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Passenger Ship Lifeboats

You may also be interested in the next Design & Operation of Passenger Ships Conference, which is taking place in London on 30 April - 1 May 2019

How many lifeboats should a passenger ship carry? It was not Costa Concordia lifeboatsperhaps until the growth of the larger numbers of passenger being carried from the latter half of the 18th century and onwards that this question was even asked. The United Kingdom 1849 Passengers’ Act was principally concerned with specifying the minimum level of amenities, medical facilities and provisions to be supplied to passengers on long sea voyages but it did also include specific requirement for a minimum number of lifeboats to be carried on passenger ships, Clause 17 stated; that every passenger ship shall carry:

  • two boats for 100 tons and upwards ;
  • three for 200 tons and upwards,
  • in case the passengers exceed fifty ;
  • four for every 500 and upwards,
  • in case the passengers exceed 200, one of such boats to be a long bout, and another a properly fitted life-boat ; and also two regularly fitted life-boats.

Both the number and the capacity of lifeboats on passenger ships was later regulated by the British Passengers’ Acts of 1855 and 1863. The carriage of lifeboats on cargo ships was regulated by The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854. Both these acts specified the minimum number and capacity of lifeboats to be carried on a seagoing ship based upon the vessels tonnage not on the number of people on-board the vessel. 

In 1870, the Secretary to the Board of Trade, in answering a question at the House of Commons about the sinking of PS Normandy said that “in the opinion of the Board of Trade, it will not be possible to compel passengers steamers running between England and France to have boats sufficient for every numerous passenger they often carry. They would encumber the decks, and rather add to the danger than detract from it.” The Normandy was a small paddle wheeled mail streamer that sailing between Southampton and the Channel Islands. On 17th March 1870 it collided at night with the stream ship Mary. At the time it had a crew of 28, one stewardess, and 31 passengers. She was carried three lifeboats; two on the portside and one large one on the starboard side, however, the starboard lifeboat was damaged by the collision. The captain ensured that the passengers were the first to be evacuated from the ship. The captain and fifteen of the crew died when the ship sank. 

In march 1887 Captain Price, Member of Parliament for Devonport, asked the Secretary to the Board of Trade, “Whether it is the case that, under the present Regulations, a passenger ship of 1,000 tons burthen, carrying 300 passengers, is not compelled to carry so many boats as a cargo ship of 2,000 tons, with a crew of 30; and, whether, in the Regulations as to boat accommodation, there is any reference whatever to the number of passengers carried?” .In response the Secretary stated “In both cases the boats are regulated by the net registered tonnage of the ships carrying them, and not by the number of persons carried in the ships. The boats required by law to be carried by a passenger ship of 1,000 tons register are six, of the total cubic capacity of 2,545 cubic feet, of which 900 cubic feet must be in life-boats. The boats required to be carried by a cargo ship of 2,000 tons register are either six boats of 2,034 cubic feet capacity, of which two must be life-boats of 999.6 cubic feet capacity, or seven boats of 1,892 cubic feet capacity, of which two must be lifeboats of 999.6 cubic feet capacity.”

In 1887 a Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to report on Saving Life at Sea reported "That many passengers ships could not, without great inconvenience, carry so many of the ordinary wooden boats as would suffice to carry the whole of the passengers and crew with safety in bad weather.”

An attempt to address some of these issues resulted in the Merchant Shipping (Life Saving Appliances) Act, 1888 and the later the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which included a table showing the minimum number of lifeboats to be placed under davits, and their minimum cubic contents. This table was still based on the gross tonnage of the vessels and not upon the number of people carried. It provided for increasing number of lifeboats as the vessel tonnage increased but it stopped short at the point where the gross tonnage of the vessels reached 10,000 tons and upwards. The Titanic, with a gross tonnage of 46,000 tons carried 20 lifeboats, exceeding the regulations laid down by the Board of Trade, which required her to carry lifeboats capable of carrying a total of 1,060 people. The Titanic's lifeboats had a capacity of 1,178 people on a ship capable of carrying 3,330 people. 

Following the sinking of the French liner La Bourgogne in 1898 with the loss of more than 500 people and the Titanic in 1912 with losses of over 1500, Captain (later to be Admiral) William Sowden Sims, of the United States Navy commented, "The truth of the matter is that in case any large passenger steamship sinks, by reason of collision or other fatal damage to her flotability, more than half of her passengers are doomed to death, even in fair weather, and in case there is a bit of a sea running none of the loaded boats can long remain afloat, even if they succeed in getting safely away from the side, and one more will be added to the long list of `the ships that never return.' Most people accept this condition as one of the inevitable perils of the sea, but I believe it can be shown that the terrible loss of life occasioned by such disasters as overtook the Bourgogne and the Titanic and many other ships can be avoided or at least greatly minimized. Moreover, it can be shown that the steamship owners are fully aware of the danger to their passengers; that the laws on the subject of life-saving appliances are wholly inadequate; that the steamship companies comply with the law, though they oppose any changes therein, and that they decline to adopt improved appliances; because there is no public demand for them, the demand being for high schedule speed and luxurious conditions of travel.”

As a consequence of the terrible loss of the Titanic, there was aPassenger shipm lifeboat from Titanic general demand that there should be sufficient number of lifeboats for all people on board a passenger ships. This led to the first international conference on the safety of life at sea held in London in January 1914. The Conference was attended by representatives of 13 countries and resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which was adopted in 1914. The Convention was to enter into force in July 1915 but with the outbreak of the First World War in Europe in September 1914 it was never formally ratified, although many of its provisions were adopted by individual nations. It included chapters on safety of navigation, construction, radiotelegraphy, life-saving appliances and fire protection. Chapter VI of SOLAS 1914 Article 40 “At no moment of its voyage may a ship have on board a total number of persons than that for whom accommodation is provided in lifeboats (and the pontoon lifeboats) on board”

SOLAS has been revised and updated many times and now comes under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). It has fairly extensive rules about the all aspects of lifesaving equipment including the location, number and size of lifeboats to be carried on a ship and how quickly the passengers should be able to be evacuated from the ship. The 1983 amendments to SOLAS required all lifeboats on passenger ships to be totally or partially enclosed equipped with an engine rather than the traditional open lifeboats manual propelled by oars. 

Modern passenger ships engaged on international voyages, which are not short must carry partially or totally enclosed lifeboats on each side to accommodate not less than 50% of the total number of persons on board (in other words, the two sides together must equal at least 100%. Some lifeboats can be substituted by liferafts. In addition, inflatable or rigid liferafts to accommodate at least 25% of the total number of persons on board. Sufficient lifeboats and life rafts of such capacity as to accommodate 125% of the total number of people on board. 

Passenger ships on short international voyages must carry partially or totally enclosed lifeboats for at least 30% of persons on board, plus inflatable or rigid liferafts to make a total capacity of 100% with the lifeboats. In addition, they must carry inflatable or rigid lifeboats for 25% of total number of persons on board. 

There are also regulations on how long the actual lifeboat embarkation should take and how long it should take to prepare and launch all the lifeboats and liferafts once the passengers have been assembled and the abondoned ship signal has been given. There are also now IMO guidelines ( MSC Circ 1033 and 1283) on the total passenger ship evacuation times including assembling the passengers at their muster stations. The SAFEGUARD project is also undertaking a series of full scale passenger ship evacualtion trials to provide additional data to further develop the passenger evacuation guidelines. The results of which will be presented at a one day passenger evacuation seminar being held on 30 November 2012.

The recent philosophy of the passenger ship design has now returned to the idea of regarded the ship as its own best lifeboat capable of providing a “safe area” for passengers until “return to port” or adequate rescue services arrive. IMO has set out Safe Return to Port requirement in the 2009 International SOLAS treaty, which are applicable to passenger ships built on or after the 1stJuly 2010.  These new requirement were prompted by the increasing size of passenger ships. The more passengers a vessel has the longer it takes to evacuate. The requirement defines minimum limits on how long the vessel should remain safe for evacuation. It defines threshold where ships should be able to return to port without requiring passengers to evacuate.

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