Benjamin James Woollacott was aged 19 when he died after being dragged overboard when a mooring rope became entangled in the propellers of the Woolwich Free Ferry Ernest Bevin. He was a sixth generation Thames Waterman serving an apprenticeship with, and bound to, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. Benjamin’s mentor and master for the Waterman’s apprenticeship was his father, from whom Benjamin had gained river and boat-handling skills before joining Woolwich Free Ferry.
Although nobody knows for sure what happened it is likely that he was standing in a bight when the propellers caught the rope and he was pulled at some 20 miles an hour hard against the bulwark and overboard. His injuries were fatal.
According to the recently-published investigation report by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch the unmooring operation required members of Ernest Bevin’s crew to work on the mooring deck situated directly above the vessel’s Voith Schneider propellers.
As the final mooring rope was being recovered onto the mooring deck, it became caught in the rotating propeller blades. It is most likely that the casualty was standing in a bight of the mooring rope so that as the rope tightened, he was pulled hard against the ship’s bulwark and then overboard.
The unmooring operation was a routine task but it had not been captured by the company’s safety management system. Consequently no risk assessment for the operation had been conducted to assess and mitigate the hazards faced by the crew, and the very real hazard posed by the rotating propeller blades during the task had not been formally recognised. This situation was compounded by a lack of suitable oversight at the time of the accident.
Says the MAIB:
1. The five ferry crews each developed their own systems for unmooring, and the deckhands had their own techniques for rope retrieval as there were no guidelines on whether ropes should be recovered by leading them over the bulwark or through
2. There was a lack of recognition by the master and the deck crew of the dangers associated with unmooring without supervision. In this instance, a vigilant supervisor monitoring the situation and giving appropriate guidance to the master and deckhands could have prevented the rope from becoming jammed between Ernest Bevin and the buoy.
3. Without adequate supervision, the unmooring process was inherently unsafe and should have been recognised as such through SLMS’s risk assessment process.
4. Communications would have been improved by the use of hand-held radios and the master handing a radio to a nominated acting mate would remove ambiguity as to their role.
5. A number of unseamanlike working practices were evident on board. These included:
• Taking the rope over the bulwark creating bights in the rope that, following any subsequent outboard snagging, had the potential to pull unsuspecting persons over the bulwark and into the river.
• Leaving ropes on the mooring deck with their tails rove through the fairleads in preparation for mooring up again at night. [2.5]
6. The incorrect wearing of lifejackets by senior crew, which included lifejackets being worn with the crotch straps removed and, in some instances, without the waist belt being fastened, set poor examples to junior colleagues and was symptomatic of a weak safety culture.
7. It would have been very difficult for Benjamin to adopt working practices that were at variance to those followed by his more experienced and mature colleagues.
8. The hazard of ropes entering the water near the Voith Schneider propellers had not been identified in the vessel’s risk assessments, nor was it included in the procedures for mooring.