Accidents – sometimes fatal – during lifeboat drills have led to the erroneous viewpoint that lifeboats are more of a danger to life than a piece of life-saving equipment. For example, even though many problems were experienced with launching lifeboats and liferafts from the ill-fated Costa Concordia in 2012, there were far fewer deaths than would have been the case if they were absent. That said, the situation may be reversed when it comes to cargo vessels as successful evacuations of all crew in major incidents is rare and in the case of the ore carrier Stella Daisy in 2017 only two crew from a total of 24 were found in a liferaft.
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, 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 dominated until quite recently and 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 this year (2019). At MSC 89 in May 2011, it was decided to implement new requirements for lifeboats with on-load release hooks. These 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. There is some anecdotal evidence coming from the suppliers of lifeboats and servicing contractors that the July deadline may well pass without appropriate action on many ships and if that proves to be true, there may be a spike in PSC detentions in the second half of this year.
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.