November 20, 2014

Lifeboats or death traps?

The continuing scandal of lifeboat related casualties- often because of issues with falls or impractical and suspect release mechanisms- has gone on for far too long. It is a disgrace.

On October 24, in yet another lifeboat related fatality, a crewmember died in Colon and another was hospitalised after an accident on the Coral Princess, a Princess Cruises ship; the crew were picking up the boat after some maintenance work. Earlier this year, five crewmembers were killed and three injured after the lifeboat on the Thomson Majesty, another cruise vessel, fell into the sea during a drill in the Canary Islands. In both cases, a lifeboat fall gave way with the expected- and much too common- grim consequences.

There have similar and horrifyingly commonplace such incidents on all kinds of ships; I bring up these two incidents only because I expect that these vessels- required to have the ability to evacuate large numbers of untrained passengers in an emergency- would have had higher levels of regulation and scrutiny, and better trained crews, than, say, the average tramp ship. 

Of course, as we all know too well, is that the fault lies more in the design of lifeboats than anywhere else. The seeming inability of the IMO to stop seamen dying in these death traps, even after many years of experts screaming themselves hoarse about lifeboat design and regulation, is one of its biggest failures. 

Things have been bad for a long time. How bad? Well, close to a decade ago, Rear Admiral John Lang, Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents at UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch, even questioned the wisdom of continuing to launch lifeboats for exercise purposes. Another recognised expert, Capt Dennis Barber, wrote extensively on faulty lifeboat design in an article “Dangerous Lifeboats- A race to oblivion?” way back in 2006.  He ended by saying that it was disturbing to consider that the enclosed side launched lifeboat may have killed more seafarers than it has saved. 

Many seamen- including me- have, ever since the advent of the enclosed lifeboat, been extremely suspicious about its design, its unnecessary complicated release mechanism and the dangerous on-board release regulation and operational requirements. I even question the need to have an enclosed lifeboat in the first place. 

To me, the KISS- keep it simple, stupid- maxim is something that needs to be kept uppermost in mind when designing any safety equipment, something completely missing with lifeboats. And, although I agree that an enclosed lifeboat may have a couple of advantages- going through burning oil in the water, for one- the disadvantages far outweigh these. Complexity of the release mechanism, a long ‘drop height’ (especially on some of the car carriers I have sailed on), the overbearingly stifling atmosphere inside and the unnecessary need for long-term protection against the weather (in this century, I was not going to spend weeks inside the lifeboat waiting for rescue, anyway) are just some of the biggest. I have often thought that the rigid canopy of the enclosed lifeboat should have a mechanism- pressurised gas, as liferaft covers do?- that can allow the crew to just blow it away if required. 

 (In 2007, after the MSC Napoli was abandoned off Cornwall, the crew found the overheated and stifling atmosphere in their enclosed lifeboat intolerable. I don’t know how many were seasick, but two were seriously ill when they were rescued by helicopter. And they had spent only a few hours in the boat!)

In short, I had little confidence in these lifeboats. And then, after the rescue boat requirements came into play, there was the additional requirement- to be able to recover the boat quickly using the same crazy mechanism, with no deck space to work with on the boat and long falls and heavy hooks swinging and threatening to almost decapitate you at any moment!

I do not know- although I have my suspicions- of the reasons behind why the IMO is dragging its feet for decades on this; why the rules, location and the construction of lifeboats have not undergone a metamorphosis in this age of fast evacuation systems. 
One thing I do know, however, is that we need some seamen in the IMO, not just bureaucrats. 

Until that happens, I propose a small change to the SOLAS regulations. Let us incorporate this somewhere: “Every IMO functionary involved in regulations pertaining to lifeboats will be required to take part in a rescue boat drill once every three months, and perform the functions of either the bowman or the stern sheet during the drill.” 

That should bring change quickly. That should stop this scandal. 


1 comment:

Phil Stalley said...

Hi Manu.

I have never been to sea but have been involved in the shipping industry for over 40 years and I am saddened by the regular reports of incidents and lives lost in a procedure designed to save lives.

In an age when we can land a robot on a comet thousands of miles away it cannot be outside the ability of the experts to find a better design as you say.

Best regards
Phil Stalley