Minimizing risks of lifeboat drills


Published: 19 March 2013

The Association would like to remind Members of the need to take great care when planning, training for and conducting lifeboat drills. As was seen again in recent times, in a high profile incident, the danger involved continues to be very real.

As Members will be aware, the risks and dangers associated with launching, running and recovering modern ship's lifeboats are well documented. Notable incidents of lifeboats accidents have been reported over the last few years, including incidents recorded by:

  • seven reported by MAIB (UK)
  • two by TSB(Canada) in 2002 and 2006 respectively
  • one by the BSU(Germany) in 2006
  • three by the ATSB(Australia) in 2002,2003 and 2004 respectively
  • two by the Hong Kong Marine Department in 2003 and 2006 respectively
  • two by Gard P&I in 2007
  • one by MCS India in 2008

The latest tragic accident was on 10 February 2013, on board the cruise vessel Thomson Majesty. The Association has also had to deal with a number of accidents over the years involving lifeboat drills. As far as the Association is aware, the above mentioned accidents occurred during routine lifeboat drills, testing and maintenance activities with experienced and qualified seafarers performing and supervising the operations.

Statistics and investigations have shown that the main cause of accidents with lifeboats is equipment failure, within which on-load release gear failure is identified as most frequent cause of fatal accidents. The common feature of these occurrences was involuntary release of one or more hooks. Where one hook is released, the shock effect often causes the other end to tear off and the lifeboat falls into the water. This, combined with possible human error, may account for the unfortunate frequency of these incidents.

In view of the increasing number of accidents caused by lifeboats hooks failure, we recommend to Members to provide vessels with working model of the release hook mechanism used on board, which should be easily available for crew for educational purposes. Equally Technical & Crewing Managers should consider ensuring that sufficient time and attention is given to lifeboat drill safety during training of crew.

In addition the following is advisable:

  • i. Clear Instructions on how to release & re-engage the hook must be available in English and in the working language of the vessel
  • ii. Training for crew as to how to operate the release hook must be provided on regular basis
  • iii. To supply shore offices and vessels with the Skuld Lifeboat Release Hooks guide book

Members are advised that there are more than 70 different designs of on-load release gears installed in ships in service. For seafarers it creates problems when each vessel they join may have a different system from their previous vessel. Implementing training with the actual model of the hook would be of great assistance to minimize risk of accident during the routine lifeboats drills.

Another measure which can be taken to decrease the risk to seafarers' lives during the drills is launching and recovering the lifeboat without crew.

Following amendment, SOLAS (1 July 2006) no longer requires the crew to be on board during launching.

SOLAS regulation III/19 stands amended to remove the previous requirement for the assigned operating crew to be onboard the lifeboat during launch, although lifeboat launch at least once every three months is still required.

The position is that the lifeboat may now be boarded at water level after it has been lowered, and subsequently the crew will disembark before the empty boat is retrieved to its stowed position.

This avoids any risk to crew arising from the boat being dropped inadvertently from a height during launch or recovery, leading to injury and death. Our experience has also been that increasingly there is a view within PSC authorities, too, that during drills the launching of lifeboats with crew inside is an unnecessary risk.

Our recommendation: the crew should to be advised about possibility to board and disembark the lifeboats via the side ladder or using the rescue boat as an alternatively to being inside during the release and recovery.

But care must be taken not to replace one risk with another: for instance, descending into a waterborne boat by ladder from great heights is also an inherently risky operation.