Alison Bate

Writer, editor and journalist

Death by lifeboat – safety drills may cost your life

Pix enclosed davit lifeboat

The enclosed davit-launched lifeboat style

By Alison Bate (Marine safety column, May 2002/updated links June 2022)

The irony is not hard to find.

On-board lifeboats are supposed to save lives, but launching or retrieving them is a dangerous occupation.

An alarming number of deaths and injuries occur while lifeboats are being lowered or raised, often during safety drills. It’s so bad that a recent British study raised the radical suggestion: Are lifeboats strictly necessary in this day and age?

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch 2001 report commented that anyone using a lifeboat, whether in a drill or a genuine evacuation, runs a risk of being injured or even killed.

The need for lifeboats as opposed to other lifesaving equipment, such as liferafts, stems from the belief that survival craft should be able to be navigated independently. However, the British study said the need for navigable survival craft has largely disappeared, now a vessel in difficulty can quickly and automatically summon assistance using the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS).

It recommended the International Maritime Organization carries out a study on the present value, need, and desirability of lifeboats.

“Such a study should be undertaken as a matter of urgency and before more seafarers are killed, maimed or injured. It needs to be done before any passengers are killed,” said Rear Admiral John Lang, MAIB’s chief inspector of marine accidents.

Over a ten-year period, MAIB data indicated that lifeboats and their launching systems cost the lives of 12 professional seafarers, and 87 other seafarers were injured. All the accidents happened during training exercises or testing, with experienced and qualified seafarers performing or supervising operations. International Safety At Life At Sea (SOLAS) regulations require all ships’ crew stage abandon ship and fire drills every month and to lower boats into the water every three months. Passenger vessels have extra regulations involving both crew and passengers.

Lifeboat designs vary, but most cargo vessels use davit launched boats, either open or enclosed. These are the ones most likely to cause injuries or death, especially through the failure of on load release hooks. The other main type is the free-fall or catapult lifeboat, a totally enclosed vessel that simply slides down a ramp at the stern and plunges into the water below. They are found especially on tankers, most mobile offshore drilling rigs, and an increasing number of cargo vessels.


The British study found a root cause of many accidents was the over-complicated design of the davit lifeboat launch system and its component parts, which in turn required extensive training to operate.

Training, repair and maintenance procedures are inadequate, the report added, and there are extensive problems with the manufacture, construction, maintenance and operation of lifeboats.

Another recent lifeboat study was carried out by the Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF), the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO) and the Society of International Gas Tanker and Terminal Operators (SIGTTO).

Results from the Lifeboat Incident Survey 2000 show the vast majority of incidents happened on totally enclosed davit lifeboats with onboard release. Equipment failure was most likely to cause problems.

Australia, Canada and New Zealand have all made submissions to the IMO requesting action to prevent accidents involving lifeboats. The IMO sub-committee on ship design and equipment met this spring, and decided to ask the Maritime Safety Committee in May to include a new work program item on measures to prevent lifeboat accidents.


One particularly nasty accident involving lifeboats on the West Coast of Canada springs to mind. It happened in Vancouver’s English Bay in October 2000, when three Ukrainian crew members died trying to launch a lifeboat from the bulk carrier Pacmonarch.

The enclosed davit lifeboat was fitted with on load release hooks. Four crew members boarded it, while two others removed the securing pins at the davits from the outside. The launch began smoothly. However, soon after the davits hit their stops, the hooks suddenly came apart from the falls, and the boat plummeted stern-first about 50 feet into the sea. Three of the four men inside the boat died, while the fourth received a shoulder injury.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has already issued two safety alerts, and an investigation is focusing on design and operational aspects of the lifeboat release mechanism. Aloak Tewari, TSB marine investigator in Vancouver, said the report has been completed and is now on its way to interested parties for their comments.

The Pacmonarch was less than a year old at the time, although the lifeboat design used had been around since the 1980s. The Bahamian registry carried out its own investigation and requested the Japanese classification society ClassNK withdraw approval for this particular design of lifeboat

Japanese hook manufacturers Nishi-F Co., Ltd. have since stopped making this particular design of hook, and vessel owners Lasco Shipping Co. changed the lifeboats for ones made by another company.

On the broader issues, Tewari said the British suggestion that lifeboats may not be necessary merits serious consideration.

He said the biggest risks with vessels that are not self-propelled, such as liferafts, is if they get blown onto rocks and the hull punctures. One possible solution is to design liferafts that can handle impact better. For now, Tewari would like to see seafarers trained more in the recovery of lifeboats.

Launching lifeboats is easier than getting them back,” he said.

He agreed that the equipment has become more sophisticated and overly complicated. As well, ships are often made and crewed by people to whose native language is not English, and crew have trouble understanding the manuals. “I think they should be more user friendly,” said Tewari.

(c) Marine Digest, May 2002

RELATED: * Two crew members seriously injured after lifeboat falls ( Dec. 2020)
* TSB report on lifeboat drill that went wrong (June 21, 2022)

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