A prolonged series of cruise ship lifeboat incidents shows the industry needs to take action.
While the latest reported incident – when a lifeboat was displaced from Carnival Dream in December 2018 – fortunately did not involve any personnel, other recent incidents have caused both injuries and fatalities.
I think Nautilus International professional and technical officer David Appleton summed it up perfectly when he told me "If something designed to save lives is regularly killing people, then the industry really needs to take a holistic look at it."
Of course, I appreciate the industry has taken steps to make lifeboats safer – a stand-out being the IMO directive that requires all existing lifeboat release systems to be tested to exacting standards and non-compliant hooks to be replaced or modified.
While this has helped to lower the number of lifeboat incidents, the reality is hooks are just one facet of the lifesaving system and problems around lifeboat safety persist.
Wires being poorly maintained or inadequately greased can cause lifeboat failures, for example. These parts of the lifeboat apparatus need to be a focus of industry action, too.
I heartily applaud DNV GL’s voluntary certification standard covering the davits used to launch and recover tenders, including those which have a dual use as a lifeboat. Importantly, the certification includes a risk analysis that will enable owners to add extra safety precautions such as automation and monitoring systems.
Radio can be used to remotely launch and recover tender boats, without requiring personnel to be near moving parts. Monitoring systems could include warning signals or sensors to warn crew of potentially dangerous missteps during lifeboat drills.
This initiative can only help to reduce accidents, especially as many of the worst accidents take place during lifeboat drills. But this is just one certification from one class society and is voluntary. To really make an impact, such a certification needs to be adopted across the whole industry and be made compulsory.
And as well as ensuring that designs are failsafe, training is key.
In many of the reported incidents, human errors are a factor. Again, there has been much work on training within the cruise industry, but the fact these incidents continue means there is more work to be done.
Given many of the incidents take place while the crew are carrying out drills, it begs the question – during a drill, do the crew need to be in the lifeboat? Surely checking the lifeboat system and carrying out the actions of releasing the lifeboat is enough, without loading the lifeboat with personnel.
Ultimately, these issues need to go to IMO and be addressed through all parts of the industry: manufacturers, class, industry associations and cruise operators need to be involved and look at every single facet that impacts on safety, from creating a failsafe lifeboat design, to focusing on training and maintenance and ensuring drills are carried out in a risk-free environment.
As Mr Appleton counseled: only by taking this issue to the top and by taking a holistic approach will we be able to ensure lifeboats serve their intended purpose, rather than posing a threat to life at sea.