It is an adage at sea that "your ship is your best lifeboat,” it seems that seafarers hold this to be true, as many now consider the lifeboat to be the most dangerous part of the ship. Loss Prevention Risk Assessor, Captain Anuj Velankar remembers when he was at sea in the mid-nineties, a distrust of lifeboats was already brewing. However, this was not always the case, there used to be stories of crew lowering their lifeboats into the water to go for shore leave and even exchanging things from video cassettes to beer. What has led to this paradigm shift in the perception of lifeboats on board ships? Has the increasing complexity of lifeboat design and the lack of practical hands on experience led to the on going problem of lifeboat related injuries and deficiencies? Captain Velankar looks at the problem.
Captain Velankar believes that there are two main reasons for the issues surrounding lifeboats; the first is the barrier in actually lowering the lifeboats. It has become progressively more difficult for a ship to find a decent anchorage in which to lower their boats over a comfortable 6 - 8 hour window. The lowering of lifeboats into the water is no longer encouraged, almost every port requires notification prior to launching lifeboats and in some instances permission is needed prior to the arrival of the ship to the anchorage. In all Captain Velankar’s years at sea, the only place he was invited to go ashore for shore leave in a lifeboat was at a small port in Nicaragua. Once you remove the culture of using lifeboats from the ships schedule, it becomes inevitable that the crew treat their lifeboats with apprehension.
Secondly, the design of lifeboats themselves is responsible for the growing trepidation among crewmembers. Enclosed lifeboats are great to protect the ship’s crew as they safely leave a ship, but very unwieldy when operated by crew to both manoeuvre and handle. The fact is, in a non-emergency open lifeboats were friendlier to operate and handle and the people at sea were much more used to the working with them. The prospect of going into a free fall lifeboat often instils such fear in a regular seaman that he may find himself doing multiple contracts on a ship without having gone once into the lifeboat.
Detentions and poor maintenance cause delays
Lack of familiarity or regular use is the reason that lifeboats and their fittings are found with poor maintenance and the crew are ill-trained and unfamiliar with emergency procedures.
Take any random month of USCG detention lists and there is evidence to suggest that lifeboat deficiencies are a leading cause of detentions. Five of the nineteen ships listed on the USCG detentions list for January 2015 had deficiencies relating to lifeboats. Ship staff could not even get the boat engines started during the PSC inspections, and this has become such a matter of concern that it has prompted the Marshall Islands to release a Marine safety advisory on the subject which identified four lessons for operating and maintaining lifeboats. The full details of the advisory can be found here:
The report of the Aquarosa is particularly interesting; the ship was transiting the Indian Ocean on route to Fremantle, Western Australia, when its freefall lifeboat was inadvertently released during a routine inspection. A ship’s engineer, the only person in the lifeboat at the time, was seriously injured in the accident and it took 5 hours for the crew to recover the lifeboat.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s initial analysis of the incident indicated that the lifeboat release mechanism was not fully and correctly reset after it was last exercised and that the hook was released when the engineer topped up the release system hydraulic oil reservoir and manually operated the pump to pressurise the system. Initial analysis also indicated that the two simulation wires, which were designed to hold the lifeboat when the hook was released during a simulated release, failed at a load significantly below their rated safe working load.
Another recent lifeboat accident shared by the Hong Kong Marine department involved a general cargo ship, which was conducting a drill for the free-fall lifeboat using the launch and retrieval davit.
The free fall lifeboat was lowered in the water without any crew and then crewmembers went in the boat to manoeuvre the boat in the water. For retrieval, the boat was connected to four slings and then picked up. Around the deck level, the slings parted and the boat fell back in the water causing injury to one of the crew.
In Captain Velankar’s view, merchant ships such as tankers and bulk carriers, are progressively losing touch with the maintenance of wires and ropes due to lack of routine, the release mechanism are often very poorly understood on ships today – this is leading to increasing detentions and delays for shipowners.
Increasing incidents of injury
Delays and detentions are not the only issues for Shipowners to manage when dealing with lifeboat incidents. As matters stand, today 16% of all deaths of Mariners at sea, occur during drills. This is a staggeringly high percentage for an apparatus meant to actually save their lives. The causes of accidents were varied. Some involved malfunctions of the lifeboat equipment or operational misunderstandings; others human error or miscommunication. Linda Wright addressed this issue in the Summer 2014 edition of Bodily injury news ( p.g5).
What is the solution?
It is unlikely that the solution lies in reverting to open lifeboats and encouraging the crew to go ashore in them! The remedy for lack of familiarity with lifeboats among crewmembers and human error is through the continuous training of staff and sufficient risk assessment procedures. The most effective training for the seafarers is for them to know why something is done in a particular way, to better understand the procedures – not just remember them. As a result, their understanding gives the crewmembers more confidence in the systems. Training should specifically address the launching of lifeboats and the correct maintenance and handling procedures to enable seafarers to safely use and maintain the equipment under all conditions. Flag states such as the Bahamas, USA and the UK MCA have issued various notices in the past which can help ship crew in the proper upkeep of the lifeboats.