Driving a covered or freefall lifeboat

Good evening all. I would really, really appreciate your help. I am a writer. I am researching for a children’s book which has 2 characters. A lifeboat (the orange type found on the sides of ships) and a powerboat (Miami Vice-style, ‘Cigarette’ type, fast, sleek, oodles of hp). Would anyone who has experience of driving this type of lifeboat be kind enough to describe what they are like to drive? How do they compare? What are they lacking? Where do they win/where do they lose? Are they pretty adept or like driving a bathtub? And what does driving a bathtub feel like, anyway? How would you describe trying to moor one of these lifeboats in a crowded marina? Do they go faster than 6knots? If the tidal stream was 5 knots and it was very windy would they go backwards? I can make a few clichéd guesses but it would be better pick up some real experiences. Many thanks, Rob

I think driving a bathtub would be an improvement over most lifeboats.


Hey! Thanks for replying! That bad are they? I’ve read they are designed really just to get away from the danger. But does that mean the designers expect the occupants to just sit tight and wait for pick up, or could you keep moving (say, for a coastline a few miles away?). Would you know? Have you driven one? Thanks, Rob

Don’t know if this tell you anything you are looking for:

Lifeboats are meant to save lives in an emergency at sea, not to sail long distances, or to “dock at marinas”

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thanks for getting back to me and for this video. I will take a look.

What is in your opinion is a long distance? And I know they are not likely ever to find themselves docking/mooring up at a marina, but if they did, what would it be like to drive?

How would they handle outside of their expected/designed for environment? I am researching for a children’s story. Blue-skying funny ideas. Have you driven one before? I’d like to find out if they are sluggish or responsive. Thirsty or efficient. Noisy or quiet? Are they steady or do they roll about a lot?

So, I am not after finding out what they are for, but what they are like to drive.

Thanks for the vid, again.

Thanks, Rob

IIRC the requirement for a fully loaded lifeboat is sufficient fuel for 24 hrs at 6 kts


Back in the day a regular motor lifeboat was required to do 4 knots a tanker lifeboat 6.
Current requirements not sure I would think most totally enclosed can do 6 or a little more.

A bathtub probably does handle better. Actually depends on the boat, the bigger the worse.
Some cruise ship boats double as tenders and probably handle better. Not sure never been on one.

Some have nozzles instead of rudders. For protection, good for person in water, sucks for handling.
Most are ok going ahead, awful going astern.
A nozzle cuts down and pretty much eliminates prop walk which is actually kind of handy.

With rudder, small diesel with fixed pitch right hand propellor.
Very much like a regular single screw motor boat.
with poor visibility, high windage, if light
lot of momentum if loaded.
Poor ventilation, uncomfortable, crowded, most everyone will barf if even slightly rough.

Design for survival not comfort or handling.

Don’t forget to put the plugs in.

If you want an idea go take a small power boat practical course with displacement single screw diesel.
Most big ship guys can’t drive little boats anyways. :grinning:


Freefall lifeboats are much more acrobatic than davit launched ones.

What is the little Chinese man saying as he opens the door and looks out? He is shouting his name:


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The old lifeboats also served as the ship’s work boat. With the rudder they steered OK even in neutral which helps keeping the speed down in a tight spot.

Do the nozzles perform as well in neutral as the conventional rudder equipped boats when in neutral ? I wonder if that’s why they are more difficult to handle? Or does it have to do with hull form?

I edited this to make the question about steering control more clear.

Two things stand out to me with davit launched lifeboats.

The “skates” on the side adjacent to the ship to help it slide down the ships hull in event of a list while abandoning ship. These are designed to be jettisoned after launching but in all of my years of using these boats (drills and demonstration for the Coast Guard) I’ve never been able to jettison them as designed. The effect on handling is significant as it pulls significantly to one side.

As for the knozzles, they are dreadful. When I’m training new mates how to drive the boat I ask if they have ever driven a jet ski or a boat with an outboard. If you treat them that way, they can be easy to handle. If you think it will steer in neutral, good luck.

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On ropax vessels on short international voyages having been evacuated at sea (e.g. due to fire or having lost a bow visor (ROTFL)) the launched lifeboats (6) are supposed to collect the launched life rafts (50) full of people (25) and tow them somewhere, so they will not drift up on a rocky shore. Reason is that according rules only 30% of the people on the ship shall use lifeboats while 70% shall use life rafts or swim ashore.

To extend the bathtub simile, consider riding in a rubber duck in said bathtub. Most free fall and davit-launched boats I’ve worked with have prop nozzles. I think @DamnYankee is pretty accurate equating it to a jet ski, in that if you’re not throttling ahead or astern you’re not getting much steering action.

As @Kennebec_Captain pointed out the statutory requirement is that the boat carry enough fuel and have an engine capable of running the boat at 6 knots for 24 hours fully loaded. The intent is not to get to shore from the middle of the ocean, but to get safely away from the sinking or burning ship and to stay together with other lifeboats/rafts, collect survivors, and hopefully stay near the wreck site so you can be found by a search party.

Fully loaded could be 30-75 person capacity or over 100+ for something like a cruise ship. The little diesel engines are no larger than what is required to push that load. So unloaded with one or two people you can get more than 6 knots out of her for sure. But on a windy day its definitely more like the rubber ducky, large sail area sitting light in the water and a relatively flat bottom make tracking in a straight line for maneuvering a bit tricky.

Unlike the cigarette boat, lifeboats are not built for comfort by any means. The engines are loud, typically unmuffled (think the neglected love child of a three-way between a dirt bike, a Harley, and a chainsaw).

The visibility for the helmsman is quite limited sitting up in the raised coxswain seat looking through small windows. On a calm day with nice weather you can open the roof hatch over the helm and stick your head out. But usually those are not the conditions when you are abandoning ship and you would be keeping the hatches shut to maintain what little watertight integrity there is. I don’t usually get sea-sick on ships, but bobbing in an enclosed lifeboat for routine maintenance, with no windows for referencing a horizon and and an uneven swell usually makes me a bit nauseous. And thats without the other 70+ people packed in with their associated smells, tropical heat, and likely vomit!


Hi Uricanejack!

Thanks for getting back to me. This is really helpful. I own a 6m dayboat (Activ 645 cruiser), don’t get to use it as often as I’d like, but can still imagine what you mean.

Many thanks,


Hi there!

The bottom of the hull of a covered/freefall lifeboat, with their small prop and no bow thrusters make them look awfully tricky to handle. Like driving a car on an ice rink perhaps?

Hi DamnYankee,

I own a 6m day boat with a single outboard. It doesn’t have much control unless you give it some power/momentum either. Have gently bobbed towards neighbouring yachts when trying to moor up (too carefully) to my pontoon. Better with a bit of speed (and confidence), so I get feel for what you’re saying.
In your opinion, what would be the minimum amount of tinkering/adding to a lifeboat’s required to improve things a little (handling-wise, not comfort-wise). Hypothetically-speaking. Imagine you had one in your garage plus a few boats bits hanging about. What would you add/take away?

Hi Heiwa, thanks for getting in touch. I didn’t know that. Possibly useful. So they are adept at towing craft then? Can you guess at the weight limit for what they could tow?

This is great stuff. Thank you shipengr for taking the time. Really appreciate it. This helps create a good picture. A bath full of barf.

Have you ever seen the British TV show called Scrapheap Challenge where teams of contestants build a working machine that has to do a specific task, using materials only available in a scrapyard?

If you can imagine being in that scenario with a lifeboat, what could you do easily-ish to it to make it handle better using nothing but spare boat parts? If you don’t mind me asking you to spend some more time on this?

Many thanks,


A lifeboat is designed for a certain capacity. When the boat is light the boat is higher out of the water making it more subject to the wind and the propeller closer to the surface of the water lowering its efficiency if it is pushing air instead of water.

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One of my ferries had 6 lifeboats for 150 persons each including a crew to steer it. Then we had 50+ davit launched life rafts for 25 persons each. The idea (if any ? - we were all in the hands of Allah) was that a loaded lifeboat with mass say 15 tons would tow away 6 loaded rafts with mass say 2 tons each at 6 knots, etc, etc. (it was never tested).

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