Essential Survival Equipment on Ships and Marine Platforms

Ships and offshore oil & gas installations are equipped with the essential lifesaving and survival equipment as specified by Saving Of Life At Sea Regulations (SOLAS)

In this the first in a new series about safety at sea, we shall concentrate mainly on lifeboats; their construction, means of launching, and their contents which are maintained by a dedicated person – just in case.

They are normally moulded from bright orange fibre glass and modern types are known asTotally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft (TEMPSC). Whilst held in the davits, a power supply cable from the ships deck is connected to a quick release electrical socket on the lifeboat, charging up the batteries and supplying a couple of thermostatically controlled space heaters which stop condensation – allegedly. The cable disconnects from the lifeboat hull automatically as the boat is lowered.

Lifeboats can be stored on freefall ramps or hung from davits, (see sketch below)and designed to carry up to 40 persons who sit strapped into moulded seats. A special raised seat for the Coxswain is bolted beside the engine and steering consol giving him an unobstructed view through the glass ports built into the raised for’d section.

Liferafts and lifeboats must be re-certified at regular intervals, by Lloyds or DNV Marine Surveyors, and should be serviced yearly by the manufacturer. Lifeboat practice sessions are normally held weekly to familiarise the crew with their lifeboat stations.

We start the article with an examination of the standard totally enclosed lifeboat engine.

Freefall lifeboat in launch structure from Wiki Commons by Caseman

Lifeboat Davits Sketch

The Engine

The engine is normally a two cylinder diesel with electric and hand start. The batteries are kept charged up with an electrical alternator driven of the engine and the seawater to the hull safety mist sprays is also run of the engine.

The engine block and lube-oil is cooled by passing through a seawater cooler in the bilge keel, circulated by a pump on the engine. The engine is normally run for a few minutes every month and has a service once a year by the manufacturer. The exhaust is well insulated against accidental burns and exits through a flapper valve in the upper hull. Modern diesel engines are easily started and maintained.

However, not so about forty-odd years ago when I was at sea as a young 21 year old Fourth Engineer, in charge of the lifeboats. On one particular ship the Port lifeboat engine was a pig to start, preferring to try to break my wrist while I optimistically swung the starting handle. I ended up resorting to a squirt of easy start into the air filter to get it to run. I had stripped the wee single cylinder Perkins down on numerous occasions but with the same end result – pig to start.

Anyway we docked in Belfast, my home port and the Lloyds man came on board to do the yearly surveys. I had the engine started with a squirt of the magic stuff, and let it run for a while before stopping it to await the surveyor.

The Chief and him arrived and I showed him the contents list, maintenance records etc and turned the engine over with the starting handle, dropped the de-compressors and bang – away she went, you wee beauty I thought.

The Chief asked the Lloyds man and myself to his cabin for a small rum, and I was mightily embarrassed when the surveyor said that he hoped I would have my can of easy-start with me if we had to abandon ship and take to the boats in the middle of the Atlantic! He obviously had caught a whiff of the ether.

Needless to say the Chief wasn’t amused and called in the local Perkins rep to sort out the engine. I was on leave when he arrived, and never did find out why the damn engine wouldn’t start.

Seriously though, the safe evacuation and getting away from a ship is imperative in an emergency situation, so the engine should capable of immediate starting, remember I was a wee naïve boy and should have got the chief to get the rep in sooner. If I hadn’t been aboard at an evacuation, I doubt if anyone else could have started that particular lifeboat engine – a lesson learned early in my seagoing career.

The Contents


One of the most essential pieces of equipment is the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. (EPIRB) this gives the position and name of the lifeboat vessel to the search and rescue team automatically, anywhere in the world transmitting the signal on a dedicated channel of 406MHz.

Oxygen Bottles

These are used to supply air to keep the occupants breathing and supply the engine for at least 10 minutes, in a closed evacuation situation.


These consist of a selection of distress rockets and hand held flares which are set off when the search & rescue team are close enough to see them.

Ship to Shore Radio

The Cox and at least one other crew member should be able to operate the radio. It is watertight and bolted to the control consol being supplied with power from the batteries.


Two twelve volt marine batteries, usually about 45 amp/hours duration and kept charged by supply cable when in davits or the engine when on duty.

Fist Aid Kit

This contains quite a good supply of medications needed to treat a person in shock or suffering from burns and in pain. It used to include analgesics, tranquilisers and morphine. Whilst Mechanical Engineer at an offshore construction yard, I looked after all the new equipment for installation to the rigs which included the lifeboats; these were usually supplied by Watercraft. I had the radio and first aid kit stored at a lock-up at the main gate security station, well out of harms way.

Diesel Tank

This supplies the lifeboat diesel engine fuel pump and is usually located in the lower hull, aft of the control consul. It is regularly checked for contents and water or leaks and has several isolation valves and filters in the engine supply lines.

Other Listed Items

  • Oars – right up until I retired in 2000, we were still receiving lifeboats with a set of wooden oars, how or when these were to be used still mystifies me.
  • Fresh water containers – several plastic water containers, fresh water is essential for survival at sea in a lifeboat
  • Fishing lines and hooks – these had lures attached to the hooks but how the fish were cooked, after they were caught, I don’t know
  • High energy biscuits – enough to keep the survivers sustained whilst awaiting rescue
  • Spare lifejackets – just in case you didn’t have time to get your own when abandoning ship, some lifeboats had a lifejacket under each seat.

The Hull Design

This is moulded from fire-proof orange dyed fibre glass, again to SOLAS standards, and has a watertight entrance hatch which can be opened and battened down from inside or outside. A sketch of a typical offshore lifeboat is shown below; please click to enlarge image.

Typical Offshore Platform Davit-Fall Lifeboat TEMPSC

A series of perforated pipes with small nozzles runs round the outside of the hull. These are operated when in a fire situation, spraying water and setting up a protecting mist against fire and heat, the seawater being supplied from a small pump run of the engine.

There is a raised section aft which has four round viewing ports, (port, stab’d, fore and aft) to let the Cox see around him from inside in his consol.

Lifting and lowering Lugs

Fore and aft is the davit lifting and lowering lugs which are bolted onto special reinforced pads on the lifeboat deck.

Maintenance Strops

There are hooks on the lifeboat hull fore and aft and corresponding shackles on the davits. Maintenance strops are attached to these to secure the lifeboat when working on it. ( A safety measure introduced after a lifeboat accidenly tipped over pitching a couple of engineers into the sea) The strops must be removed at end of shift to leave the boat ready to launch.

High Limit cut-off switch striker pad.

This is again a reinforced pad which the high limit spring-loaded pin contacts, stopping the winch. Again, at the same yard we had installed and tested the davits and were commissioning the winches, lifting and lowering the lifeboats. The senior client Engineer complained about the small hole appearing in this pad due to the continuous adjustment being made to the cut-out switch height. Well, several methods were tried – plastic and rubber pads glued to the striking pin, the agent offered to change the pin to a plastic or aluminium one. Eventually I was in the local pet shop and spotted a selection of hard sponge balls. I bought a couple of these and the next day we skewered a ball onto the end of the striker arm – it worked great. It was permanently fixed to the arm with superglue and thereafter referred to as Willie’s dog’s ball.

Prop Shaft and Propeller

The shaft protrudes a little from the hull with the prop attached in the normal manner; the last lifeboats I commissioned had a Kortz Nozzle surrounding the propeller to steer with instead of a rudder

Websites Visited

1. hsegov: Lifeboat passwengers survival

2. Solas: regulations regarding lifeboats

3. survival: offshore survival equipment