Crew escapes unhurt from sinking ship in free-fall lifeboat

Fourteen crewmembers of the heavy-lift cargo carrier Sjard escaped in the ship’s free-fall lifeboat after the 353-foot vessel began taking on water, approximately 350 miles east of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The crew of Sjard escaped in a free-fall lifeboat. This one, installed on an APL containership, is a Fr. Fassmer & Co. model. Built in Germany, it has a capacity for 36 persons.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Marine Equipment Inc., Houston

The Spanish fishing trawler Beiramar Tres rescued the crewmembers within an hour of their abandonment of Sjard, which sank.

Sjard was inbound for St. John’s on Jan. 27, 2002, with a cargo of oil-field equipment, when it encountered 55-knot winds and 30-foot seas. In a distress call placed via Inmarsat B at 2129 GMT, the master reported that he was taking on water in the main cargo hold and would only be able to stay with the ship for about an hour. Twenty minutes later the EPIRB was activated. At 2227 the master of Sjard reported that he and his crew were preparing to abandon ship.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, began alerting aircraft and nearby ships of Sjard’s predicament.

The master and crew boarded Sjard’s fully enclosed, 30-man, 29-foot, free-fall lifeboat, which was mounted on the port side of the funnel below the bridge deck. They brought with them an EPIRB, portable VHF radio and survival suits, which they carried but did not wear. At 0030 the master gave the order to release the lifeboat. After an 80-foot drop over the stern into the sea, the lifeboat came clear of the sinking freighter.

The lifeboat had been in the water only a short time when Beiramar Tres spotted its light. However, the Spanish trawler was unable to establish radio contact. The actual rescue came at 0127, less than an hour after the crew abandoned ship. The Spanish trawler came alongside, placing the lifeboat in its lee. One by one, the survivors were hoisted out of the lifeboat to the deck of Beiramar Tres. There were no injuries and no loss of life.

Free-fall lifeboats are becoming increasingly common aboard cargo ships and on offshore drilling installations. They are an improvement over conventional systems, since they can be effectively launched when sea conditions and list would make the use of conventional lifeboats difficult or impossible.

Free-fall lifeboats are deployed from steep ramps, usually over the stern. When released, the lifeboat falls clear of the ship and is propelled from the distressed vessel by kinetic energy, even if the engine fails to operate.

According to Kathleen Flemming of the JRCC in Halifax, ‘That fact that they were able to abandon ship in a free-fall lifeboat contributed greatly to their successful evacuation. They also had an EPIRB and survival suits with them.’

Good communication is also vital to an effective rescue operation. Flemming said that the use of Inmarsat B allowed one-on-one communication between the master and the rescue coordinators. The communication decreased the overall response time and helped avoid any misunderstandings.

By Professional Mariner Staff