Cause of Lifeboat Accidents

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It is extremely ironical that lifeboats, which are meant to save lives of people on board a ship during emergency times, have been the cause of several deaths of both crew members and passengers in the past. People have often claimed human error as the main reason for lifeboat accidents; however systematic research has found that faulty lifeboat mechanism has been the root cause for maximum number lifeboat accidents in the past. In this article we will learn about the main causes of lifeboat accidents.

Human Error

This is the most probable and expected reason for any types of lifeboat accidents on board a ship. For many crew members, operating and lowering a lifeboat into the water is still a complex task. Also, the mechanical advancements in the launching system have overcomplicated the lifeboat launching mechanism system. Lack of training and awareness, along with the unclear user manuals, have also been the reason for such accidents. Many a times it has also happened that crew members have neglected the manuals, as they have been written in some other language and even the procedures provided by the company have not been concise and correct.

Apart from this, poor maintenance of lifeboat release mechanism and other parts of the lifeboat by the crew members have resulted into unwanted mishaps, which have even led to several deaths. Some of the ship’s crew has also been seen following risky practices such as having personnel in the lifeboat while lowering or raising.

Lifeboat Mechanism Failure

In the last few decades more people have been killed during lifeboat drills than being saved by it during actual emergency situations. Also when found out, maximum of these accidents was a result of failed lifeboat releasing mechanism. It is a known fact that many of the accidents in the past occurred because of the problems related to the release of lifeboat hooks. Earlier, lifeboat hooks couldn’t be released unless they were under load. The pre-requisite became extremely difficult to attain, especially during rough sea often leading to jamming of the hooks. In such conditions, the crew members used any possible method to un-hook the lifeboat, risking their lives and leading to accidental situations. A series of accidents resulted because of this problem, until IMO came out with a rule that required lifeboats to be equipped with hooks disengaging gear that could be operated both on-load and off-load. However, the occurrences of lifeboat accidents didn’t stop.

After that, though lifeboats with hook disengaging mechanism were provided on all boats, seafarers somehow had little confidence in the system. For this reason, they started using metallic wires for spanning the hooks manually to prevent the boat from falling incase the hook released unknowingly. However, these wires were used only during drills and thus a spate of accidents followed as a result of premature release of boats. For this reason, mechanical and hydrostatic interlocking systems were introduced in the lifeboats. But instead of making the process simpler they rather complicated the lifeboat launching system. The most surprising thing after the implementation of this system was that many lifeboat accidents took place mainly during the training exercises and drills which were carried out under the supervision of qualified officers. These accidents proved that many of the accidents occurred as a result of over-complicated launching systems, which required extensive training for operating it, and not because of human error or incapability in handling emergency.

Design Issues

Investigations of many lifeboat accidents have found that though many of the launching mechanisms satisfied the IMO regulations, they were still unsafe and suffered from technical flinches. Many launching system designs are still considered over complicated and instable. Several accidents took place in the past when the hooks came off on their own under the life boat’s own weight, leaving very little room for the crew members to do anything in the situation.

Presently, the technical advancement has allowed launching of the lifeboat remotely and without the involvement of crew members. However, there is still a risk as crew members board the lifeboat before the automatic launching system is operated. Moreover, if the crew members decide to board the lifeboat using a ladder after it is launched in the water, then that also itself is an inherently risky operation.

Thus, the risk of lifeboat accidents will continue to haunt the seafarers unless and until some drastic steps are taken to revamp the current lifeboat launching systems and prevent unnecessary risking of the lives of innocent and hardworking crew members.


The Lifeboat Imbroglio by Captain Paul Drouin MNI