Lifeboats: born to be unsafe? Questions and answers …

… incidents were regularly occurring with lifeboats as a result of: Design of release mechanisms; Training of crew; Maintenance of lifeboats; and Poor operational practices …
OPERATION OF LIFEBOATS AND SAFETY, Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The wave of emotional criticism and difficult to answer questions driven by The Sewol disaster prompted many discussions about safety of passengers on board of ferry vessels and usage of lifeboats as the main mean of survival. Clay Maitland on his web page puts a number of questions about use of lifeboats in “Back to the future” article. In particular he says:

One of the main problems seems to have been the use of all-enclosed boats, which make it infinitely harder to operate their launching mechanisms. These arrived on the scene with the very best of motives – to provide protection and shelter for the occupants against the elements, but is any of this really needed?…
Enclosed boats, with their on-load hooks, might seem to answer so many problems, but do these difficulties really exist? Free-fall boats are said to terrify a good proportion of seafarers who find themselves sailing with them. It never used to be so frightening, or so complicated, when open boats that weren’t death traps were carried and crews could familiarise themselves with them without prayers for preservation. But year after year, as the talking goes on, so have the accidents. They happen on well-maintained ships, and those less so. They involve expert seamen and relative novices …

From my experience as seagoing master mariner with more than 30 years at sea I can suggest two from possibly many answers Why situation is like this?:

1. Life boats came to the twenty first century from sail-ship era when they served much smaller vessels and much more trained (in use of boats) crews. It has to be remembered that ship’s boats (barges, longboats, cutters, whaleboats, gigs, jolly boats, launches, dinghies, punts, etc.) were in constant, every-day use those times and for many purposes such as: mooring and anchoring operation, delivery of crew and stores to and from shore, bringing goods (cargo) on board of ship, towing the ship in calm weather, abandoning of vessel in case of danger, etc. One can see that life-saving duty, which today is the only assignment for the ship’s boats, was one from many and not the most important one. I mean that boats were not especially designed for life-saving operations as they designed today. Just to the contrary, they were primarily designed for the mercantile utilisation and whenever necessary were also used in case of emergency. Obviously routine use made crew very familiar and professional in operation of these boats. This tradition of training by usage was dying hard but steady. So, even in the second part of twentieth century boat practice was compulsory element of marine education. Nowadays it does not exist anymore because the boats themselves ceased to exist and gave way to enclosed lifeboats. But if in former times ship’s boats were relatively light and either towed astern or were secured on deck and then lowered down from 2-3 meters high, today’s reality is that heavy lifeboats made of plastic have to travel 10-20 (or more) meters down the ship’s hull to reach water. Just have a look at the modern car carrier, tanker and container ship and one will readily understand why operation of such boats is "so frightening, and so complicated".

2. The problem with modern lifeboats is primary in the multi-function goal they were supposed to achieve: “to answer so many problems”. In general, they have to be enclosed, self-propelled, with sprinkler fire-fighting system, able to be lowered remotely from inside, have falls and painters cast-off from inside and, finally, must be equipped with on-load release mechanism. And of course be of reasonable price. Naturally, all these difficult to meet criteria became a birth trauma of this adopted child of ship’s architects whilst cost effectiveness prevented any positive improvement all these many decades since its birth. Thus, clumsy original design was later attempted to be patched by equally unsuccessful modifications. Ineffective in the bigger part because of licensing problem, when each manufacturer has to improve his own licensed device which makes uniform approach impossible. Because of IMO strict but in many cases ill-founded and technically difficult to achieve requirements, lifeboat which was designed to serve the purpose of saving human life, is in fact, a device which is very dangerous in operation, almost useless in case of distress, very expensive in service and undoubtedly subject for many more future circulars, recommendations and other ‘Improvements’ all futile and senseless but giving enough space for bureaucrats to show their activity.

I welcome any and every critical and/or supportive comments and in no way consider my opinion as an absolute truth.

Share this article on:

Readers’ comments:

Posted by:   

Be first to comment …
Leave your questions and comments here

Although author encourages visitors to leave their comments using this form, but if you unable or unwilling to use it for any reason you can forward your mail to to contact with him.