The Backpack Discussion

When looking at safety on a system level, pilot ladder safety is not only about the correct use of ladders. It involves the total procedure of the safe boarding and disembarkation of pilots and personnel using pilot ladder arrangements. This involves people, PTAs, (pilot-) boats, and the additional equipment they use.

One aspect that frequently comes to light is the use of backpacks by pilots. Over time, many arguments have been expressed pro and contra the use of backpacks by readers of this website and the #dangrousladder page on facebook.

Why a backpack should not be used?

  • Backpacks will hamper the functionality of the lifejacket. By adding extra weight, or buoyancy to the back, the lifejacket will or may not function properly.
  • The safest way to do the transfer is by having the bag of the pilot hoisted to deck level by use of a heaving line. That way the pilot is free to climb the pilot ladder with less weight in his shoulders.
  • The increase of windage area increases the risk of instability and falling.
  • The increase of mass on the back of the pilot will add to the instability while climbing the ladder.
  • The use of a backpack will hinder the pilot when he tries to climb through narrow openings, such as trap doors.

Why use a backpack?

  • It is the fastest, easiest, most convenient way to board a vessel.
  • It will minimise the time required for the transfer.
  • It will minimise the time the pilot boat stays alongside a vessel when the pilot boat crew does not have to attach the line to the bag of the pilot for hoisting it to deck level.
  • It poses no danger to stability of the pilot when he/she is used to using a backpack
  • The risks as a result of the increase in windage area of the person on the ladder is minimal, when the pilot embarks on the lee side of the vessel.

Testing the functionality of lifejackets in combination with backpacks

A few yeas ago, Peter Willyams, maritime pilot in Auckland, New Zealand, tested his lifejacket with his backpack in a pool and shared the following footage:

The above lifejacket is a 150 Newton lifejacket with a crotch-strap, used in combination with a rather small personal backpack. Recently, I tested a 275 Newton lifejacket, in combination with the same kind of backpack during a survival training in Rotterdam. This lifejacket is the standard issue of the Dutch pilots.

As has been shown, there are many arguments for- and against the use of backpacks by pilots. The assumption that a backpack is unsafe for the functionality of the lifejacket has been proven wrong by the above two tests.

It has been argued that using a large (275N) backpack is dangerous because of its size: during an unexpected blowup, it may throw the pilot off balance when he is on the ladder.