Listen to the podcast
We’ll call them Paul and Butch. Not their real names but they were real people. They can no longer tell you their story.
Paul was Third Engineer and Butch was an Ordinary Seaman aboard the Lowlands Grace when she anchored in ballast nearly 12 miles off Port Hedland, Australia on the morning of the 6th of October, 2004 to wait for a cargo of iron ore for China.
The Lowlands Grace
The Lowlands Grace was a fairly standard bulk carrier of about 150,000 deadweight tonnes. She was registered in Hong Kong and had a crew of 25.
Most important for our story she carried two totally enclosed lifeboats on gravity davits, each capable of carrying a complement of 32. The starboard lifeboat was the designated rescue boat. The lifeboats were built by the Blue Sea Industrial Company of Taiwan, which was no longer in business. They’d been designed by a respected British company, naval architects Laurent Giles, founded in 1927.
The Starboard Blue Sea Lifeboat
The on-load release hooks were made by William Mills Marine, now part of the ubiquitous Schat-Harding Group. William Mills Marine has quite a history. It built Britain’s first aluminium foundry, produced the first aluminium golf club head and its founder William Mills invented the Mills Bomb hand grenade that was in service with British forces from 1915 to the 1960s.
There was little special about the lifeboats aboard the Lowlands Grace. They were 7.3 metres long with an unladen weight of a little more than three and a quarter tonnes, rising to somewhat more than 5 and a half tonnes when full. There was a raised coxswain’s position with the boat’s controls within easy reach.
Behind the aft bulkhead
Behind a plywood bulkhead was the forward keel stay and attachment for the forward lifting hook. A similar arrangement was behind the aft bulkhead, together with parts of the tiller and engine exhaust. Both bulkheads had inspection hatches.
Each lifeboat was suspended from its falls by an elongated ring. It wasn’t what the manufacturer specified, they should have been circular rings, but perhaps nobody thought the difference was important.
One of the lifeboat suspension rings
The lifeboats were not supported on chocks in the stowed position so the keel stays took their entire weight.
Lowlands Grace couldn’t berth for another couple of days so there wasn’t much to do except for the usual daily shipboard routine. The next day, the 7th, the weather forecast was good and the master decided to hold a lifeboat drill.
A little before 1500 hours, the time scheduled for the drill, the master relieved the second mate on anchor watch so he could take part in the drill.
Paul, Butch and the rest of the lifeboat crew assembled at 1500 at the port lifeboat muster station. Over the next 20 minutes the first mate briefed the crew on safety procedures and emergency duties.
At 1520, the crew cleared the gripes of the port lifeboat and lowered it to the embarkation position at boat deck level.
The ship’s chief mate gave the third mate command of the lifeboat with Paul, Butch, the fitter and an able seaman as crew.
Each man entered the lifeboat wearing a hardhat and lifejacket and belted themselves into their seats.
The boarding hatch was closed and the third mate called the chief mate on his handheld radio to say that they were ready to lower the boat. The chief mate told him to lower away and he operated the remote davit brake release cable.
The boat lowered under its own weight for around two to three metres. Then the third mate tested the davit brake by releasing the cable.
It stopped with a jerk. Then there was a bang and the men in the lifeboat heard the sound of tearing fibreglass as the stern dropped. Men on board the Lowlands Grace watched horrified as the lifeboat swung around the foreward hook. The afterhook assembly ripped through its hull and dropped into the water below.
The fore hook assembly pulled out
through the lifeboat deck
The lifeboat continued to rotate around the forward suspension to about 220 degrees, then the forward hook opened and the lifeboat fell, upside down, 16 metres, nearly 50 feet, into the water below.
The sequence of the fall
The lifeboat was still secured to the ship by a painter so the Chief Mate and the Boatswain lowered the gangway. As they did so the third mate escaped and climbed on top of the upturned hull. Then came Paul and an able seaman, then the fitter.
With the gangway lowered, crew were able to help Paul and the fitter onto the inverted boat. Butch was still inside so another AB swam into the lifeboat to find him. He surfaced a short time later to say that he thought Butch had drowned.
By now, Paul was having difficulty breathing.
As they waited for medical assistance from a nearby warship, the HMAS Melbourne, Paul lost consciousness so some of the other crew started CPR.
When Australian navy divers entered the lifeboat they found Butch in his lifejacket floating face down. The divers cut off his lifejacket and extracted him from the boat.
By now, Paul showed no sign of life. Aboard HMAS Melbourne a doctor pronounced Paul and Butch dead.
The lifeboat is recovered aboard a barge
Note extensive damage from the fall
The story of what happened to Paul and Butch actually began a long time before October 7, 2004. Over time, sea water got into the lifeboats and, because ships tend to be trimmed by the stern, settled behind the lifeboat after bulkhead. By the time of the incident, as much as 25 per cent of the keel stay had been eaten away.
Corrosion behind the bulkheads of the starboard lifeboat
suggest little attention to maintenance.
With the lifeboats supported only by the falls, the keel stays took the shocks of the ship’s movement and occasional rough handling during drills. Perhaps a small crack appeared, and grew with each jolt and bump, until the final shock load on October 7 when the third mate applied the davit brake.
IMO circular 1093 lists specific checks for on-load release systems, which includes the condition of the hook fastening, implicitly, the keel stays.
Why wasn’t the corrosion spotted? The ship’s SMS procedures only included two items related to the on-load release system: that the quick release system and lifting hook be greased and the cables and control handles be checked for excessive play, and that the lifeboat should be lowered and auto released and maneuvered in the water for 15 minutes every three months. Nothing about checking the keel stays.
But the SMS did carry the advice that routine maintenance should be carried out as defined in the manufacturer’s manual.
The manufacturer’s manual didn’t expressly mention keel stays, but it does say that there should be a weekly check for corrosion that may need corrective action and a monthly check that should also look for signs of corrosion and dirt among other things.
The maintenance instructions did include checking the cables and clamps which are located on the keel stays. If those instruction were being followed, it’s hard to see how the poor condition of the attachments could have gone unnoticed.
Even with the failure of the after hook, the lifeboat should still have been held by the forward hook. Hooks should be designed with a safety factor of six. For the lifeboat on the Lowland’s Grace, that’s 30 tonnes. On the day of the accident the lifeboat had a total weight of 3.65 tonnes, about 12 per cent of the designed strength.
In fact, The load of the hook may have reached as much as 50 tonnes instantaneous load without failing, but the lifeboat was suspended by an elongated ring which contacted the hooks pivot pin and multiplied the opening force.
The narrow suspension ring bends against the hook pivot pin.
Compare the fore suspension ring after
the fall of the lifeboat
The ATSB also identified the release hook itself as prone to open when not fully reset or when parts of the mechanism is worn. It’s a type that has been implicated in several lifeboat accidents yet is still in use.
Staying alive in a lifeboat may well depend on your maintenance so go and check those keel fixtures now. While you’re at it, make sure the lifeboat suspension rings follow the manufacturer’s specifications. And, of course, that the hooks are properly set.
This is Bob Couttie wishing you Good Watch