Feb 142008

Next week sees the 51st session of the IMO Sub-Committee meeting on ship design and equipment, DE51, at Bonn’s appropriately named Hotel Maritim. High on the agenda will be those Ford Pintos of the sea, lifeboats, and the appalling record, and growing, of accidents and fatalities since the introduction of on-load release hooks two decades ago.

There will be discussion about the wisdom or otherwise of mandating that lifeboats been maintained by manufacturer-certificated companies or independent third parties. MAC has already given its opinion.

Last December the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency issued a Marine Information Note, MIN 315, based on a research project, 555, with recommendations that included urgently identifying unstable on-load release hooks and replacing them, “and the transition made at the earliest possible time”.

It urged a safety performance specification for lifeboat launching systems, to be developed and imposed by IMO regulation on the equipment manufacturers, while the responsibility for developing safe and fit for purpose on-load hooks is to be the responsibility of the manufacturers.

Lifeboat on-load release hooks “must prove to be safe and fit for purpose by means of a safety case regime. This regime should comprise a design safety case for each type or make of hook, supplemented by an operational safety case incorporating the design safety case but extended to interface with ship-specific safety management arrangements.”

In view of the serious nature of the hazard, says MIN 315, only as interim risk reduction measures, to avoid further unnecessary fatalities during mandatory lifeboat tests and trials a system should be introduced whereby maintenance shackles are rigged to by-pass the on-load release hook during lowering and recovery, but are disconnected at all other times.

None of these are new recommendation, they seem pretty obvious, nor are those in MIN 315 suggesting, implicitly, if not explicitly, the introduction of single-fall capsules in place of twin fall davit launch systems.

It is a long standing issue. In July 1994 the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, OCIMF published the results of a survey identifying the disturbing frequency of lifeboat accidents. A second report produced by OCIMP along with SIGTTO and Intertanko confirmed the seriousness of the problem. It is now seven years since the MAIB review of lifeboat and launching systems accident. In all, 14 years during which the industry as a whoe would probably find it difficult to put its hand over its heart and say that serious efforts have been made to deal with the issue.

We are unlikely to see any radical solutions adopted at DE51, although few doubt the need for them. The IMO struggles with a continuous need for consensus that militates against firm action Nevertheless, there is justifiable hope of a nudge in the right direction.

The mutuals, P&I Clubs are taking an active role on the issue, with the International Group gathering data. Gard will be displaying 16 of around 70-odd different types of release during the meeting’s coffee break, which will be the first time many of the delegates will have seen, let alone handled, these devices.

Its hoped that the complexity, questionable designs, engineering deficiencies and poor quality of too many of these devices will impress upon the delegates why, on a manhour basis, lifeboat accidents account for an unacceptably high number of seafarer deaths.

Manufacturers blame seafarer incompetence insufficient training and bad maintenance. In the case of the Lowlands Grace, for instance, a keel stay with undetected corrosion snapped under shock load which resulted in the aft hook assembly separating. The fore hook should have been able to take the load but a non-manufacturer-compliant suspension ring had been used and it bent against a bolt assembly invoking forces which opened the hook and dropped the lifeboat 16 metres, nearly 50 feet, into the sea. Two seafarers died, three others were badly injured.

True, seafarers have been known to act unwisely or without forethought. It has been know for a seafarer to use add a length of pipe on the hook reset handle inside the lifeboat to force it into position, causing the hook to be reset improperly, and dangerously. Crew on the Aratere knew there was a problem with the vessel’s lifeboat on-load release hooks but neither reported it nor did anything about it. Fortunately the lifeboat fell from little more than a metre from the water and no-one was hurt.

On the Cape Kestrel an engineer by-passed safety devices during the recovery of a lifeboat, excerbating a problem with the lifeboat falls, resulting in serious injuries.

Lifeboat manufacturers, too, have shown lack of forethought. The Bahamas investigator’s report on the Valparaiso Star incident shows that the hooks were designed, positioned and operated in a way that made it difficult to check whether they were properly reset and the limited deck space on the lifeboat made it awkward, and possibly dangerous in the case of any significant seas, to attach the hooks to the suspensions.


On this lifeboat, from the Valparaiso Star, it was difficult to see whether the hook were properly reset.

The UK P&I Club noted in a recent bulletin: “Improved training is similarly unlikely to be a sufficiently effective measure. This is because human error is inevitable, particularly under the difficult working conditions (time pressures, language barriers, fatigue, cold, dark, wet, etc) which typically prevail on board. Given the reality of this context, it is entirely inappropriate for a safety critical system (i.e. an unstable design of on-load hook) to be catastrophically susceptible to single human error.”

Freefall lifeboats may lack many of inherent dangers of davit-launched lifeboats, but here, too, there are questionable designs on the market which suggest lack of forethought as to how they will be used in practice. One design has a coxswain’s seat that lays down for the launch of the craft to reduce the chances of injury. In that position, however, the coxswain cannot reach the controls of the lifeboat at the very time he needs to have access to them and someone else must lift him into position.

Unlike any other ‘people carrier’, lifeboat releases are design to ‘fail to unsafe’. If an elevator cable fails, the elevator stops. If a lifeboat hook fails, the boat falls.

Blaming seafarers themselves for lifeboat accidents is like blaming the driver of a burnt-out Ford Pinto for not driving safely.

What the history of lifeboat accidents shows is that IMO compliance has little if anything to do with safety, which makes one ask what is the purpose of compliance. In fact, a relatively safe hook, one which requires positive action to open, would not comply with IMO rules.

Second generation hooks are ‘safer’, and many can be retrofitted. They include mechanisms that clearly show whether or not the hook is properly set and, typically a pin that must be removed before the hook will open.

It is understood that the International Lifeboat Group will be present a proposal for a future hook design at DE51. Unfortunately it is likely to be accepted as a recommendation rather that mandated equipment, but any move towards standardising hook design and the controls of lifeboats is to be applauded. After all, if a Mack 16-wheeler can used the same controls as a 1958 Morris Mini, then there’s no reason why it can’t apply to lifeboats, too?

The use of scale models and mock-ups of hook releases is an encouraging move, although they lose their value when the seafarer moves to another ship with different equipment.

Mandating more training will probably be ineffective unless it’s better training and unless it is back-up with regular competency assessments.

In the long term, as suggested by Admiral JS Lang’s comments that the MAIB review “poses the potentially controversial question as to whether lifeboats are strictly necessary in this day and age.”

This is the day and age of the Bow Mariner disaster, in which a severe list of the ship made it impossible to launch port or starboard lifeboats.

One of the Bow Mariner Lifeboats

It is the day and age when vessels are so large that the concept of lowering a lifeboat in bad weather, the very conditions under which they are most likely to be launched, seems to defy common sense.

Fred Fry Lifeboat

Just add a storm and you’re facing disaster in this photo from Fred Fry International

The danger is not hypothetical, as the Coop Venture incident demonstrates.


Seafarers died while this lifeboat was being lowered from a sinking ship in a storm

The reality, of course, is that, for now, we’re stuck with systems that are hazardous to the very people they are supposed to save. The best that can be hoped for in the immediate future is a mixture of retrofitting ‘safer’ equipment, enhancing seafarer training, using competency assessment to ensure they can actually do the job, and maybe retrofitting low-maintenance equipment designed for use in the real-world by real seafarers.

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