Not that MAC has anything against Mad Rock, an innovative company with a great product that certainly enhances the chances of surviving a lifeboat drill, or indeed those other companies making devices to be fitted or retrofitted to davit-launched lifeboats to overcome the problems caused by poorly-designed on-load release systems. Such devices should be as obsolete as buttonhooks, gramophone needle sharpeners and whalebone corsets.
Unfortunately they are not obsolete, after nearly two dozen years of systems designed to merely ‘comply’ with regulations and become dangerous when they fail. But are things looking up?
Recent announcements by the International Maritime Organisation are encouraging: They have clarified the use of fall preventers in drills and made it clear that crew do not need to be aboard a lifeboat when launched for drills. These should only be short-term measures – fall preventers and unmanned launched are only necessary because of poor design, training and other shortfalls.
Unmanned launches may not provide the experience, confidence and instincts necessary to launch safely when it’s most needed. The same objection applies to proposl as to allow training only at an onshore facility.
One proposed solution is the ‘Drop-In-Ball’ system, Nadiro, being funded in part by Maersk. The system shows promise but there have been comments that the as-yet unannounced cost might mean that most seafarers never get to see one.
A more substantial concern is whether the container enclosure might encourage corrosion. No video is yet publicly available of the system in operation.
Which raises a further issue: lack of standardisation. There is no real reason why lifeboat release systems should not be standardised so that seafarers moving from one ship to another can apply their experience and training to their new vessel.
If the vehicle manufacturing industry can standardise controls,then it can’t be beyond the wit of lifeboat manufacturers to do so as well. There is, simply, no valid argument against it.
A core problem is the widespread mindset, the concept of the lifeboat as a device only to get seafarers off the ship. That concept is has been invalidated by regulatory requirements for drills and training that involve recovery of the lifeboat.
It has also been invalidated by the very size of some vessels that, in conditions in which a lifeboat would have to be launched, rarely a flat calm, make escape using them a questionably hazardous operation.
Lifeboats are not use-once ‘escape pods’, they are people carriers and should be subject, at the very least, to the same consideration as any other people-carrier.
Do we need lifeboats at all in this day and age? A survey by Dennis Barber of Marico Marine showed that most of the more than 2,000 seafarers who died on bulk carriers between 1978 and 2002 did so in their bunks because the ships sank too fast for them to even reach the LSAs.
“The concept of conventional launching is flawed. It assumes we can win a race to oblivion, overtaking the vessel on the way down” says Barbers.
One answer that problem, says Barbers, is Float-Off Accommodation Modules, FOAM, as demonstrated in this Powerpoint presentation:
It is not the only such novel concept but it would require thinking about the need to survive the sinking of the ship at the earliest possible stage – when it’s on the naval architect’s draughting table, which is where it should be.