Lifeboat accidents

Every year a number of incidents involving vessels’ lifeboats are reported to the Association.The number will obviously differ from one year to another, as will the seriousness of the mishaps.They will range from the disastrous accidents with loss of lives and very serious injuries to the almost insignificant incidents.

Needless to say, lifeboat accidents tend to involve substantial economic exposure upon the Member as well as on the Association.Apart from the property damage, compensation for loss of life and disability relating to those who were unfortunate enough to be on board the lifeboat during the accident, frequently reach very substantial amounts.

It seems that the majority of the lifeboat accidents are caused by either:
(1) Human error,
(2) Mechanical failure or faulty design,
(3) Lack of maintenance, or
(4) Improper use.

In addition, a combination of these causes is quite common.Although all lifeboat accidents are most thoroughly investigated, it frequently turns out that it is impossible to identify the exact cause of the accident.

Over the years, the Association has had to pay substantial compensation as a consequence of lifeboat accidents.A few examples will hopefully give the reader an impression of the variety of incidents:
(1) During a routine life boat drill, the lifeboat suddenly fell into the water from a height of approximately 10 metres.Although none of the 13 persons on board were killed, all of them sustained injuries from minor bruises, fractured legs to total and permanent paralysis.As the boat fell flat onto the water, more likely than not both hooks holding the boat released simultaneously.Although the indications were that human error caused the accident, e.g. the safety pin had been removed, it proved impossible to establish the exact cause.

Some of the most injured among those on board the lifeboat at the time of the accident, commenced legal proceedings in the United States(the Member’s main base of operation).Eventually all claims were settled out of court with a total cost to the Association of about USD 4.4 million.

(2) With the use of the vessel’s lifeboat, the GARD entered vessel picked up three injured crew members from another ship.The crew members had been injured during a fire which eventually was extinguished.Having picked up the injured persons and returning to their "own" vessel, the lifeboat was lifted from the water and was almost in the housed position, when the quick release mechanism was somehow activated or failed.The lifeboat fell from the davits and into the water.

Five of the eight persons on board were killed instantly (including one of those rescued) and the three remaining were injured.Again it turned out that it was difficult to identify the exact cause of the accident, but a mechanical failure of the release mechanism does not seem unlikely, although no proof was found supporting this theory.This matter is still on-going but the total costs seem to be well in excess of USD 500,000.

(3) Another tragic accident took place on board a vessel entered with the Association when the aft fall release opened during a lifeboat drill.Six crew members were killed and another six injured.In this accident and as the aft end fell first (and thereafter the forward release opened), the lifeboat hit the water upside down, a fall of some ten metres.The survey which was carried out following the accident, revealed that the bosun had released the brake for lowering the boat to the embarkation level when the aft hook opened.Most probably this sudden movement of the life boat triggered unexplainable malfunctioning of the aft hook. The total costs of this incident were in the region of USD 1.2 million.

(4) Finally a fairly recent accident is worth a mention.After completion of drydocking, it was decided that the lifeboats should be checked in order to ensure that the gear was working properly.With six crew members on board the starboard lifeboat, lowering started when suddenly one link of the forward fall chain parted.The lifeboat then swung on the aft hook only and the hook opened due to the strain causing the boat to fall into the water upside down from a height of more than 20 metres.Two crew members were killed instantly whilst the remaining four suffered various injuries.

This matter, which is still on-going, is one of the relatively few where the cause of the accident is not an issue.Another question, however, is why the chain link parted and caused the lifeboat to fall.This question is still under investigation.

An additional aspect to this matter is the, unfortunately not too unfamiliar, problem that two of the vessel’s officers are still being detained by the local police, more than half a year after the accident.

The total costs of this case are still difficult to assess, but will undoubtedly be very substantial.

As it will appear from the above-mentioned examples, lifeboat accidents are caused by a range of reasons, are often difficult to investigate and are, leaving the human suffering aside, invariably expensive.

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