The safe operation of lifeboats

A recent full and frank exchange of views on this site revolved around the requirement to launch lifeboats and manoeuvre them every three months from mobile drilling units.

So, is this a good idea. Apparently no matter where the rig is in the world, and no matter how long it is spending out there, every three months the lifeboats should be launched and driven about. I would be really surprised if any rigs in the North Atlantic or the North Sea EVER launch their boats.

I had for years been a visitor to mobile units and once in the sheltered waters of the Cromarty Firth acted as crew man when a lifeboat was launched, the coxswain being the Barge Engineer, an man with a lot of small boat experience.

Launching the boat was easy, but recovering it took considerable skill on the part of the coxswain and had the man in charge been one of those men whose sole experience has been taking the coxwain’s course we would never have got it back. Imagine that situation in the chilly waters of the far North.

So here is the question. Bearing in mind that formal risk assessments usually determine that oil rigs would be better off without boats at all, is the requirement to launch boats from mobile units every three months safe in itself?

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there is a reason we call them death boats
have they killed more than they have saved in the 30 years?

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It’s not considered polite to ask questions about the requirement to launch, maneuver and recover the boats, everyone knows they are not safe.

A good PSC inspector will be satisfied to witness the lifeboats be lowered to the rail with no crew and then restowed.

That said, if at all possible the crew should maintain proficiency in the recovery of the boats (as you said, that’s the difficult part) if it can be done safely.

It can be a conundrum in some cases.

When I was performing SOLAS Safety Equipment inspections as part of Class and Statutory Surveys, I would ALWAYS require at least the offshore boat to be lowered to the embarkation deck on a ship. I would also review the logs to see if they were tested as required. Did I think that there was some pencil whipping? You bet. But what to do? Call the Master and Mate liars? It usually came out during that exercising of the davits. I recall one ship, forget which flag, but I believe the officers and crew were Chinese. After telling me that they lowered the boats to the water the previous week, I still wanted to see that offshore boat come down. And yeah, it did. . . finally, after banging on the sheaves that were rusted and painted in place. Also, after that, we lowered the onshore boat to the embarkation deck, too. And yeah, the same difficulties. At least I left the vessel that day knowing the boats just might work as needed. MODUs? That is a different story. As most of them are loaded in place, it is a bit different. I would examine the contents and review the logs. I also recall doing a weight test a time or two, when required. It HAS been a while and memory fades. . . . .

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The lifeboats on the Deepwater Horizon saved the majority of the survivors, including some badly injured individuals.


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The Deepwater Horizon didn’t have to recover the boats, only launch and maneuver. The recovery is the issue, especially in choppy seas.

Most newer offshore rigs, platforms and ships worldwide have free fall boats which cannot be tested by “lowering to the embarkation deck”. How can these be tested in open water, especially in harsh environment locations, as mentioned?

I have only been involved in testing such lifeboats on a newbuilt rig, which involved launching with sand bags for weight and no personnel on board.

Kind of a “chicken or the egg” situation; Class Surveyor refused to accept the rig without the boats being tested according to protocol. In Singapore it is not allowed to launch and test run lifeboats within port limits for security reasons. (ISPS??)
To complicate it more; USCG was present to allow the rig into US waters, which involved testing, but with no specified test procedure for freefall lifeboats at that time (??)

I was engaged to write a statement and supervise that the boats would be recovered by people from a local harbour craft with crew having the necessary Harbour Craft License and Security Clarence, which satisfied MPA. Luckily I did not have to deal with how to satisfy Class and USCG.

Ah, sorry, responded in haste. I was not referring to the dangers and difficulty of testing, but what I took to be Powerabout’s assertion of their general uselessness.


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The ship’s lifeboats I have been using for the last 20+ years are loaded in place as well. The PSC practice is to require they be lowered to the rail to verify operation.

I don’t know how many ships are still using boats that require being lowered to the embarkation deck with the tricing pedants and so forth for boarding.

my 2 years on a new modu, never lowered, but all systems tested regularly
Company policy to not release as too dangerous, then low and behold we killed a crew in one on another rig, they were right, death boats

We seem to be agreed that we have to avoid launching boats from MODUs when they are at sea, which can be for ever, despite the regulations. In addition the 2001 MODU Code (that’s the latest version I have) requires that it be possible to embark the complement of a lifeboat in three minutes. Has anyone ever done this? Today we may be talking about getting 60 people into the boat. I was once part of a industry group in UK looking at lifeboat safety and we never got past this point, eventually deciding that it would be necessary to make a boat available on the beach to test the requirement out. I don’t know whether this was ever done.

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i think the ramp launch are lots safer, till you do a launch and have to recover it.

The main purpose of a lifeboat is to escape a sinking or burning ship, rig or platform safely, recovery is secondary consideration.

To recover a freefall lifeboat in open waters could be a dangerous operation and should not be attempted except in very good weather. It would be desirable to have a better way of do so, if anybody have a good suggestion.
(Whether it is more dangerous than to recover a conventional davit launched lifeboat can be debated)

Here is an instruction video that explain the process of launching and recovering freefall lifeboats:

For those with the time and interest, here is the complete instruction video:

When new one of Chiquita’s Great White Fleet lost its free fall boat when it self launched at night in the Atlantic, the Master was a bit surprised on his morning ambulations.

I believe it washed up in the Caribbean some months later.t

I have heard of this happening to another vessel and it was thought that the hydraulic oil in the jack that lifts the boat clear of the securing bar expanded in the heat causing the boat to launch.
Vessels fitted with a free fall lifeboat are required to have a davit launched MOB boat and davit launched life rafts.
The MOB boat is usually a joke with a 15hp outboard and in many cases is lowered right aft by the propeller aperture and would be a death sentence for anyone using it in open waters. A proper fast rescue craft with a an experienced crew launched from the midship section of the vessel is the ideal but is only required on Ro Ro ferries and other vessels in the offshore oil industry.

Agreed. The ONLY purpose of a lifeboat is to get the f*ck off the ship when there is absolutely no more options to save the ship. They are not designed to be recovered.
Anyone who disagrees I invite to re-attach the fwd falls in a covered lifeboat in a 3ft swell underneath the flare of the bow, when you can’t exactly bring it alongside the hull. It can be done, (and I have done it) but risk of hand or head injury with a 20-pound sheave randomly bobbing and weaving around your head as you poke your head out the fwd hatch like a whack-a-mole…

It is worth repeating, more people have been killed in lifeboat exercises than saved in actual emergencies.

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Absolutely agree. Once upon a time we used to avoid the blocks on the falls in open water recovery by the use of storm pennants so the only thing whipping around the bowman’s head was a soft eye but the launching and recovery of a boat at sea was conducted by the accumulated experience of centuries. HR departments today would prevent anyone learning these skills today.

You may have noticed that in many cases where you see pictures of ships that have been abandoned but still afloat the lifeboats are in most cases still in their place?

Why is this so?
Maybe because helicopters are available to evacuate personnel quickly and safely?
In many cases ships are abandoned too early for this reason. Frequently encouraged to do so by SAR coordinators because they want to notch up a rescue and not wast resources.

In my opinion, if not within easy helicopter reach, there are no better way of getting off a ship, rig or platform than freefall lifeboats. This is especially so when there are burning oil on the water, heavy seas or large list.

I believe they are called recovery straps or “strops” (per @Kennebec_Captain). Their use can be seen here:

Every ship should have them enclosed boat or not. I always hated dealing with those fall blocks swinging around even in calm waters.

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Yes, “recovery strops and the “hanging off pendant”. The strops are the 'storm pennants” and the hanging off pendants were for holding the weight of the boat while switching from the strops to the falls before the boat can be heaved the rest of the way home.