IMO’s hook fails to load

February 23, 2008

One of MAC’s friends in the lifeboat sector (Yes, we do have a few) gives a gloomy report on this week’s International Maritime Organisation DE51 meeting in Bonn at which various issues, including lifeboats and on-load release hooks were under discussion.

“I am presently at the IMO right now… this has been a very frustrating session. There has basically been no movement on the hook issue, there has been lots of talk but no real change… it has become frustrating to see IMO not tightening design requirements to ensure that the hook manufacturers who are providing unsafe hooks are kept in line.”

It is disappointing, to say the least when it is, as us Brits would say ‘bleedin’ obvious’ that the issue needs to be addressed with firmness, but the IMO is itself hamstrung by its need to operate through consensus, never a very efficient way to get things done.


Lifeboats – The Pinto Of The Sea

February 14, 2008

Next week sees the 51st session of the IMO Sub-Committee meeting on ship design and equipment, DE51, at Bonn’s appropriately named Hotel Maritim. High on the agenda will be those Ford Pintos of the sea, lifeboats, and the appalling record, and growing, of accidents and fatalities since the introduction of on-load release hooks two decades ago.

There will be discussion about the wisdom or otherwise of mandating that lifeboats been maintained by manufacturer-certificated companies or independent third parties. MAC has already given its opinion.

Last December the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency issued a Marine Information Note, MIN 315, based on a research project, 555, with recommendations that included urgently identifying unstable on-load release hooks and replacing them, “and the transition made at the earliest possible time”.

It urged a safety performance specification for lifeboat launching systems, to be developed and imposed by IMO regulation on the equipment manufacturers, while the responsibility for developing safe and fit for purpose on-load hooks is to be the responsibility of the manufacturers.

Lifeboat on-load release hooks “must prove to be safe and fit for purpose by means of a safety case regime. This regime should comprise a design safety case for each type or make of hook, supplemented by an operational safety case incorporating the design safety case but extended to interface with ship-specific safety management arrangements.”

In view of the serious nature of the hazard, says MIN 315, only as interim risk reduction measures, to avoid further unnecessary fatalities during mandatory lifeboat tests and trials a system should be introduced whereby maintenance shackles are rigged to by-pass the on-load release hook during lowering and recovery, but are disconnected at all other times.

None of these are new recommendation, they seem pretty obvious, nor are those in MIN 315 suggesting, implicitly, if not explicitly, the introduction of single-fall capsules in place of twin fall davit launch systems.

It is a long standing issue. In July 1994 the Oil Companies International Marine Forum, OCIMF published the results of a survey identifying the disturbing frequency of lifeboat accidents. A second report produced by OCIMP along with SIGTTO and Intertanko confirmed the seriousness of the problem. It is now seven years since the MAIB review of lifeboat and launching systems accident. In all, 14 years during which the industry as a whoe would probably find it difficult to put its hand over its heart and say that serious efforts have been made to deal with the issue.

We are unlikely to see any radical solutions adopted at DE51, although few doubt the need for them. The IMO struggles with a continuous need for consensus that militates against firm action Nevertheless, there is justifiable hope of a nudge in the right direction.

The mutuals, P&I Clubs are taking an active role on the issue, with the International Group gathering data. Gard will be displaying 16 of around 70-odd different types of release during the meeting’s coffee break, which will be the first time many of the delegates will have seen, let alone handled, these devices.

Its hoped that the complexity, questionable designs, engineering deficiencies and poor quality of too many of these devices will impress upon the delegates why, on a manhour basis, lifeboat accidents account for an unacceptably high number of seafarer deaths.

Manufacturers blame seafarer incompetence insufficient training and bad maintenance. In the case of the Lowlands Grace, for instance, a keel stay with undetected corrosion snapped under shock load which resulted in the aft hook assembly separating. The fore hook should have been able to take the load but a non-manufacturer-compliant suspension ring had been used and it bent against a bolt assembly invoking forces which opened the hook and dropped the lifeboat 16 metres, nearly 50 feet, into the sea. Two seafarers died, three others were badly injured.

True, seafarers have been known to act unwisely or without forethought. It has been know for a seafarer to use add a length of pipe on the hook reset handle inside the lifeboat to force it into position, causing the hook to be reset improperly, and dangerously. Crew on the Aratere knew there was a problem with the vessel’s lifeboat on-load release hooks but neither reported it nor did anything about it. Fortunately the lifeboat fell from little more than a metre from the water and no-one was hurt.

On the Cape Kestrel an engineer by-passed safety devices during the recovery of a lifeboat, excerbating a problem with the lifeboat falls, resulting in serious injuries.

Lifeboat manufacturers, too, have shown lack of forethought. The Bahamas investigator’s report on the Valparaiso Star incident shows that the hooks were designed, positioned and operated in a way that made it difficult to check whether they were properly reset and the limited deck space on the lifeboat made it awkward, and possibly dangerous in the case of any significant seas, to attach the hooks to the suspensions.



On this lifeboat, from the Valparaiso Star, it was difficult to see whether the hook were properly reset.

The UK P&I Club noted in a recent bulletin: “Improved training is similarly unlikely to be a sufficiently effective measure. This is because human error is inevitable, particularly under the difficult working conditions (time pressures, language barriers, fatigue, cold, dark, wet, etc) which typically prevail on board. Given the reality of this context, it is entirely inappropriate for a safety critical system (i.e. an unstable design of on-load hook) to be catastrophically susceptible to single human error.”

Freefall lifeboats may lack many of inherent dangers of davit-launched lifeboats, but here, too, there are questionable designs on the market which suggest lack of forethought as to how they will be used in practice. One design has a coxswain’s seat that lays down for the launch of the craft to reduce the chances of injury. In that position, however, the coxswain cannot reach the controls of the lifeboat at the very time he needs to have access to them and someone else must lift him into position.

Unlike any other ‘people carrier’, lifeboat releases are design to ‘fail to unsafe’. If an elevator cable fails, the elevator stops. If a lifeboat hook fails, the boat falls.

Blaming seafarers themselves for lifeboat accidents is like blaming the driver of a burnt-out Ford Pinto for not driving safely.

What the history of lifeboat accidents shows is that IMO compliance has little if anything to do with safety, which makes one ask what is the purpose of compliance. In fact, a relatively safe hook, one which requires positive action to open, would not comply with IMO rules.

Second generation hooks are ‘safer’, and many can be retrofitted. They include mechanisms that clearly show whether or not the hook is properly set and, typically a pin that must be removed before the hook will open.

It is understood that the International Lifeboat Group will be present a proposal for a future hook design at DE51. Unfortunately it is likely to be accepted as a recommendation rather that mandated equipment, but any move towards standardising hook design and the controls of lifeboats is to be applauded. After all, if a Mack 16-wheeler can used the same controls as a 1958 Morris Mini, then there’s no reason why it can’t apply to lifeboats, too?

The use of scale models and mock-ups of hook releases is an encouraging move, although they lose their value when the seafarer moves to another ship with different equipment.

Mandating more training will probably be ineffective unless it’s better training and unless it is back-up with regular competency assessments.

In the long term, as suggested by Admiral JS Lang’s comments that the MAIB review “poses the potentially controversial question as to whether lifeboats are strictly necessary in this day and age.”

This is the day and age of the Bow Mariner disaster, in which a severe list of the ship made it impossible to launch port or starboard lifeboats.


One of the Bow Mariner Lifeboats

It is the day and age when vessels are so large that the concept of lowering a lifeboat in bad weather, the very conditions under which they are most likely to be launched, seems to defy common sense.

Fred Fry Lifeboat

Just add a storm and you’re facing disaster in this photo from Fred Fry International

The danger is not hypothetical, as the Coop Venture incident demonstrates.


Seafarers died while this lifeboat was being lowered from a sinking ship in a storm

The reality, of course, is that, for now, we’re stuck with systems that are hazardous to the very people they are supposed to save. The best that can be hoped for in the immediate future is a mixture of retrofitting ‘safer’ equipment, enhancing seafarer training, using competency assessment to ensure they can actually do the job, and maybe retrofitting low-maintenance equipment designed for use in the real-world by real seafarers.

Maritime Safety News Today – 12th December 2007

December 12, 2007

Maritime Global Net – Warren,RI,USA
“This is a totally unacceptable situation,” said Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau which runs the Piracy 

Pirates off Somalia threaten to kill tanker crew: UN
But Andrew Mwangura, head of the Kenya chapter of the Seafarers‘ Assistance Programme, said the presence of the US vessels was complicating the negotiations

Sinking kills migrants off Turkey – Qatar
The group met in Izmir on Saturday evening and were taken to the coast, where they boarded the boat at night but the vessel capsized two hours after setting

Crews will try to bring listing cargo ship to port

Jonathan Fowlie, Vancouver Sun

Published: Monday, July 31, 2006

A team of salvage experts boarded the listing cargo ship the MV Cougar Ace on Sunday to determine the best way to right it and bring it to port.

Total tanker in Gulf of Aden collision, no pollution
Guardian Unlimited – UK
“After steering southeast at low speed, the Samco Europe is currently stabilised away from traffic in this area and is waiting for the vessel’s owner and .


Thai, Cambodian fishermen rescued in Vietnamese waters
Mathaba.Net – London,UK
Seafarers from the Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang on December 6 rescued three foreign fishermen after their vessel sank off the province’s coast.


Tanker breaks down
Worthing Herald – Worthing,England,UK
its anchor down while repairs were taking place. The crew of the Eastbourne RNLI all-weather lifeboat has been put on standby in case they are required.

Legal fears left Atlantic Conveyor defenceless

A helicopter-carrying merchant ship that sank with the loss of 12 men after being hit by two Exocet missiles in the 1982 Falklands conflict was unarmed and unprotected because Ministry of Defence lawyers feared that it was illegal to fit a commercial vessel with weapon systems, according to newly released classified documents.

The container ship Atlantic Conveyor, which had sailed to the South Atlantic just six days after being requisitioned by the MoD, was struck on May 25, causing devastating fires and explosions on board – a storage section filled with cluster bombs and kerosene blew up.

It was one of the biggest-impact attacks by Argentine Exocet-armed Super Etendard bombers because the Atlantic Conveyor was carrying four Chinook and seven Wessex helicopters, all of which would have played a crucial role in ferrying British troops across the Falklands as part of the campaign to liberate the islands.

The Argentinians were hoping to target one of the two Royal Navy aircraft carriers but the missiles homed in on the 14,950-tonne merchant ship.


Port State Control *updates* 11 Dec 2007

► 11th December 2007: Following text approval at MSC 83, the IMO have issued a “Code of good practice for port State control officers”.

This document provides guidelines regarding the standards of integrity, professionalism and transparency that regional port State control (PSC) regimes expect of all port State control officers (PSCOs) who are involved in or associated with port State control inspections.

Ballast water convention: Worldwide *updates*

11th December 2007: IMO – Enforcement of the first deadline for the fitting of ballast water treatment facilities on new build ships under the forthcoming Ballast Water Management Convention has been postponed by the IMO.

Delays with ratification of the convention, and the type approval of treatment equipment are thought to have contributed to the decision by the IMO to delay the enforcement of Regulation B-3Ballast Water Management for Ships.

Shipowners will not be required to have systems installed on vessels constructed during 2009  with a ballast capacity of less than 5,000 cubic metres until the second annual survey, but before January 2012.

The assembly has requested the Marine Environmental Protection Committee to review, and possibly extend this postponement to ships built during 2010 as well if it believes there is not the “immediate availability of type approved technology” when it meets in October next year.

Lifeboats – Who gives a f*** ?

October 14, 2007

No, MAC isn’t embarking on advocacy by four-letter word, culturally appropriate though it might be in the environs of the salty seadog, but when asked their opinion on the brewing controversy, or possibly manufactured controversies, surrounding the implementation oif the IMOs MSC1206 the response from one very experienced Master was ‘I don’t give a f*** ‘. He wasn’t expressing a lack of interest in lifeboat safety, far from it, it was simply that the situation regarding lifeboats in their totality is so bad that the controversial sections of  MSC1206 hardly matter.

We’re likely to hear a lot about MSC1206 over the next quarter as it approaches finality at the IMO. The controversy surrounds provisions that those maintaining lifeboats and the equipment and spares used must be certificated by the lifeboat manufacturer. That, it is argued, would enhance safety by keeping the boats up to their original spec.

Given the continuing injury and loss of life involved in lifeboat accidents one wonders whether keeping a lifeboat up to its original spec is what is wanted, at least without far better training of seafarers and the excision of poor designs of lifeboats and hooks from the inventory.

We are already seeing the effects of IMO MSC1206 in the purchase by lifeboat manufacturer Schat-Harding of Willem Pot (See Comments section), a Netherlands company which includes lifeboat servicing in its offering. It is certainly cheaper to buy a company than invest in the equipment, faciltiies and experienced personnel to meet the demand that could be created by MSC1206.

MSC1206 is good for lifeboat makers and original equipment manufacturers, certification and approval of third party servicing engineers and equipment can be a nice little earner.

On the other side are the independent companies who argue that MSC1206 will remove a company’s ability to choose who services its lifeboats and thus reduce competition. A recently launched anonymous avocacy website, MSC1206, argues that third party servicing and spares have not featured in lifeboat accidents. The website, the owners of which seem to be shy of identifying themselves, does incvlude an excellent collection of links to lifeboat accidents reports and studies, probably the best on the web, with the two-fold aim, it appears, of showing that third part servicing and equipment have not played a role in lifeboat accidents (Although the report on the Aratere lifeboat accident in New Zealand, mentioned on the MSC1206 website, notes among safety issues “the fitting of replacement critical parts that were not made or approved by the manufacturer of the release mechanism” and that the manufacturers themselves don’t seem to be doing a particularly good job. It so argues because MSC1206 would remove independents from the gene pool.

What we are seeing here, of course is two industry sectors fighting for market. Given what’s happening to the lifeboats they’re fighting over, this is rather like the stewards on the Titanic arguing over who gets the passengers’ tips.

It was against that background that my grizzled old salty sea-dog  growled “I don’t give a f***’.

If we are going to stop the slaughter of seafarers then the IMO, flag states and classification societies need to concentrate on enforcement of existing rules and regulations not inventing new ones. They need to address poor training, poor design of lifeboats and release gear, poor on-board maintenance, and some of the most appalingly opaque user manuals since the invention of the Chinese VCR.

There should be only one question about a lifeboat – is it safe?