Risks in Launching and Recovery of Lifeboats

May 2007

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Accidents involving launching and recovery of lifeboats which result in the loss of life and serious injury continue to occur despite industry-wide efforts to address the problem. Such casualties are particularly prevalent in side davit type lifeboats when operating on-load release gear, though a variety of other causative factors contribute to the overall number of accidents. Ironically, the very exercises undertaken to help prevent loss of life during actual emergency situations are leading to injuries and even fatalities.     

Accident Reports 

There are no comprehensive global statistics available, though industry studies and accident investigations over the past decade are representative of an unacceptably high number of accidents and have identified common causative factors. Additionally, the Club has recently recorded a variety of lifeboat casualties, regrettably including accidents where fatalities have resulted. 

In 2000 a joint industry study by OCIMF, INTERTANKO and SIGTTO1produced a comprehensive report demonstrating that most accidents occurred during routine drills and maintenance activities at the human/mechanical interface, with the majority of personnel injured or killed being within the boat. Equipment failure was reported to be the greatest cause of accidents, in which quick release mechanism failure was identified as the most frequent cause. Design failure, lack of maintenance, a failure to follow correct procedures and lack of proper training were all considered to be contributory factors leading to such casualties. 

In 2001, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) conducted a study from accident records accumulated over a 10 year period2.   The study identified a number of factors common in accidents, including winches, falls, tricing & bowsing gear, davits and hooks. However, the MAIB report identified on-load release hooks as the most common cause of fatal accidents whereby in 11 accidents reported over the decade seven people were killed and ten injured. A common feature of these accidents was the involuntary release of one or more hooks. Where one hook is released, it is not uncommon for the secure end to tear off causing the lifeboat to fall into the water, often inverted.  

One such accident occurred in 2000 where a lifeboat was launched from a bulk carrier at Vancouver, Canada. During the launch, the lifeboat inclined about 40° to the horizontal with its bow downwards. The aft suspension ring separated from the hook and the lifeboat swung under the forward hook before falling stern first 15m into the sea. Three crew members were killed and 1 injured. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada Report3 found that following the accidental separation of the aft hook, the on-load release mechanism released under the momentum and load. Whilst a number of factors conspired to create the conditions leading to the accident, design inadequacies were discussed, including the ability of the crew to be able to verify the correct resetting of the hooks. 

Another incident which demonstrates the personal risks seafarers are exposed to during drills occurred during an on-load test to simulate failure of a hydrostatic release valve. During the lowering of the boat with 7 persons on board, the lifeboat was positioned just above the water. The crew members were unable to determine the true height of the lifeboat above the water. The lifeboat was released at a height of 1.2m above the water and landed heavily on the water injuring crew members. Although the investigation report by the UK MAIB highlighted a variety of failures, the significant factor here was both the lack of crew experience and a risk assessment procedure for the exercise4. 

Statutory Requirements and Guidelines 

The pressures on ships’ crews are immense; the statutory and operational requirements for maintenance of lifeboats and lifeboat emergency training form only a part of the overall performance demands in what is an intense and dynamic operating environment. This is compounded by the wide variety of lifeboat designs, together with limited opportunities to conduct full exercises in ports where restrictions are imposed by harbour authorities.  

SOLAS chapter III and the International Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) Code provide the statutory requirements for lifeboats, as adopted by flag states. For vessels built after 1986 SOLAS requires lifeboats be fitted with hook disengagement mechanisms capable of being operated both on and off-load. Since then, IMO has progressively introduced a number of amendments to the regulations. On 1 July 2006 the latest recommendatory guidelines approved by the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) came into force, designed to assist in preventing accidents during drills and inspections.5IMO MSC Circular 1206 seeks to address many of the concerns as to how lifeboats should be maintained, operated and their crews trained. These include: 

  • Specific procedures for servicing and maintenance of lifeboats, launching appliances and on-load release gear to establish a safe and uniform documented system corresponding to the application of the ISM Code. Significantly, any inspection, servicing and repair should be carried out in accordance with the system developed by the manufacturer;      
  • Guidelines on safety during abandon ship drills using lifeboats. Emphasis is placed on learning and developing crew competencies, as opposed to adherence to the regulatory requirements of the 1974 SOLAS convention, in which the prescribed time limits for ship abandonment should be considered as a secondary objective when conducting drills6. 
  • Guidelines for simulated launching of free-fall lifeboats, whereby the crew is trained in the free-fall release procedure (free-fall lifeboats) without allowing the lifeboat to fall into the water. The guidelines emphasise the need to consult the manufacturer’s instruction manual prior to conducting a simulated launch under the strict supervision of an experienced officer. 


It is anticipated that once fully adopted by flag states, the revised procedures will lead to an amelioration of the high number of lifeboat accidents. In the meantime, the industry is coming to terms with some of the issues raised following implementation. 

Circular 1206 recommends that lifeboat systems be inspected and certified by the manufacturer, or a person authorised by the manufacturer, annually and at five-year intervals7. This relies on lifeboat manufacturers establishing a global servicing network. Given the diverse number of manufacturers and systems, owners and operators may find constraints in the availability of service facilities. 

From an operational perspective, Circular 1206 recommends that prior to placing persons onboard a lifeboat for the actual test, the boat is firstly lowered and recovered without persons on board in order to ascertain that the arrangement functions correctly8. One experienced body of opinion suggests that if the on-load hooks are out of adjustment this may not be discovered prior to personnel embarking to undertake the actual test9. 

The design of lifeboat systems, particularly davit launched lifeboat systems, has come in for scrutiny during the various accident investigations. One recent study has suggested that a radical re-design of hook types to achieve stable on-load hook design is the key to an effective reduction of lifeboat launching accidents10 

Other industry bodies have developed strategies to improve safety. A forum has recently been established by INTERTANKO and INTERCARGO, working with the ILAMA (International Life-Saving Appliance Manufacturers Association) to encourage feedback from end-users such as ships' crews. The objective is for the manufacturers of lifeboats and other life saving appliances (LSA) equipment to obtain valuable comments and input in an effort to improve the design of equipment11.  

It is hoped that through a continuing and concerted effort by all interested parties, lifeboat safety can be enhanced and the number of injuries and fatalities can be reduced considerably. 

The Club’s commitment to assisting Members in the prevention of claims includes the production of high quality computer based and video training programmes in co-operation with Videotel Marine International Limited. This subject matter is further discussed in 3 Videotel DVDs:12 

  • Lifeboat On-Load Release Mechanisms;
  • Maintenance of Lifeboat On-Load Release Systems;
  • Freefall Lifeboats  

1. Lifeboat Incident Survey 2000 – INTERTANKO, OCIMF, SIGTTO

2. Review of Lifeboat and Launching Systems’ Accidents, Safety Study 1/2001 - UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch: www.maib.gov.uk/

4. Report of investigation of the lifeboat release gear test on RFA Fort Victoria, Falmouth, 10 September 2004. Report No: 9/2005. Published: 18 May 2005. UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch. www.maib.gov.uk/publications/investigation_reports/2005/fort_victoria.cfm

5. Measures to Prevent Accidents with Lifeboats, MSC.1/Circ.1206 can be found via the IMO website: http://imo.org or on the Steamship Mutual website at: www.simsl.com/Articles/Lifeboats0606.asp

6. MSC.1/Circ.1206, Annex 2, 1.1.2

7. MSC.1/Circ.1206, Annex 1, 12; MSC.1/Circ.1206, Annex 1, Appendix 2.1

8. MSC.1/Circ.1206, Annex 2, 2.3.2

9. Capt. Dennis Barber, BIMCO BULLETIN, Vol. 102 p.72 #1 2007

10. Burness Corlett – Three Quays Limited, UK Maritime Coastguard Agency research Project 555, Development of Lifeboat Design, 27 March, 2006

11. www.intertanko.com

12. Further information and details on how to place orders can be obtained from: www.simsl.com/onboard-safety-training.html