realize that each person needs to climb at their own pace.

Using manual and automatic inflation lifejackets the TNPA trainees were put through their paces by NSRI so they would know what to expect.  They jumped and climbed a rope ladder imitating what it would be like boarding a ship and jumped from a height into a survival pool. They were then taken to the Cape Town harbour and made to jump from one of the piers into the sea so they could experience what it would be like falling into cold water with swells which would hit them  as they were trying to recover from falling causing them to swallow water and leaving them coughing and spluttering.

“It was a big learning curve for the trainees,” said Hughes. But where this initial training will lead to in the future is unknown. TNPA’s Port of Durban’s Harbour Master and Deputy Harbour Master are in discussions with NSRI.

When Mzimela fell into the sea the weather was reportedly bad, the ship was rolling and the swells were 2,5 meters high. She had been with Transnet for 11 years and worked as a tug master and had been a trainee pilot for four months.

It has been reported that on the tug boat going out to sea she expressed her fear of heights and was advised by her colleagues not to try and board the ship but nevertheless did so.  She allegedly reached the middle rung on the ladder when she shouted she was tired and yelled for the boat to come back before she lost her grip. Everyone tried to help her but the sea was too rough. It is alleged that her lifejacket kept her afloat for about half an hour and then she suddenly disappeared.

When the weather is bad even the experienced marine pilots are concerned for the safety and working at night with restricted visibility raises the risk, said Zungu.

She said that there had been other near misses which were all recorded but not one that has resulted in a death.

She talked of missing her foot while a ship was rolling and hanging on for dear life with one hand and foot until the ship rolled back and she was able to put her other hand and foot on the ladder. Another time as she reached the top of the ladder a huge wave lifted her up and washed her across the ship’s deck and pinned her against the opposite railing. “I thought I was going to die as I held onto the railings.”  When she could she picked herself up and brought in the ship and docked it. “Only when I got back to the office did I start crying. But it is all part of the job,” she said.

The pilot safety procedure includes wearing life jackets that inflate automatically on impact and are meant to keep them afloat until help arrives. Should one of them fall into the water the ship stops the engines so the propellers do not suck them in and the ship’s captain notifies the pilot boat to come and rescue the pilot.

Despite the need for marine pilots to be physically and mentally prepared for the job Transnet has no compulsory exercise requirements. The port of Durban provides a fully equipped gym and the onus is on the pilots to remain fit. They complete a compulsory annual medical test to prove their fitness and if they do not pass it they don’t get their SAMSA accreditation for mariners and are then not able to work, said Zungu.

The investigation into the death of Mizmela is still ongoing.