When I began my career at sea, I remember being struck by how old fashioned and anachronistic it seemed that large, modern ships were still being tied up using ropes. Surely there must be a better of doing things! Yet, more than 40 years later, ships are still basically employing the same hardware and methods for mooring. Why haven’t we moved on?

The answer must be because it’s as system that works well, most of the time, but above all it is flexible to an extremely variable operational environment.

There have been some advances in mooring technology, the introduction of High Modulus Synthetic Fibre (HMSF) ropes being an example, but from a practical seafarers’ perspective, not much has really changed.

Mooring operations are some of the most complex and dangerous tasks on board ship.  They are routine operations but when things go wrong, they can do so in very damaging and sometimes tragic circumstances. The UK Club frequently deals with mooring related incidents of serious injury or death to seafarers or shore personnel as well as collisions and damage to third party property due to a loss of control. In one incident occurring last year, a vessel’s chief officer and a shore linesman were killed when struck by the same mooring rope which parted while the vessel was shifting ship along the quay.

We all therefore have a stake in promoting improved safety awareness and accident prevention in this important area of ship operations.

From our experience, mooring accident investigations will reveal a pattern of failures which often include communication breakdown, poor working practices or deficient equipment.

Clearly there should be sufficient number of properly trained seafarers at each mooring station, under the supervision of a responsible officer. Unfortunately we have seen cases of insufficient deck party manning or where some crew involved were signed on the ship as engine room ratings rather than being dedicated deck crew. These were vessels complying with Flag State minimum safe manning and crew certification requirements.

The progressive reduction in manning levels has coincided with an increase in vessel size, placing additional demands on crew. The mooring decks of large bulk carriers, tankers and containerships cover a huge area, requiring mooring crew to perform as a well drilled team in circumstances where voice communications and line of sight may be inhibited.

Teamwork is key; from the outset, a comprehensive Master/Pilot exchange of information must be carried out and deck parties fully briefed so that all involved personnel have a full appreciation of how the operation is to be performed as well as identifying any potential hazards and control measures.

Seafarers face many challenges during mooring operations. The mooring arrangements on ships vary widely and the layout of winches and leads are sometimes poorly designed. Mooring and towing operations exert high loads on lines and equipment and the variables of weather, berth suitability, quality of port services and other factors demand a high degree of planning and efficiency from ships crews.

Mooring and more particularly the handling of mooring ropes is an ancient skill that has adapted to larger ships and scaled up mooring machinery, but the basic risks and exposure to hazardous situations remain. Ropes must be handled with great care as they have an unfortunate habit of punishing the inexperienced, the incompetent or the complacent. Basic precautions such as not standing in the bight or loop of a rope or attempting to control the running out of a rope with the feet are critical to safe operations. This was highlighted in a UK MAIB accident report which described how a seaman trapped his leg in the bight of a headline when the vessel was shifting ship astern. He was dragged through the fairleads and into the dock, tragically losing his life.

All mooring equipment should be properly cared for and none more so than the ropes. They should be frequently inspected as part of the vessel planned maintenance system and crew provided with guidance on how to do perform this task properly. This is particularly important in respect of HMSF ropes with which most seafarers are unfamiliar. Ropes should not be worked to destruction and clear criteria for replacement should be available on board.

Snap-back is a critical feature of mooring rope failures. All mooring ropes will stretch to some degree under tension and particularly so when constructed from conventional synthetic fibres. When a mooring line parts under load, the sudden release of stored energy will cause it to recover its original length almost instantaneously. The two ends of the line will recoil or snap-back with great velocity and anyone standing within the snap-back zone risks serious injury or death. The direction of travel and area affected by a recoiling rope is difficult to predict where it is led around roller pedestals and fairleads so there is the potential to create complex snap-back zones.

Until recently, the convention was to mark snap-back sectors on mooring decks with the aim of guiding seafarers away from high risk areas when ropes were under strain. However, it has since been recognised that this practice is not only impractical but may also engender a false sense of security in crew. Current industry guidance is that the entire mooring deck area should be considered a potential snap-back zone and marked accordingly.


Above article is an edited version of Mr. Nichol’s presentation during the SAFETY4SEA Athens Forum 2019.

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About David Nichol, Senior Loss Prevention Executive, UK

David Nichol is a master mariner with 39 years of experience in the shipping industry. After sea service on tankers, bulk carriers and OBO’s, he worked as a ship surveyor and marine consultant for 18 years performing a wide range of casualty investigations, ship inspections and cargo surveys, with the majority of assignments being P&I related. From 2010, he was employed as a P&I Club senior claims executive before joining the loss prevention department of the UK P&I Club 3 years ago. David is based is the UK Club’s Piraeus office assisting members with loss prevention advice, training and education initiatives, as well as carrying out regular shipboard P&I risk assessments.