Lifeboats Safety Lifeboats versus liferafts

The MAIB database shows that over a 13-year period, 13 people were killed and 138 injured in 125 lifeboat accidents. Most accidents occur during the launching and recovery operation. The 13 lives lost represent 15% of all those killed in reportable accidents to the MAIB. … A global perspective indicates that more than 100 seamen were killed operating lifeboats during the 1990’s.

A lot can be said about lifeboat safety, but shocking video below showed that in many instances a reckless and inexcusable negligence of ship’s command leads to accident. To conduct drill at such a speed through the water is excessively dangerous enterprise. Whatever and whoever insists on drill to be done underway, it must in the first place understood that such orders significantly increase risk to which rescue boat crew will be exposed. This risk must be assessed before drill including evaluation of skill and experience of each member of boat crew, prevailing conditions, etc. In my opinion additional risk far exceeds objective necessities of training and do not justified its purpose.

There are very few successful attempts to abandon vessel in the life boats. The most recent one is of ‘MSC Napoli’, when crew managed to survive in life boat in force 9 gale. Success was a really notable one, but one shall not forget that ‘MSC Napoli’ was a large or even a very large vessel, with a huge freeboard (not less than 9 meters I suppose) and with all those containers on board evacuating crew must have had a very good lee, or at least one which could be described as a very good considering all the surrounding circumstances.

Picture may be quite opposite if we consider small (less than 100m) or medium size (less than 180m) vessels, with freeboard between 2-4 meters (or less) in the first case and between 3-6 meters (or less) in the second. Crew of the vessel of 100m length would have had no chance of escape in life boat in similar weather conditions. And it is not only because of smaller freeboard. Small or medium size vessels should have disastrous rolling when lying along those waves, which would make any disembarkation on the life boat practically impossible – life boat would never reach the surface of the water in the first place being smashed over the hull! Modern car carriers, for example, have life boats at the height of navigational bridge, that is 30 meters above water line, so even moderate rolling will make them unusable.

It is obvious that modern life boats become an expensive and dangerous tool which on the one hand requires thorough maintenance but on the other is seldom in use. Survival rules derived from experience say that in majority of cases, if there is no imminent danger of capsizing, the best way of survival is to remain on board and wait for helicopter to rescue crew. In vast majority of all other cases use of life rafts is usually the only option open for crew to abandon the ship. See for example MAIB Report on the investigation of the collision between mt Audacity and mv Leonis in the approaches to the River Humber on 14 April 2007, in the best possible conditions crew failed to lower down life boats and has to escape from the sinking bulker in the rafts. Read MAIB investigation report Audacity/Leonis

There are many appeals to improve life boats maintenance and reduce human errors in handling them to zero level. I’m very sceptical that this path will lead us to any improvement. Death toll which is continuing to accrue from 'training' activity cannot be excused or explained by persistency of insufficient operator’s skill or bad maintenance! If combined factors produce so high risk to human life then training criteria as such MUST be revised in cardinal way. Crew training must be done in specialized training centers where quality of equipment (boats, wires, etc.) can be checked more efficiently and launching of life boats is done with all possible safety measures. On board just simulation is enough. In circumstances when there is a life or death choice, use of life boats and risk associated with it is justified. Otherwise it is almost criminal to risk human lives to satisfy bureaucratic requirements. Pretext that it will teach us how to act in case of danger is unsound - follow same logic every car driver has to pass courses of survival during simulated car crash.

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