When lifeboats become death boats
Monday 17 November 2014
by Michael Grey
WHY would you not be frightened out of your wits every time you were required to carry out a lifeboat drill? When regulators, safety authorities and manufacturers seem unable to get a grip on the numbers of deaths and injuries caused when lifeboat drills go badly wrong, might your confidence in this so-called “life-saving” equipment be somewhat lacking?
There was another fatal incident just the other day, when an emergency boat being recovered aboard a Princess cruiseship in Colon plunged from a great height, killing a seaman and injuring the boatswain.
There just doesn’t seem to be any real sign that all the recommendations, procedures, regulations and guidance that have been produced since this scandal was recognised has even begun to have an effect.
You might suggest that in the great scheme of things, the drip, drip, drip of one person killed here, two there, five in one exceptional case, lack the impact that might provoke a great wave of revulsion that would accompany, say, a whole tender full of passengers plunging to their doom.
But people know better than to expose passengers to the risk that crew members have to face on a regular basis, if international regulations on monthly boat drills are to be fulfilled.
The truth is that we don’t actually know how many seafarers are killed and injured, such is the cavalier fashion we have for recording these small tragedies, with a substantial number of flag states failing to transmit details of such accidents to the International Maritime Organization.
We know from the records and the casualty investigations of those states which have the will and the capability to carry them out that there are a lot of these accidents, but we also know that nothing very much appears to be improving. It is small wonder that lifeboat drills are such a source of worry to seafarers, who have no great confidence in their equipment.
We know why people are ending up dead and maimed. The on-load mechanism fails with the boat in the air, because of its inadvertent release, as a result of its useless design, its hopeless complexity, its poor maintenance (it may be just about impossible to maintain).
The crew might be unfamiliar with the equipment, perhaps not surprising with some 70 different manufacturers involved in providing this gear, or there have been communication failures or unsafe practices. The wire falls may have corroded and parted at the worst possible moment. There is, you might think, plenty of scope for an accident, although it is perhaps the ultimate irony that equipment put aboard to save lives has probably harmed more people than it has ever saved in the past quarter century.
Dennis Barber, casualty investigator for the Bahamas Register and a marine safety expert was, by coincidence giving a lecture about lifeboat accidents in London the other evening. He was speaking to members of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, probably a good audience in that if you are looking for change, it is those who design things who have the capability of producing it.
He has investigated fatal lifeboat accidents and has perhaps understandably strong views about the design problems which emerged after 1986, when all-enclosed boats with on-load release hooks came mandatorily into operation. He suggests that it is these features which combine to produce such problems, in a boat where there is no deck space outside the “pod”, it is difficult to get at the hooks and falls and bowsing tackles, with the gear too complex for its own good.
He seems to suggest that there is little justification for all enclosed craft, as long voyages are not contemplated in boats these days, while actually being in one of these craft in a seaway is a horrible experience. He recalls the master of the MCS Napoli speaking about how their boat hugely overheated as they got clear of their damaged ship, with everyone seasick and two crew members seriously ill by the time the helicopters arrived.
He listed a whole range of problems which have led to deaths and injuries. Davits where the weight of the boat stays on the fall wires as they go over a block are an invitation to steel wires to corrode at this point.
He criticised the simple systems of the past giving way to complexity, where it is difficult or impossible to maintain anything, or even grease it. He could not understand why safety pennants were disapproved of, when they really could save lives with this extra layer of insurance, although he conceded that most davits do not have a securing point where these wires could be attached.
There is no shortage of guidance from the IMO and flag states, although Capt Barber suggests that it tends to be written for lawyers and require “translation” before seafarers can properly understand it. And if most accidents actually take place in drills, why is there such reluctance to talk about these specifically?
There are changes taking place, which will require hooks to be changed if they are thought dangerous and manufacturers to do more maintenance, but are we really going far and fast enough? Maybe we should be asking ourselves whether enclosed boats are really needed and whether the small crews aboard a modern merchant ship could be served with something rather simpler and a good deal safer and which doesn’t scare its users witless at the thought of a safety drill.