A ships requirement for lifeboats, liferafts and evacuation systems

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

14 May 2017


Although seen as vital pieces of equipment and the last hope for crew and passengers in an emergency, survival craft and lifeboats in particular have been said to have caused perhaps as many deaths as lives they have saved. If passenger evacuations from stricken cruise ships and ferries are taken out of the equation it is quite likely that they have indeed become a major cause of loss of seafarer life but when passenger ship accidents are taken into account a very different picture emerges.

At a presentation to the 2012 Passenger Ship Safety Conference, Harry Klaverstijn representing the International Life-Saving Appliances Manufacturers’ Association (ILAMA) highlighted that in the period between 2000 and 2012 almost 10,000 persons had been evacuated from vessels by lifeboats and liferafts. That number far exceeds the number killed or injured in lifeboat drills and validates the efforts of those past and present that have put passenger safety at the fore.

The problem encountered with lifeboats during drills has less to do with the boats themselves and is mainly due to problems experienced with release mechanisms and their incorrect operation and the means of securing lifeboats in davits. It is for this reason that the requirement to man lifeboats during drills has been suspended.

The issue of lifeboat accidents was first raised by Australia in 1999 and has been continually on the IMO agenda ever since. A measure of the prolonged debate that has been taking place is that in 2007 a resume of IMO actions in its various committees from 1999 until then ran to no less than 50 pages. Today, a similar document could be almost twice as long.

Lifeboat design

Lifeboat design and construction has changed over the years but open boats have predominated until quite recently. Today most vessels are equipped with totally or partially enclosed lifeboats. Traditionally lifeboats have been hung on davits and lowered on wire falls. More recently the free fall lifeboat has become a feature on many vessels and is mandatory on some types of tanker. The free fall lifeboat is not designed for regular launch and recovery and therefore accidents during training
are rare.

Since the 1980s, SOLAS has required every lifeboat to be launched by a fall or falls, except a free-fall lifeboat to be fitted with a release mechanism complying with the following requirements:

  • All hooks are to be released simultaneously. The mechanism shall have normal (off-load) and on-load release capabilities.
  • Release system shall be so arranged as to release the lifeboat under any conditions of loading from no load with the lifeboat waterborne to the load of 1.1 times the total mass of the lifeboat when loaded with its full complement of persons and equipment. The release control shall be clearly marked with a colour that contrasts with its surroundings.
  • The fixed structural connections of the release mechanism in the boat shall be designed with the calculated safety factor of 6 based on the ultimate strength of the material used.
  • Every lifeboat shall be fitted with a device to secure a painter near its bow. Except for free-fall lifeboats, the painter securing device shall include a release device to ensure the painter to be released from inside the lifeboat, with the ship making headway at speeds up to 5 knots in calm water.

It is well known that the main causes of accidents have been the on load release mechanism being operated at the wrong moment or the mechanism failing (usually because the securing arrangements have been carried out incorrectly) causing the lifeboat to be released at an unsafe height or leaving the lifeboat hanging from one of its ends.

There have been far fewer problems with incidents of off load release and in any case these would be less of a danger to life except in a genuine emergency where it was impossible to release the lifeboat from its falls. When used for its prime purpose of abandoning ship, a lifeboat would not be required to be retrieved as it is during a drill and it is because so many of the accidents have occurred when the lifeboat was being retrieved after a drill that the requirement for releasing the lifeboat or manning it during drills has been suspended.

The issue of lifeboat release mechanisms seems to have reached a resolution although remedial action will stretch out to July 2019. At MSC89 in May 2011, it was decided to implement new requirements for lifeboats with on-load release hooks. These requirements came into force in 2013. In accordance with the decision existing release and retrieval systems had to be verified and tested against the requirements not later than 1 July 2014, and systems that did not comply were to be replaced at the first scheduled drydocking after 1 July 2014, but not later than 1 July 2019. For a release and retrieval system that has passed the design review and hook testing, the actual hook on each lifeboat will be subject to a one-time follow up overhaul examination on board each vessel.

Again this should be done within the time limits set by the new requirement. A sensible precaution endorsed and made mandatory by some flag states is for a fall preventer device to be installed on release and retrieval systems at all times during testing until the systems are approved.

The number of vessels affected by the new regulations runs in to tens of thousands with many having multiple lifeboats installed on board. Therefore, the number of release mechanisms needing replacement could be as high as 100,000.

There are various makers of release mechanisms each employing proprietary methods of securing the boat to the falls. Most of these have been improving existing mechanisms and developing new versions that will meet the new requirements. Although most make use of a hook mechanism operated either by wire or hydraulics there is one developed by Nadiro (now part of Viking) that employs a system similar to that of a towing ball connection.

Rescue boats

In addition to the lifeboats and liferafts required by SOLAS, ships are also obliged to be equipped with a rescue boat. For some passenger vessels, a fast rescue boat is stipulated. The prime purpose of the rescue boat is self explanatory and is the recovery of persons from the water. Under SOLAS they also have a secondary purpose and must be capable of marshalling and towing liferafts that would otherwise be left to drift helplessly.

Rescue boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes and in rigid, inflatable and hybrid RIB types. A rescue boat may be between 3.8m and 8.5m in length and must be capable of accommodating at least five seated persons and a casualty on a standard SOLAS stretcher. The seating space may be on the floor of the craft for all but the helmsman but cannot be on the buoyancy tubes, gunwhales or transom. The power can be provided by a fixed engine or an outboard engine. There are several manufacturers active in producing rescue boats around the globe.

SOLAS permits the rescue boat to count towards the lifeboat provision providing it meets the performance standards for both craft. Passenger vessels above 500gt are obliged to carry two rescue boats, one on either side of the vessel but passenger vessels below this size and cargo vessels need only carry one. Rescue boats must be equipped with certain items and stores needed for their rescue role. If a boat is counted as both a rescue boat and a lifeboat it must be equipped with both sets of stores and capable of carrying out its rescue role with both sets onboard.

The requirement to carry rescue boats was altered in 1989 when the IMO issued Resolution A.656(16) which recognised that fast rescue boats were being used in some offshore operations. The intent of the resolution was to set guideline standards for fast rescue boats which until then had not been codified. These guideline standards were later made mandatory.

The main differences between a ‘slow’ and fast rescue boat is that the latter must be over 6m and under 8.5m in length and capable of operating at 20 knots during a four-hour period using a petrol engine. The 20 knots requirement drops to 8 knots if the sea is not calm or if the craft is fully loaded. A fast rescue boat is also intended to be launched and retrieved under severe adverse weather (Beaufort 6 with 3m waves), and requires a special launching appliance.

Under SOLAS rules it must also be either self-righting or capable of being righted manually by two persons. The rules also require that vessels obliged to carry a fast rescue boat must also have at least two specially trained crews available to man it. IMO has developed a model course for crew required to operate fast rescue boats and the training required is covered by STCW. Courses offered by most training establishments are three-day affairs much of which will be practical boat handling. What cannot be guaranteed is the opportunity to launch, operate and recover the boat in the adverse conditions which it must be capable of operating in.

The requirement for ro-ro passenger vessels to carry fast rescue boats has not been without controversy. In the offshore sector, fast rescue boats are normally launched from and recovered to static rigs making the operations in adverse weather much safer than could be achieved on a vessel.

Under adverse weather conditions a ship would be pitching and rolling with the very high possibility of the craft slamming against the ship side causing damage or death. Critics also say that if there is a good case for fast rescue boats on ro-ro passenger vessels then the same arguments should apply to vessels that are not ro-ros.

Recovering persons at sea

Lifeboats and liferafts are primarily intended are intended to accommodate personnel whether crew or passengers carried onboard the vessel. Ordinarily personnel evacuating a ship would be in a lifeboat when it is lowered but there will be times when they will need to be recovered from the water as will personnel who have fallen overboard or from other vessels, aircraft or offshore installations.

While crew are expected to train for and be familiar with abandon ship procedures, recovering personnel from the water will involve other skills and if not done correctly could bring hazards for both the rescuer and the person being rescued. Recovery techniques should be included in a vessel’s ISM procedures but some assistance may be necessary in drawing up the procedures.

The IMO has addressed this and in November 2014 issued MSC.1/Circ.1182/Rev.1 GUIDE TO RECOVERY TECHNIQUES which is a 19 page document that explores most of the issues and obstacles that may be encountered in an emergency situation. The guidance is in relatively simple terms and is addressed directly at ships’ officers and crew and is broken down into sections with detailed advice under the following headings;

  • Possible recovery problems
  • Planning considerations
  • Providing assistance before recovery
  • The recovery process – general considerations
  • The approach
  • Rescue craft and lines * Getting people aboard – factors to consider * Climbing and lifting * Providing assistance when standing by * The immediate care of people recovered * Recovery checklist

Room for all

The launching arrangements for survival craft are contained in SOLAS Chapter III Regulation 16 and the carriage requirements for passenger ships and cargo ships in Regulations 21 and 31 respectively. SOLAS requires that there be sufficient lifeboats on board passenger ships to accommodate all persons on board; half being placed on each side of the vessel.

At the discretion of the flag state the lifeboat capacity on each side can be reduced to 37.5% of the total number on board with the shortfall being made up with liferafts. For passenger vessels on short international voyages, it is permissible for the lifeboat capacity to be reduced and replaced with liferafts. In all cases there must also be additional liferaft capacity to cover 25% of the total on board.
For cargo vessels the requirement is for a lifeboat on each side capable of carrying all persons on board and liferafts for the same number. If the liferafts can be transferred from side to side the requirement can be met with one set of liferafts.

In case a stern free fall lifeboat is fitted the requirement for capacity for all on board on each side is removed. The requirement for liferafts remains unchanged. The liferaft or liferafts must be equipped with a lashing or an equivalent means of securing the liferaft which will automatically release it from a sinking ship.

Cargo ships where the horizontal distance from the extreme end of the stem or stern of the ship to the nearest end of the closest survival craft is more than 100m shall carry, in addition to the liferafts mentioned, a liferaft stowed as far forward or aft, or one as far forward and another as far aft, as is reasonable and practicable.

Such liferaft or liferafts may be securely fastened so as to permit manual release and need not be of the type which can be launched from an approved launching device. There are special requirements in SOLAS for certain vessel types when the normally required enclosed lifeboat is replaced by a more specialised alternative. Chemical tankers and gas carriers carrying cargoes emitting toxic vapours or gases require lifeboats with a self-contained air support system complying with the requirements of section 4.8 of the LSA Code. For oil tankers, chemical tankers and gas carriers carrying cargoes having a flashpoint not exceeding 60ºC (closed-cup test) the rule is for fire-protected lifeboats complying with the requirements of section 4.9 of the LSA Code.

Although the need for a specialist lifeboat on tankers is connected to the properties of the cargo, the particular problems experienced may not be confined to tankers alone. A recent event reported by the US Coast Guard on board a tanker could just as well have occurred on any vessel type. In that case, a Port State Control inspector was conducting an examination and in anticipation the crew opened the hatch to the freefall lifeboat to let it air out. As the inspector entered the lifeboat his gas meter alarmed and he quickly exited.

Upon investigation, it was confirmed with ship’s equipment that carbon monoxide had collected in the lifeboat. Wind conditions had been blowing exhaust from the main stack into the lifeboat. The proper use of a gas meter likely prevented tragic consequences.

Supplied for survival

Lifeboats are considered essential items of ships’ equipment and although there has been an extended period with few, if any, instances of crew having to survive for long periods in lifeboats there is no guarantee that this situation will continue. In the recent cases where lifeboats have been used in earnest their occupants have been picked up by search and rescue services or the boats have reached shore in a relatively short space of time. This has led some to question whether the equipment that is required by SOLAS to be carried by survival craft is still necessary or appropriate.

It may seem odd that a ferry making voyages of only a few hours or less might be prevented from putting to sea because of missing or rusty fish hooks in the lifeboat emergency supplies but the debate is not likely to be settled on such issues. There may be a case for revisiting the emergency supplies that need to be carried and perhaps adding requirements for EPIRBS to be carried on all lifeboats rather than there being a need to take equipment from the bridge or elsewhere on the ship on board when evacuating.

The Polar Code adopted in November 2014 has some special requirements for survival craft that include a requirement for each to have communication equipment and searchlights as well as a requirement for lifeboats to be fully or partially enclosed. At least one maker has produced a purpose designed Polar liferaft.

SOLAS requires all lifeboats, liferafts and launching apparatus to be serviced at regular intervals. During the mid-2000s the IMO issued guidelines and intended to make mandatory requirements for all LSAs to be serviced and repaired only by OEMs. There was much opposition to this from independent servicing organisations who argued that their competence had been proved over time and that not all OEMs were still in existence. The debate subsided after it was agreed that independent service providers could continue to operate either by becoming approved by the OEMs or recognised by flag states.

Moving en masse

On most ships including offshore vessels with contractor staff onboard where total personnel numbers are measured in tens or very low hundreds, an evacuation in an emergency can be done quite rapidly using conventional lifeboats and liferafts but the same is not likely to be true for passenger vessels. Not only will there be many more persons to evacuate – maybe as many as 5,000 – but their mobility is likely to be less and with more people involved the potential for panic increases.

In the 1990s, concurrent with the IMO’s Passenger Ship Safety initiative, a number of companies began developing rapid evacuation systems designed to speed up evacuation of large numbers of passengers from cruise ships and ferries. These marine evacuation systems or MES come in two basic varieties. Both make use of liferafts or platforms that are reached using either a slide or a chute.

Early trials of the systems did highlight some problems with congestion in chutes and sadly some deaths did occur in trials. Lessons were learnt and the systems modified to remove the cause of the problems and the concept has since been approved by the IMO.
The first use of an MES in an actual emergency was in 1994 on the Sally Albatross a converted cruise ship that had begun life in 1980 as the ro-pax ferry Viking Saga. The vessel had run aground in ice in the Baltic Sea off the Finnish coast and after being towed to shallower water around 1,500 persons were evacuated using the MES.

Regulations are contained in both SOLAS and the LSA Code but ultimate approval to fit a system in place of required liferafts is the prerogative of the flag state. Any liferafts used in conjunction with a MES are subject to the requirements of the LSA Code, Chapter 4, section 4.1 and 4.2. Examination requirements are in accordance with SOLAS chapter III/20.8 and Chapter 6 of the LSA code, 6.2 covers MES specifically and in detail.

Because an MES is designed for evacuation only, it cannot be recovered and re-stowed as a lifeboat could be, nor is it possible for the system to be deployed for the purposes of passenger drills. This limitation is addressed in SOLAS chapter III/19.3.3.8 which says, “drills shall include exercising of the procedures required for deployment up to the point of actual deployment by the system party assigned to the MES.” Crew trained in using the systems are given instruction in assisting passengers when needed. However, there is little opportunity during operations to check and practice with the system because of the limitation mentioned.

All MES installations are required to be inspected annually and deployed in rotation at six yearly intervals. The conditions for deployment can vary according to flag state requirements and the six-year interval can be reduced. Some flag states have concerns over failed deployments and the matter is being reviewed on a continual basis.

An MES is usually housed at the embarkation station and is activated by a crewmember. When activated the liferaft or platform deploys along with the connecting slide or chute. The slides are inflatable structure to give some rigidity while the chutes may or may not have inflating elements incorporated into their structure. Although the chutes appear to be steeper than the slides – often hanging vertically – there is not a direct drop inside as the internal structure makes use of a helical slide or baffles to slow the descent.

When in use, some of the liferaft crew will descend to the liferaft to supervise and one or more will be stationed at the evacuation deck to assist passengers board. Although the systems are capable of evacuating passengers much faster than conventional davit launched liferafts, they can be daunting prospects for trepid passengers, chutes perhaps more so than slides. Since the first systems were developed, variations have been produced with mini versions designed for vessels with low embarkation decks. Some systems are fitted with a large capacity liferaft more than sufficient to accommodate all personnel onboard but others – and in particular the platform type – are designed to be stations for the vessel’s liferafts to moor to while passengers board at sea level.

There are additional requirements in SOLAS for the size and characteristics of platforms intended to ensure they provide a secure and safe environment for evacuees. The number of companies producing the systems is quite small and is still in single figures.
As with lifeboats and liferafts, PSC can take an interest in MES installations which will begin with an initial document check and may progress to a full inspection. The USCG advice to inspectors has been published on the internet and is reproduced below giving an insight into what the inspection may involve.

During your document check you will need to verify additional requirements have been met for the MES. This involves verifying two individual requirements. Reference SOLAS chapter III/20.8.2 “Each system must be deployed rotationally at least once every 6 years. This schedule is at the discretion of the company. Additionally; per SOLAS Chapter III/19.3.3.8 “Every system party member (assigned crew member) shall be involved in further training by way of an actual deployment, whether it be onboard or at an offshore training facility once every (24) months”. This training may be combined with the required deployments. Verify that the crew members who are assigned to the MES have this practical experience and have participated in a deployment. Remember this is “as far as practicable”

During your deck walk, while on the embarkation deck, pay attention to the control box ensuring it is free of any obstructions that could limit the use of or restrict crew access to the controls. For example: locks installed on the control box to prevent unauthorised access, equipment bags for the MES teams or general stowage in way of the controls. Examine the bowsing winch, does it appear to have been maintained, is heavy corrosion present? If you feel its operability is in question, ask the accompanying officer to verify its operability; it should be free moving. The rafts used in conjunction with the MES are subject to the requirements of the LSA
code, Chapter 4, section 4.1 and 4.2. Examination requirements are In accordance with SOLAS chapter III/20.8 and Chapter 6 of the LSA code, 6.2 covers the MES specifically and in detail.

During the fire and abandon ship drill portion of your exam it should be witnessed that, according to SOLAS chapter III/19.3.3.8 “drills shall include exercising of the procedures required for deployment up to the point of actual deployment by the system party assigned to the MES.” Ask the system party to explain the system to you, have them identify the main components of the system and their function.

Improving the concept

While an MES can allow for rapid evacuation the reliance on liferafts which have limited manoeuvrability does impose some limitations on the ability to remove evacuees from the scene of the incident to safety. As highlighted in the Costa Concordia incident, the inability to launch lifeboats when a ship is listing severely does mean that there may be insufficient powered craft to tow the liferafts.

In late 2013, a four-year project by Viking Life-Saving Equipment concluded with the product launch of a hybrid lifesaving craft that combined the advantages of modern lifeboats - such as self-propelled manoeuvrability - with the flexibility, comfort and smaller footprint of today’s liferafts.

The LifeCraft System consists of two main elements: The LifeCraft itself – a self- propelled inflatable vessel with four engines for a high degree of manoeuvrability and safety; and a storing and launching unit, either placed on deck or built in, containing up to four LifeCraft units with a capacity of 200 persons each - for a total capacity of 800 persons.

There are more advantages of this hybrid solution. For example, the LifeCraft System is safe on an entirely new level as a specially designed chute system helps evacuees with special needs; such as children, the elderly and those on stretchers, setting a new standard for full-spectrum marine evacuation. The system also takes up less room than lifeboats, freeing up deck space allowing for more cabins and other facilities.

Safer on board

During the early years of the 21st century some bold new ideas for ensuring passenger safety were formulated and discussed. Among these were proposals for parts of a ship’s superstructure to act as self-contained ships-within-a-ship that would float free as the mother vessel foundered.

Goal-based standards at the IMO and the risk-based approach of the EU’s Safedor project, as well as the IMO prescription that passengers should under most emergency circumstances affecting large passenger vessels remain protected in a safe area on board, may one day allow some of the more innovative to become reality but in practice designers have remained more conservative.
The safe area regulation appears to have killed off further development of the ship-within-a-ship concept. In 2006 MSC 82/12 agreed amendments to SOLAS (Chapter II-1and Chapter II-2, Regulations 21- 22) applicable to certain passenger ships (those the keels of which were laid on or after 1 July 2010, having a length of 120m or more, or having three or more main vertical zones).

The safe area requirements stipulate that the following basic services are to be available to ensure that the health of the passengers and crew is maintained as the ship proceeds to port:

  • Sanitation (Minimum one toilet required for every 50 persons or fraction thereof). Water (Minimum 3 litres per person per day drinking water, plus water for food preparation and hygiene).
  • Food (can be of any kind including dry food).
  • Alternate space for medical care (The alternate space for medical care to be in a different MVZ than the hospital and to have lighting and power supply from the emergency source of power).
  • Shelter from the weather (Internal spaces required unless otherwise accepted by the Administration).
  • Means of preventing heat stress and hypothermia (Temperature within safe areas should be maintained in the range of 10° to 30°C). Light (Portable rechargeable battery operated lighting may be acceptable for use in spaces not covered by the ship’s emergency lighting system).
  • Ventilation (Minimum ventilation volume available should be not less than 4,5m3/H per person).

To date, there have been no occasions when the safe area has been needed nor a major incident involving a vessel built to the new standards although there have been a number of incidents involving older vessels which would appear to cast doubt on the efficacy of the safe area concept.

The most recent occurred in late December 2014 when the ro-pax ferry Norman Atlantic caught fire in waters off Corfu. The fire prompted most passengers to seek refuge on the outside upper decks where many were affected by inclement weather conditions. Although relatively close to shore, evacuation of the vessel took more than a day and one wonders how anyone within a safe zone would have coped with the intensity of the fire especially as some passengers reported that the paint on the decks was melting beneath their feet.