Loophole allowing open lifeboats continues to put seafarers at risk

The lifeboatman class (now frequently known as proficiency in survival craft) at California Maritime Academy was one of the first I took there, and it was required to obtain the certification on my Z-card (merchant mariner’s document). We used open lifeboats with oars, and needless to say, we spent a lot of time rowing.

One October day, soon after the coxswain gave the command “stand by oars,” the weather began to turn. As the wind increased and gusted, our manually propelled lifeboat became even harder to steer and maneuver. Then the gray skies opened up and we got drenched. I spent the remainder of that morning cold, wet and grumpy. Afterward, while walking back to the dorm with my friend Mike, I complained loudly about the open lifeboats we were required to use. He agreed, and then in his Florida accent asked, “And can you imagine how bad it would be if we really had to abandon ship in one of those death traps, Kelly?”

I began to think twice about how good of an option it was to evacuate a ship into an open lifeboat. The prospect of drifting on the high seas awaiting rescue — constantly subjected to the sun beating down, or the onslaught of rain, ice or snow, amid the buffeting of wind and waves — made the boats seem like a bad choice from my perspective. Indeed, during World War II many mariners on Arctic convoys running supplies to the Russian port of Murmansk survived having their ships blown out from under them by German U-boats, only to freeze to death from exposure while awaiting rescue in an open lifeboat.

Once, while working as a second mate on a car carrier running between Los Angeles and Toyohashi, Japan, I was faced with the possibility of actually having to evacuate the ship into an open lifeboat. The company was able to skirt the requirement for enclosed lifeboats because the keel of our ship was laid before the 1983 amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations came into effect. At 2200 on a cold January night, a powerful north Pacific storm was slamming us, and I had been unsuccessfully trying to sleep. Suddenly, I was thrown out of my rack by a violent jolt. A few minutes later the chief mate banged on my door and told me to get dressed. “We need to make a sweep of the ship and check for damage,” he said. On one of the lower car decks we came upon what seemed to me to be a 5- to 10-foot crease in the hull, noticeably rippling the steel plate and seemingly working back and forth with the motion of the ship. The mate pronounced, “This isn’t good. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

That night on the midwatch I went over to the wheelhouse windows and looked out at the fury of the storm, trying not to think about that crease in the hull several decks below me. With my exposure suit next to the chart table just in case, I prayed that the storm’s wrath wouldn’t wreak any more damage. After another large wave pummeled us, in a moment of morbid brooding I calculated what I thought our chances of surviving would be if we had to abandon ship in one of our open lifeboats. Factoring in the more than 30-foot seas and 50-knot winds, plus near-freezing temperatures with occasional icy rain coupled with the closest civilization being hundreds of miles away on Attu Island, I came up with a big zero. Thank God the buckled hull did not give way any more.

As a relief mate on a chemical tanker I saw firsthand just how great an enclosed free-fall lifeboat is — like the one that Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage in aboard Maersk Alabama. Those who remember the movie will recall how easy it was to board the orange lifeboat, then release it down the launching skid into the water. I can say from personal experience that the enclosed lifeboat we had on that chemical tanker was so much better than what I was used to that I never wanted to sail again on any ship carrying those superannuated relics.

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has required enclosed lifeboats on SOLAS vessels for years, but still permits companies operating U.S.-flag oceangoing ships on domestic routes to take advantage of a legal loophole. Existing vessels equipped with open lifeboats can be “grandfathered” and can continue using them, in accordance with 46 CFR 160.035, on U.S. coastwise routes and from the mainland to Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. That’s why the U.S.-flag cargo ship El Faro, which began service in 1975 and was operating between Florida and Puerto Rico, was equipped with two open lifeboats when it went down with all 33 crewmembers in October 2015. One of the lifeboats had nothing more than oars for propulsion. The officers and crew of El Faro had to face the prospect of abandoning their ship in one of these during a Category 3 hurricane, pounded by 100-knot winds and 30- to 40-foot seas.

In my opinion, had El Faro been equipped with a modern, enclosed free-fall lifeboat, some or all of the crew would have survived. That is why I think that 46 CFR 160.035 should be rescinded. The time is way past due for the USCG to ban the use of open lifeboats on all U.S.-flag vessels, and make enclosed lifeboats compulsory on any ship required to carry lifeboats — with no exceptions. How many lives, or perhaps I should say how many more lives, must be lost before this deadly loophole is eliminated?

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com.

By Professional Mariner Staff