The lifeboats are killing seafarers


During my life at sea, I was always anxious during the life boat drills. One of my relatives was employed on MSC container carrier in a position of Engineer Watchkeeper, during his routine inspection inside the free-fall lifeboat, the craft suddenly released and fall into the water while a ship was underway.

He was lucky enough to survive and suffered only severe injury to his knee, the vessel was close to the shore so he was evacuated by the helicopter. In the hospital, he had a surgery and then spend another year to recover.

When I was working for Maersk lines, one of our ships has reported the rescue boat accident resulted in one crewmember killed instantly. The other crewmember was seriously injured.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive statistics on the lifeboat accidents but there is an ample amount of research showing a scary outcome. To name a few studies, in the period 1992-2004 the Gard’s “recorded 32 cases of accidental release of lifeboats. Five cases were without injury to people (there are certainly much more, but these five have been reported because they involved P&I claims), the others caused 12 deaths and injury to 74 people. Among the people injured there were several very serious cases of head and spine injury, some causing paralysis or possibly leading to death at a later stage. There were also a few cases where members’ vessels have picked up drifting lifeboats at sea – boats which had obviously fallen from the ships they belonged to.”

In 2001, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) published a review of a lifeboat and launching systems accidents covering a 10-year period from 1991, seven people were killed and 10 injured.

Some of the recent cases are:

To give you a bit of a visual aspect, watch the three videos below and imagine you are inside one of these boats.



The most of the accidents occurred during routine drills and maintenance activities, the main causes are design failure, lack of maintenance, and lack of proper training. “The equipment failure was reported to be the most common cause of accidents, within which quick release mechanism failure was identified as the most frequent cause”

In response to the growing number of lifeboat accidents, the IMO has released new SOLAS Regulation III/1.5 and the amendments to Chapter IV of the LSA Code concern on-load release mechanisms fitted to new and existing cargo and passengers vessels. SOLAS Regulation III/1.5 also specifies other important dates:

  1. “For ships constructed on or after 1 July 2014, on-load release and retrieval systems shall comply with the LSA Code, as amended by Resolution MSC.320(89); and
  2. Member Governments are encouraged to ensure that ships constructed on or after 20 May 2011 but before 1 July 2014, on-load release and retrieval systems shall comply with the LSA Code, as amended by Resolution MSC.320(89).”
  3. For vessels constructed prior to 20 May 2011, any on-load release systems that do not comply with paragraphs 4.4.7.6.4 to 4.4.7.6.6 of the revised LSA Code must be replaced at the first scheduled drydocking after 1 July 2014, but no later than 1 July 2019.

For the ships which are awaiting for the modification or fitting of the new design on-load release mechanism, the IMO has issued the “Guidelines for Evaluation and Replacement of Lifeboat Release and Retrieval Systems” and advise that Fall Preventer Devices (FPDs) are to be used with each existing RRS, in accordance with MSC.1/Circ.1327 “Guidelines for the Fitting and Use of Fall Preventer Devices (FPDs)”.

Some of the current requirements for the lifeboat/rescue boat inspections and maintenance are:

  • Davit-launched lifeboats weekly moved from stowed position (SOLAS III/20.6.3)
  • Monthly rescue boats other than a lifeboats launching (SOLAS III/19.3.3.6)
  • Quarterly launching lifeboats & rescue boats (SOLAS III/19.3.4.3 & .6, MSC/Circ. 1206)
  • Six monthly free-fall lifeboat drill (SOLAS III/19.3.4.4, MSC/Circ. 1206)

Considering all the above accidents do you think it is viable to break the boats from its stowed position every week? Or even worse to launch them with the crew inside every 3 months?

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) went even further and recommended that the IMO undertake a study on the present value, need and desirability of lifeboats.

While I’m not ready to argue the present value of the lifeboats, I’m confident that only change in on-load hooks design is not good enough. Many accidents occurred due to the failed winch operation, damaged wire or some minor imperfection such as remote wire control. I believe more radical changes are required, in example:

  • Reduce the davit launched lifeboats to be moved from stowed position from weekly to monthly or even quarterly.
  • Reduce the launching of the lifeboats & rescue boats from quarterly and monthly respectively to annually. Or even more radically, test the off-load and on-load release mechanism by shore contractor only while the boat in stowed position, of course with the additional securing arrangements. Therefore completely removing the requirements to launch the boat with the crew inside.

The crew has been trained how to use the survival craft during their STCW courses which are compulsory. During the external inspections the inspector, such as port state control can test the knowledge by asking the relative questions. I’m very confident that in a case of emergency the crew would be able to lower the boat, start the engine, let go the hooks and steer away from the vessel.

You can read more from my colleague Captain D A Gibson in the article published by Nautical Institute in the Seaways magazine.

18 Replies to “The lifeboats are killing seafarers”

  1. Is there an argument for routine use of lifeboats? For example moving to deck level every week reduces the “scaryness” of the lifeboats and perhaps promote an attitude and culture of respect to used when working with lifeboats, I also find from previous experience very little of my crews have spent time in a lifeboat manoeuvring it in harbour. I go to great lengths to make sure my guys get to drive and have the full experience. (Safety first of course and my guys enter when in the water from the accommodation ladder)

    I also work for Maersk and I move my Lifeboats out to deck level weekly (falls of the davit arms) with little incident, it is a well polished drill with my crew and officers and I find there attitude towards proper safe use and maintenance of lifeboats has vastly improved while they are on board, there confidence with the equipment also has improved, finding oneself to use the equipment in a panic or “faking it till you make it” will always lead to an accident.

    I go to great pains to make sure all on board especially the juniors know exactly how the hooks work, its very temping for some guys to say yes to impress, then panic when the haven’t got a clue later on. understanding this attitude and dealing with it is important, to me and the safety of my crew.

    Competency in spotting problems and fundamental understanding of whats being achieved and inspected along with using ones head seems to be a rare skill; which is bread from passion, curiosity and interest.

    I am very proud of my crews on board, once engaged after a few weeks, they always have become very proactive in using and stowing the lifeboats while looking after and teaching each other. they are quick to point out any mistakes or bad practices or any issues they see with the boat and davits.

    My personal belief is that officers and crew are scared to use, test and maintain the equipment, its all to easy to just write in the log and forget about it. I have seen this negative attitude to use and maintenance almost universally, with a bit of practical aptitude, professionalism and willingness and basic intelligence there is no reason why lifeboats and davits should still be posing a problem/danger to seafarers.

    If I left the guys to “fend for them self’s” and draw on memory of a course taken long ago on vastly different equipment I believe that attitude would be an irresponsible one.

    I am lucky in that I have had positive competent Captains that have supported me and I haven’t given up on proper training, common sense and use of lifeboats yet, one day it will count!

    1. Hi Chief,

      Thanks for the comprehensive reply, the main goal of the article is not to scare off the people but to bring the attention to all the parties concerned. The lifeboats and rescue boats are dangerous, the amount of incidents is a proof of that. So we must ensure that seafarers are fully familiar and cinfident with the procedure. You have mentioned that crew embarking the boat by the acc. gangway, that’s exactly what I’m doing. If I’m on the vessel where design doesn’t aloud to do so, I’m organising the launch, board the launch from the wharf and than transfer to lifeboat. That’s great examples of improved safety during the drill. That’s what we should be concentrating on, why don’t make them official or at least recommendation from IMO?

      1. Hello All,
        Maybe lifeboats should be compared to ejection seats in fighter jets as a last resort to save lives. If you consider a lifeboat from that perspective then only maintenance to assure flawless operation is needed, preferably by onshore contractor. There are numerous lefe saving aplyances that work from that perspective. Think about the CO2 cylinder in your life acket and the mechanism to operate it. I know that a lifeboat is much more complex, that would not be the discussion, but it is about perspective and consideration to argue in order to improve safety of seafarers. A lifeboat should be a last resort, launching should be highly automatic, it should always work, and it should always be safe to use.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for reading the article, you are more than welcome to repost on your site.

    1. Hi Ajay,

      I’ve checked with my relative and he has confirmed the name of the vessel was “MSC Esha”. Are you familiar with this ship?

  2. It seems there have to be routines on board to check the equipment around the life boats to keep these maintained. Smart mechanics can spot weaknesses in mechanisms which could be communicated to manufacturers and insurance companies.
    If a boat can just release there have to be a safety mechanism that is engaged only when training. As soon as the exercise is over these safety mechanisms are removed. Otherwise one might forget it until the actual incident occurs and then you are stuck onboard with a rusty mechanism.

  3. From my observation of the video, all I say is that the crew on deck are incompetent ,no one seems to know what to do….The lines should have been released as soon as the boat hit the water….Thats how we did it 60yrs ago, and our gear was not as flash……

  4. Poor maintenance, lack of training/competence, are the main reasons. Some designs are better than others but training & familiarity would get over that problem. The training schools do tens of launches & recoveries per day without mishap. Fall wires parting because of corrosion is inexcusable. It seems to be a modern mindset to blame the equipment rather than say the crew were incompetent.

  5. There are lack of experience especially on the MOB boat drill. Every real seaman knows that the painter line have to be pointed forward, and no slack at all. When you launch the MOB at sea, the painter line will sure that the hook can be released, and the MOB will stay into vessel safely. I have seen many bad example on this at various vessels

  6. I agree completely with Peter Williams above. There have been issues with poor design and equipment in the past but these are being resolved by legislation. Having spend a lot of time at sea in the military where we routinely launched our seaboats (the equivalent of an FRC) daily, including at night and always underway, without incident, it proves that if you maintain the equipment properly, train your personnel to a high standard and always follow the correct drill to the letter then you will reduce to risk to a completely acceptable level. When you then need to launch the boat in an emergency everyone knows what to do and follows the correct drill to carry out a safe launch. Reducing the requirements to test and launch lifeboats and rescue craft in order to reduce the risk to personnel will merely compound the lack of skills and experience of personnel required to use the equipment. Nearly all the accident reports of lifeboat and rescue craft incidents highlight poor maintenance, personnel not following the correct method of operation and poor control by the supervising crew member. Only a change of attitude by companies and crew will stop this sad loss of life.

  7. We should be pushing our maritime Safety Authorities in their ivory towers to urgently review all safety policies that “kill more seafarers than they save”.
    Good article; this topic needs more attention.
    See: Three Sensible Safety Trends We Would Like To See
    1. Reforming Safety Requirements That Kill More Than They Save
    http://marine-projects.net/?p=154

    Some of the comments that followed this article were excellent

  8. Nick, well done in writing a good article.
    Seafarers can and should do more, reporting near miss and hazardous incident reports on lifeboat and rescue boat launching and recovery is needed.
    Readers of this blog, please encourage seafarers to use our Charitable Trust CHIRP, confidential reporting program http://www.chirpmartime.org and submit a report. Use your phone and take a photo or video up (files to 6MB). It is easy to do and we discuss each report with the reporter before acting.
    On other subjects we challenge Flag States and submit information to IMO. We need more the information on lifeboat launching and will share this with the ILG (Industry Lifeboat Group) working at IMO. Lifeboat falls should be replaced every 3 years if galvanised steel wire and not 5 years. CHIRP is frustrated at the ignorance at regulatory level, not to mention the constant tendency to blame the seafarer for something that is so obviously the responsibility of designers. I would go further; regulators should man-up and admit, together with manufacturers, that they got it wrong in 1986 (on-load) and freefall was and still is half baked. NOBODY has done a proper risk assessment! (Probably because, as I suspect, they don’t actually know how) and nobody seems ever to have asked the question about the time when seafarers need to get off a ship (and that’s not in port in a flat calm), will it work?
    We now have 200,000 readers of our quarterly publication, if we receive reports on lifeboats and rescue boat launching we can publish these, no reports means silence and no action.
    We are hoping to do more general safety with the Container Ship Safety Forum, containerships have a poor safety culture, we estimate about 10 years behind oil and gas tankers/carriers and 15 years behind aviation.
    We are hear to help.

    1. Hi John, thanks for reading the article. Absolutely agree that seafarers should report the lifeboat incidents and other hazardous occurrences as often as possible because if you don’t then nothing is going to change. I can’t be agreed more with the “frustrated at the ignorance at regulatory level” quote, that’s exactly how I feel like. The seafarers dying and getting injured because they are following the regulations and while I’m not denying that part of the problem is poor maintenance and training, the regulations are failed as well. The difference is that seafarers are accepting their mistakes, but not the regulatory bodies, never. The manufacturers will be always pushing their agenda, business is business, they must sell the product no matter what, they will not take much responsibility unless it is required by the government.

      What a great website you have, definitely will be following and contributing as much as I can. The IMO have public access to their marine casualties and incidents database at https://gisis.imo.org. As well Nautical Institute has a confidential reporting scheme named MARS at http://www.nautinst.org/en/forums/mars/index.cfm

  9. Thanks Nick, we have a memorandum of understanding with The Nautical Institute and a joint volunteer ambassador scheme, https://www.chirp.co.uk/who-we-are/chirp-maritime-ambassadors the difference is they (NI) report facts only, whilst CHIRP will investigate and challenge if we believe issues are not properly researched e.g. Maltese flag state investigations into incident will never make a critical comment for improvement by the owners ! in 2107 IMO started a near miss reporting initiative which never took off, words and no action! CHIRP remains unique as we treat all reports as confidential (not anonymous).

  10. Lifeboat falls fitted to new ships. The yards often order the wire in bulk and it can be stored in the yard for a couple of years before fitting. The time used to calculate exchanging the wire is 5 years (too long with current method of galvanised wire construction) where in fact the wire could by 7 years old before it is changed out.

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