Taking to the water as a last resort

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

19 April 2018

Despite the bad press that lifeboat drill accidents have been given, it remains true that many times more passengers and crew have survived incidents because of life saving equipment than have been killed or injured during drills.

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 was for this reason that the requirement to man lifeboats during drills has been suspended.

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 (except a free fall lifeboat) to be launched by a fall or falls and to be fitted with a release mechanism
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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

The launching arrangements of rescue boats is similar to that for lifeboats and currently requires that they should be launched by means of gravity or stored energy however a proposal was made at SSE 5 in March 2018 that a manual launching method should be permitted. A draft wording for changes to the LSA Code is be discussed further at MSC 100 in December 2018.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The issue of ensuring a safe atmosphere inside an enclosed lifeboat is not necessarily confined to vapours from cargoes. The oxygen inside a totally enclosed lifeboat occupied by a full complement of crew and/or passengers could soon become depleted without adequate ventilation. At the SSE 5 meeting in March 2018, it was agreed that a requirement for a ventilation rate of at least 5 m3/h per person to comply with the expected performance should be set. In this regard, a new paragraph under 4.6.6 of the LSA Code has been drafted and should be adopted at MSC 100 in December 2018.