River and Bar Pilot Accidents and Injuries

by | Jul 12, 2023 | Maritime Accident, Maritime Injury, Maritime Law, Offshore Accident, Workplace Accident, Workplace Safety

River and bar pilots play a crucial role in maritime navigation, guiding vessels through challenging waterways such as rivers, estuaries, and harbors. However, their profession is not without risks. Accidents and injuries involving river and bar pilots can have severe consequences for both the pilots themselves and the safety of maritime operations.

In this article, the maritime injury attorneys at Kherkher Garcia, LLP explore the nature of these risks, the potential causes behind such incidents, and the measures that can be taken to enhance safety and prevent accidents in these demanding environments.

What Do River and Bar Pilots Do?

River and bar pilots are highly skilled professionals responsible for safely maneuvering ships through narrow and hazardous waterways. They possess in-depth knowledge of local water conditions, tides, currents, and navigational challenges specific to their assigned areas. These experts work closely with ship captains and provide crucial guidance during critical phases of transit, such as entering or leaving ports, crossing sandbars, and navigating tight channels.

Hazards to River and Bar Pilots

River and bar pilots face numerous hazards and challenges during their duties. These include:

  • Treacherous Water Conditions: River and bar pilots often operate in complex environments characterized by strong currents, shifting sandbars, narrow channels, and low bridges. These conditions demand precision and constant vigilance to avoid collisions, groundings, or capsizing.
  • Communication and Coordination: Effective communication between pilots, ship captains, and other stakeholders involved in the transit process is crucial. Miscommunication or misunderstandings can lead to errors in decision-making and jeopardize safety.
  • Vessel Size and Characteristics: Piloting large ships, particularly those with deep drafts or limited maneuverability, poses significant challenges. The size and unique characteristics of each vessel require pilots to adapt their navigation strategies accordingly, considering factors like turning radius, stopping distance, and the influence of wind and current.
  • Weather-Related Hazards: Extreme weather conditions, such as heavy fog, storms, or high winds, can significantly impair visibility and make navigation more challenging. Reduced visibility increases the risk of accidents, especially when combined with other navigational difficulties.

Like other maritime occupations, river and bar pilots face may hazards in their line of work. It is the responsibility of employers and ship owners to ensure that vessels are properly maintained, and that pilots have the equipment and safety gear they need. When they fail to do so, pilots are at risk for accidents and injuries.

Examples of River and Bar Pilot Accidents

Here are a few examples of river and bar pilot incidents in recent years:

  • Pilot Falls Overboard: In 2006, a pilot on the Columbia River fell overboard and was run over by the pilot boat. He sustained fatal injuries, not from the fall, but from contact with the boat.
  • Container Ship Collision: In 2007, a pilot collided the container ship under his control into the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The collision resulted in a massive fuel spill in the bay. The cause of the accident may have been the medications the pilot was taking, which could have impacted his judgment.
  • Pilot Falls Overboard: In 2012, a river pilot on the Columbia River fell overboard into the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean. She was rescued and survived the incident. This incident highlighted potential safety risks and the importance of training pilots in the successful crossing from one vessel to another.
  • Jacob’s Ladder Incident: In 2013, a pilot climbing a Jacob’s ladder fell, and was not discovered until the next day. It was dark and no one saw him fall overboard.
  • Jacob’s Ladder Incident: In 2020, two separate Jacob’s ladder incidents resulted in the deaths of two Sandy Hook pilots. Both pilots suffered injuries as they fell from the Jacob’s ladder during their respective duties.

This list is hardly exhaustive. There have, no doubt, been many other incidents in recent years involving this area of the maritime industry.

Causes of Pilot Accidents and Injuries

There are many factors that may contribute to accidents and injuries involving river and bar pilots. Some of the more common causes of accidents and injuries in this line of work include:

Human Error

Mistakes in judgment, decision-making, or navigation techniques can lead to accidents. Fatigue, inadequate training, or complacency may increase the likelihood of human error.

Equipment Failure

Technical malfunctions or failures in navigational aids, communication systems, or vessel equipment can compromise the safe execution of piloting duties.

Insufficient Safety Measures

Lack of proper safety protocols, inadequate equipment maintenance, or inadequate risk assessment procedures can contribute to accidents and injuries.


Collisions between ships can occur when pilots are not able to properly navigate a ship through a busy waterway. These collisions can cause serious injuries to the pilots and crew members of both ships.

Running Aground

Ships can run aground if they are not properly navigated through shallow waters. Running aground can cause serious damage to the ship and its cargo, and it can also injure the pilots and crew members.

Adverse Weather Conditions

Unpredictable and severe weather events can hinder pilot operations, reduce visibility, and increase the likelihood of accidents.

Lack of Communication and Coordination

Effective communication between pilots, ship crews, control centers, and other stakeholders is crucial for safe navigation. Miscommunication, misunderstandings, or lack of coordination can lead to errors in decision-making and increase the risk of accidents.

External Factors

Factors beyond the control of pilots, such as underwater obstructions, rapidly changing river conditions, or unexpected vessel movements, can pose challenges and increase the risk of accidents. These external factors may require pilots to quickly adapt their navigation strategies and make split-second decisions.

Inadequate Training and Experience

Insufficient training or experience in specific waterways, vessel types, or challenging conditions can increase the likelihood of accidents. Pilots need extensive knowledge of local water conditions, currents, tides, and navigational challenges to navigate safely.

Operational Pressures

Tight schedules, demanding transit requirements, or commercial pressures may create situations where pilots feel compelled to take risks or make hasty decisions. Such pressures can compromise safety and increase the likelihood of accidents.

It is important to note that accidents and injuries involving river and bar pilots are often the result of a combination of factors rather than a single cause.

Common Accidents and Injuries to River and Bar Pilots

As we discuss above, there are many hazards that can cause accidents and injuries involving river and bar pilots. Sadly, these hazards often result in serious injuries that affect the pilot and their families. Here are some examples of common accidents and injuries among river and bar pilots:


Falls are the most common cause of injuries for river and bar pilots. These falls can occur while the pilot is boarding or disembarking from a ship, while they are walking on the deck of a ship, or while they are transferring from one ship to another.

Overboard Accidents

Pilots can fall overboard while they are boarding or disembarking from a ship, while they are walking on the deck of a ship, or while they are transferring from one ship to another. Overboard accidents can be fatal, especially if the pilot is not rescued quickly.

Slips and Falls

Pilots can slip and fall on the decks of ships, especially if the decks are wet or icy. These slips and falls can cause serious injuries, including head injuries, back injuries, and broken bones.

Strains and Sprains

The physical demands of piloting, such as climbing ladders, stepping onto moving vessels, and maneuvering in tight spaces, can lead to strains and sprains. Twisting, lifting heavy objects, or repetitive motions can also contribute to musculoskeletal injuries.

Impact Injuries

Collisions or sudden movements of vessels can result in impact injuries for pilots. They may be struck by objects or surfaces during turbulent maneuvers, leading to contusions, lacerations, or even broken bones.

Crush Injuries

In situations where vessels make contact with bridges, locks, or other structures, pilots can sustain crush injuries. These injuries may occur when pilots are caught between a vessel and a solid surface, leading to fractures, internal injuries, or traumatic amputations.

Drowning or Near-Drowning

Accidents involving vessel capsizing, falls overboard, or other incidents can put pilots at risk of drowning or near-drowning. Swift currents, cold water temperatures, and limited visibility can make rescue and survival challenging in such situations.

Environmental Exposure

Exposure to extreme weather conditions, including cold temperatures, heat waves, or inclement weather, can cause hypothermia, heatstroke, or other weather-related injuries.

Safety Measures for River and Bar Pilots

To enhance safety and mitigate the risks associated with river and bar pilot operations, the following measures can be implemented:

  • Robust Training and Certification: Comprehensive training programs should be in place to ensure pilots are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to navigate challenging waterways. Regular refresher courses and ongoing professional development can help pilots stay up-to-date with the latest industry standards.
  • Effective Communication Systems: Reliable and efficient communication channels between pilots, vessel crews, and control centers are essential for exchanging critical information, coordinating actions, and addressing emerging challenges promptly.
  • Safety Equipment and Technology: Equipping pilots with modern navigational aids, such as radar, GPS, and depth sounders, enhances their situational awareness and reduces the likelihood of accidents. Personal protective equipment (PPE) should also be provided to protect pilots during emergencies.
  • Collaboration and Information Sharing: Establishing a culture of collaboration and information sharing among pilots, shipping companies, and regulatory authorities fosters the exchange of best practices and lessons learned from past incidents.

River and bar pilots navigate challenging waterways, ensuring the safe passage of vessels. However, the risks they face are substantial. By understanding these risks, identifying their causes, and implementing appropriate safety measures, accidents and injuries involving river and bar pilots can be significantly reduced.

The collective effort of the maritime industry, regulatory bodies, and individual pilots is crucial to maintaining safety standards, protecting lives, and safeguarding the smooth flow of maritime trade in these demanding environments.

What Injured River and Bar Pilots Can Do

If you are a maritime pilot who has been injured on the job, you should know that you may be eligible for compensation. You may have protection under maritime laws, such as the Jones Act, which could provide valuable assistance as you recover from your injuries.

If you need help exploring your rights and options after an injury, the skilled maritime injury attorneys at Kherkher Garcia are here for you. With more than 30 years of experience helping maritime workers, we know what it takes to get results. Contact us to find out how we can help you get the compensation that you need to recover and move forward.

For a free consultation, call us at 713-333-1030, or fill out our online form.

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Steve Kherkher

Steve Kherkher

Founding Partner and Trial Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Injury Trial Lawyer and Founding Firm Partner Steve Kherkher. Steve has been a practicing injury lawyer for more than 30 years. He has won $300 Million+ in Settlements and Verdicts for his clients. He is a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom and the trial lawyer you want on your side if you or a loved one have been catastrophically injured.

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