Pilot Transfers by Helicopter


An increasing number of ports around the world are now using helicopters to transfer the pilot to and from the vessel instead of the more traditional use of a pilot boat.

Whilst this means that pilots can now transfer in increasingly challenging weather conditions it does introduce new risks and ships’ crews should be aware of these.

Assessing the risk

The ship’s master should read and understand the latest copy of the ICS Guide to Helicopter / Ship Operations. Additionally, the port’s guidelines and requirements should be sought and adhered to. 

After consulting the above, the ship’s crew should draw up a bespoke risk assessment to be used in conjunction with any existing SMS procedures for this type of operation. Generic “one size fits all” risk assessments should not be used, as each port and operation will have different and changeable risks.

Consider the below when carrying out your risk assessment:


  • Wind direction and speed: Helicopters will usually fly into the wind as this enables them to hover more effectively and maintain their stability. Therefore, the Master might need to steer a steady speed and straight course into the wind. Monitor the wind direction before and during the operation and identify potential obstructions that may require the vessel to change course during this period.  
  • Visibility: should be good and adhere to set limits
  • Sea State: Rough seas obviously form an unfavourable motion for helicopter operations. Assess the maximum viable conditions and adhere to them


The ship’s master and helicopter pilot should agree on the most efficient form of communications and ensure there is no cross-talk on the channel. Where safe to do so, follow the commands of the helicopter pilot. Remember, when operating close to a vessel, helicopter noise can make communications difficult.

Prepare the area on deck

All loose items should be lashed or removed from the area so as not to be affected by the helicopter’s down draft. Any antenna in the vicinity that could cause issues should be lowered.


Crew should be equipped with the appropriate PPE and be fully briefed in a toolbox talk. They must be fully aware of their responsibilities and the agreed communication methods during the operation. Again, be mindful that helicopter noise could affect radio communications between the crew.

Emergency equipment

Charged hoses with a foam eductor should be rigged to surround the winch site. Fully dressed fire crews should be ready and in a safe position. Additional portable fire extinguishers should be readily available.

Rescue equipment, such as a crowbar, axe and wire cutters should be readily available to the deck crew. It is recommended that the rescue boat is readied for immediate use and the first aid team is on standby.


Consider displaying lights indicating that the vessel is restricted in its ability to manoeuvre.

Grounding the winch wire

When the winch wire has been lowered to the deck, it is extremely important that the winch wire has been properly grounded to prevent discharge of static electricity. This is usually achieved by allowing the earthing strap to make contact with the vessel’s deck. The crew must not touch the winch wire before it is grounded as it can cause serious injury.

Impact on P&I cover

Helicopter operations, such as pilot transfers, are not excluded from P&I cover. It is very important, however, that the Master or agent does not sign or agree to any additional terms and conditions related to the helicopter operations.

If the Master or agent is requested to sign or agree to such a document, then the owner should send the document to North for review before signing to ensure it does not impact on P&I cover.

If you have any questions on the issues raised in this article, please get in touch with your usual contacts at North. 



Adrian Durkin (Director (Claims))
& John Southam (Exectutive (Loss Prevention))