From perilous climb to global advocacy

A pilot’s journey towards safer ship transfers

 By Carly Fields

A lifelong love for the water, encompassing everything from swimming to sailing, naturally propelled Ewan Rattray towards a maritime career. Growing up near the sea and being surrounded by people with water- based jobs, Ewan was attracted by the freedom of a sea-based career, and ready to travel the world with it.

Having first gone to sea when he was 17, Ewan has today been in the maritime industry for more than 20 years. He worked on ships sailing around the world for 16 years before taking up a job in Aberdeen as a harbour pilot, guiding vessels safely in and out of the busy port.

Throughout his career, he has found he has had to balance the highs with lows. He recalls during his time as a Navigation Officer receiving a large pack of paper chart and publications corrections in the ship’s mail after a few weeks at sea. “I feel this will resonate with a lot of people,” he told The Sea.

On the positive side, the thrill of ship handling and the collaborative spirit of the bridge team during pilotage offered him immense satisfaction. “There is something very satisfying integrating into a bridge team and helping the Master and crew safely navigate into port,” he says.

However, his time at sea was cruelly cut short after an incident in 2018 involving an unsafe pilot transfer.

During a routine transfer, the absence of proper handholds resulted in a serious injury. “I boarded a cargo ship underway which unfortunately didn’t have any stanchions,” he says. “This was unknown to me at the time of boarding, and it was only as I tried to climb higher, I realised I didn’t have anything to hold on to.

“In that split second of thinking what to do next the pilot cutter rose up and crushed my leg between the ship and the boat’s fender. Looking back, I am incredibly fortunate to be alive.”

Safety first

This harrowing experience highlighted to Ewan just how broad and far reaching the issue of safe access for pilots was in the industry. “There are so many avenues that feed into a pilot transfer ranging from vessel design to safety culture and crew training,” he says.

These realisations ignited a passionate pursuit to improve pilot transfer safety. “Not long after my accident, I began speaking to industry professionals regarding pilot transfers,” he says. “Something quickly stuck out to me: an attitude towards the pilots, and organisations, who were advocating for safer pilot transfers. I quickly felt that their views were being cast aside owing to a label that pilots just moan and complain.”

Refusing to be silenced, Ewan embarked on a mission to gather data from pilots around the world. This data, coupled with in-depth academic research, would provide irrefutable evidence for the need for change. “All I did really was gather and analyse data using an approved and accepted methodology; it was all of the pilots and pilot organisations around the world who provided the underpinning data for the research,” he humbly says.

The research unearthed a crucial finding: existing regulations established by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) were simply inadequate to address the contemporary challenges of pilot transfers. “One of the key themes of the research was that the regulation was not fit for purpose,”

Ewan says. “I kept hearing people say to us that it was a waste of time trying to get the International Maritime Organization to open and amend the regulation, and if we did it would take years. All that made me think was that we better start now then!”

Collaboration with industry professionals and relentless lobbying efforts brought Ewan’s research to the forefront of discussions at the IMO. “It was only a small piece of the puzzle in a much bigger picture, but I am proud to say it helped.”

A proud recognition

In recognition of his achievements, Ewan was a recipient of the 2023 Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service. On Merchant Navy Day, the UK government honours seafarers with Merchant Navy Medals – the highest medal of honour within the maritime sector. Merchant Navy Medals have been awarded since 2016 for significant contributions to the maritime industry. Each year, seafarers are nominated for the medals by their colleagues, friends and family.

The recognition served as a powerful validation and was a reminder that positive change, however incremental, is always celebrated in a society that strives for continuous improvement. “Being involved in, and helping to change something for the better can at times feel like an impossible task, but with the right help and perseverance impossible tasks are worth taking on. Being awarded the Merchant Navy Medal was truly an honour and it reminded me that we live in a society that doesn’t always get things right, but when we make a positive change it doesn’t go unnoticed,” he says.

Today, Ewan is harbour master and director of port operations at Peterhead Port Authority. He continues to advocate for seafarers and pilots in the industry. With welfare front of mind, he tells The Sea that if he could change one thing tomorrow it would be to improve living and working conditions for seafarers.

And speaking directly to seafarers, Ewan delivers a call to action for seafarers on an issue close to his heart: please elevate pilot transfer safety to the same level of critical importance given to other high-risk tasks on board, such as enclosed space entries or working aloft. A simple conversation with the pilot about potential improvements to transfer arrangements could have a significant impact. “A small change can save a life,” he says.