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Another Titanic change is needed to save more lives at sea

How has our approach to saving lives at sea changed since the tragedy of the RMS Titanic in which 1,523 of the 2,228 people she was carrying died a century ago? Surprisingly, not much. Only this April…

The last lifeboat successfully launched from the RMS Titanic. National Archives

How has our approach to saving lives at sea changed since the tragedy of the RMS Titanic in which 1,523 of the 2,228 people she was carrying died a century ago?

Surprisingly, not much.

Only this April the South Korean ferry Sewol capsized claiming 288 lives so far, many high school students.

Inadequate provision of lifeboats was a key factor in the Titanic disaster in 1912, leading directly to significant changes in the requirements for passenger ships.

Fast forward to 2014 and lifeboats remain central to safety at sea. Yet, it was reported that only two lifeboats were launched before the Sewol capsized and sank. How could this be the case?

Here we go again

The fate of the Sewol has unfortunate yet strong echoes of earlier maritime casualties, from the demise of the Titanic through to the grounding of the Costa Concordia in January 2012.

South Korean coast guard around the sunken ferry Sewol, off South Korea, April 16, 2014. EPA/Yonhap South Korea

It seems the fundamental approach to saving lives at sea has changed little. A key element remains that all efforts should be made to keep a stricken ship afloat, and keep passengers and crew aboard such that the ship in effect acts as its own lifeboat.

While efforts to prevent ships from sinking are not to be derided, if nothing else the Titanic experience illustrates the fact that no ship is unsinkable.

Call that ship a lifeboat?

The trouble with the “ship as its own lifeboat” approach is that this attitude tends to lead the crew to order passengers to stay on board and to delay the order to abandon ship until too late. Here the role of the Master, especially in a crisis, is crucial as evacuation can only proceed on his or her order.

The problem here is that once a ship heels significantly from the vertical then launching lifeboats, traditionally accomplished via lines suspended from davits or crane-like lowering devices, becomes extremely hazardous, if not impossible. This was the case for both the Sewol and Costa Concordia.

The grounded Costa Concordia', off Giglio Island, Italy, January 17 2012. EPA/Massimo Percossi

The only reason no more than 32 lives were lost in the Costa Concordia accident was down to luck – the vessel was grounded which prevented it from fully capsizing, unlike the Sewol ferry.

More eggs in one basket

Traditional approaches to safety of life at sea are likely to face increasingly scrutiny as the trend continues to build ever-bigger cruise liners which resemble nothing less than floating cities.

At the time of writing the largest such vessel is the 360m-long MS Allure of the Seas. It’s roughly the size of four Titanics rolled into one ship and capable of accommodating approximately 6,300 passengers and a crew of almost 2,400 – that’s almost 9,000 people in total.

The cruise industry is also increasingly venturing into relatively uncharted waters with the growth of adventure cruising, notably in polar waters. These waters can be extremely hazardous to navigate because of the presence of ice.

Passenger cruise ships increasingly exploring remote regions such as the Antarctic. Flickr/Matt S, CC BY-NC-ND

Many of these passengers are also towards the senior end of the age spectrum. The Australian cruise industry association’s latest figures show more than half (53%) of Australian cruise passengers are over 50 years of age, almost a third (31%) aged 61 and over, and one in eight (12%) is over 70.

The potential for large numbers of elderly survivors to a shipping casualty in Polar waters adrift in open, or even covered, boats beyond the ready reach of search and rescue services is nightmarish.

The age of passengers on Australian cruises – more than 50% over the age of 50 (2012 figures). Cruise Lines International Association (Australasia)

The potential for disaster has been well illustrated over the years by the multiple accidents involving cruise ships in polar waters such as the M/S Explorer in November 2007, which struck an iceberg, capsized and sank.

Happily, other vessels were nearby off Peninsula Antarctica and the 154 passengers and crew were rescued.

But adventure cruising inevitably tends towards remote locations and thus waters where there is often poor to non-existent search and rescue capacity.

The International Maritime Organisation is developing a Polar Code detailing safety measures for ships operating in Polar waters but this is, as yet, not mandatory.

Unfortunately there is no easy way to eliminate the most commonplace contributor to maritime accidents – human error.

Time for a change in approach?

That’s not to suggest that travelling by sea has not become far safer than once it was – it’s just that lifeboats remain a fundamental part of current safety regulations.

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) sets a minimum standard of enough lifeboats to be carried to accommodate at least 75% of those on board (37.5% on each side). Enough liferafts should be provided for the remainder. So far, so good.

But launching lifeboats can be a slow and cumbersome process, as well as one compromised as a result of a vessel listing.

Traditional lifeboats may be difficult to deploy in an accident. Flickr/International Maritime Organisation, CC BY-NC

An alternative option may be to change the emphasis towards the use of a new generation of large liferafts instead of lifeboats.

Indeed, some modern liferafts can be deployed remarkably swiftly, in 2-3 minutes, and provide for the evacuation of more than 100 people via aviation-style evacuation slides in 15 minutes on a single raft.

Modern liferafts may offer a quicker way to safety off a sinking ship. Flickr/International Maritime Organisation, CC BY-NC

That said, in the event of any future accident at sea then – whether lifeboats or liferafts are in use – passengers also need to be marshalled on deck rather than being ordered below. With greater numbers of passengers involved, this is likely to be an increasingly challenging proposition.

In the cases of both the Sewol and Costa Concordia passengers were ordered back to their cabins – spaces that swiftly became death-traps.

Rescue efforts on the Sewol ferry have already claimed the lives of two divers involved in trying to recover the bodies trapped inside.

Cutting corners but at what cost?

An underlying and systemic concern here is the significant and continuing pressures on the shipping industry to cut costs and therefore run the risk of compromising safety standards.

The potential consequences of any such corner-cutting can be disastrous. It can lead to minimal and poorly-trained and paid crews, ill-maintained ships and Masters under enormous pressure to minimise costs rather than to ensure safety.

Recent maritime accidents and their tragic consequences have underscored the abiding tension between technology and the frailties of human decision making.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for proper training and regular drills as well as safety regulations that are aligned to today’s shipping and passenger needs and that are then observed and enforced.


This article was co-authored with Dr John Mansell, Principal Maritime Advisor to Maritime New Zealand, and draws on his address on the occasion of the centenary of the loss of the Titanic, delivered April 2012 at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong.

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16 Comments sorted by

  1. Allan Dorrington

    Engineering Officer

    This article highlights a great deficiency in the protection of life at sea: There is a requirement that there are lifeboat place for only 75% of passengers, half on each side of the ship. That means that in the event that the ship sinks, close to one third of passengers will have no place on the lifeboats; however that assumes that the ALL boats are launched. The problem is that when ships hit an underwater obstacle, resulting in a large "loss of hull integrity" and the ship sinks it will probably…

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    1. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Allan Dorrington

      Many thanks and I predominantly agree with the points you raise. In particular you rightly note the assumption in the present approach that all lifeboats be launched and, almost as importantly, that they befull of people when this occurs. PArt of the scandal associated with the Titanic was that not only were there nowhere near enough lifeboats to accommodate all of the people on board at the time of the accident but that a number of those lifeboats that were launched were only partially full which…

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  2. Allan Gardiner

    Dr

    Although it obviously still hasn't sunken-in yet, travelling via the oceans by submarine is yet by far the safest mode of travel [and you'll never be beset with the problem of having to tell pesky passengers to stay in their cabins], and travelling by submarine is still far safer than even air travel simply because there's still more aircraft crashing into the oceans than submarines into the skies.

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  3. Fergus Ferguson

    Political Exile

    Two issues that didn't get touched on in the article are that the crew may make up 25% of those on board, but are not accounted for in the number of seats available. They know that, and at the first sign of trouble become the first to know, and the first to depart the ship. Leaving the passengers to their fate. Secondly, there are instances of passengers in inflatable life rafts who have died in a fairly short period of time from exposure to cold through the thin base of the raft. I believe there was a ferry sinking in the Baltic there life rafts full of deceased passengers were recovered.

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    1. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Fergus Ferguson

      SOLAS requirements for the capacity of survival craft such as lifeboats and liferafts relate to the total number of people on board rather than just the passengers. The trouble, of course, is that if the ship is listing many of the lifeboats will swiftly become impossible to launch.

      On the issue of exposure in liferafts, yes, fair point. One would not wish to have survivors adrift in liferafts for prolonged periods of time...but if lifeboats are not an option they certainly provide a better alternative than jumping into the water!

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    2. Fergus Ferguson

      Political Exile

      In reply to Clive Schofield

      Clive: I watched a drill on a cruise ship where the young crew were trying to turn over a capsized inflatable in the ships pool. They had about ten people trying to do it. Dead calm. No wind. Perfect conditions. It took them 15 minutes. In cold water you are dead by then.

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    3. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Fergus Ferguson

      Absolutey. There have been problems with liferafts that deploy capsized (my brother, who is a Master had a long and arduous fight with the manufacturer who simply did not want to hear this). Liferaft are obviously only a better bet if they can be swiftly deployed (rather than with a crane which is even more laborious than launching lifeboats) and the right way up!

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  4. Fergus Ferguson

    Political Exile

    I was in an old cruise ship off Neah Bay Washington State for 14 hours a few years ago in a Force 9 or 10 gale. They apparently had to be 100 miles offshore to dump their sewage tanks, so they headed out to avoid port charges. Most of the passengers and crew were incapacitated with seasickness. It was interesting moving around after the event to see the damage within the ship, especially in the bars and retail areas. According to a rather disgruntled crew member they only turned around when the bottles began being tossed off the shelves in the bars. The main issue I had was if the ship had had a fire or major mechanical failure there was zero prospect of rescue because of the conditions, and yet the captain went out, and stayed out. It was yet another example of the lack of regulation of the cruise industry.

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    1. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Fergus Ferguson

      Sounds horrendous. That said, there may be some logic in the Master's decision to head further out to sea from the point of view of having 'sea room' away from the coast...though it does not sound like the safe option. If the decision was indeed a cost-saving one to avoid port charges then it would seem to fit in with the worst sort of practice on the part of an industry desperate to cut costs and would appear to be a highly questionable decision from a safety of lives at sea perspective. Ultimately that sort of decision is the Master's to take (and he/she takes primary responsibility should it prove to be the wrong one).

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    2. Fergus Ferguson

      Political Exile

      In reply to Clive Schofield

      Clive: You missed my point about the passengers AND crew being incapacitated. If something had gone wrong the crew were unable to assist incapacitated passengers. That is ignoring the fact that you wouldn't have been able to launch boats because of the rolling of the ship, and in such strong winds inflatables have the nasty habit of being flipped and blown around like kids bouncy castles that haven't been tied down. It was ridiculous. 4,000 people on an old ship 100 miles offshore in cold waters with zero prospect of rescue, and yet the captain took them out into a forecasted storm and tooled around dumping his tanks. The guy was a total peanut.

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    3. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Fergus Ferguson

      Fair enough. Launching lifeboats requires crew members to do it which means a lot of man-management and training. As you note, in the sort of conditions you describe it is questionable whether the crew would have been in a position to launch the lifeboats anyway...and liferafts would not have necessarily been any better. Sounds like a poor, poor decision on the part the Master...though legally his to take it sems.

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  5. Fergus Ferguson

    Political Exile

    My number one rule of maritime safety is that if you are on a ship and the alarms start going off, or there is any indication of a problem go to the general vicinity of the lifeboats. The instant you see engineering crew or officers entering lifeboats: get off the ship. Those guys have the inside scoop on what is going on, and will always be the first off. It has been seen too many times. Survival at sea is Darwinian. They leave the junior crew to drown with the passengers, and the movers and groovers get off and just maybe argue their defense later in court.

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    1. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Fergus Ferguson

      I would certainly agree with the view that one should be on deck/proximate to survival craft. Once the ship starts to list and you are below then you are in a terrible (And terrifying) position. Point taken about survival at sea being Darwinian. This si where training should kick in but...

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    2. Olaf Smith

      Ancient Mariner

      In reply to Clive Schofield

      "This is where training should kick in but..."

      And that hanging sentence speaks volumes.
      In both the Concordia and Sewal, (and numerous other disasters, particularly involving human cargo,) one of the outstanding elements has been the inadequate response from Command, Officers and Crew once things go pearshaped.
      In a working lifetime at sea I have 'sailed' under a wide variety of Captains. All were competent navigators. Some were better managers than others. Temperamentally they ranged from highly respected professional mariners through smugglers, drunks, cowards and the, (IMHO,) certifiably insane. While it is glaringly obvious when crews are found wanting, one seldom hears of the culpability of the company management that chose, appointed and promoted these people.
      It is not uncommon to hear management bemoaning the paucity of quality mariners available but setting up any system to pursue excellence is deemed too costly.

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    3. Clive Schofield

      Professor and Challenge Lead, Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Olaf Smith

      Many thanks for that input Olaf. The tension between safety (including training/competence of Master and crew) and cost is at the core of this. I'd generally agree with your point about how the responsibility of those who select and employ Masters and crew and who set their conditions and provide directives which can contribute to poor decision-making informed more by cost-saving than safety seem to be largely below the radar as it were.

      The reason I say "generally" rather than fully is that…

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  6. Allan Dorrington

    Engineering Officer

    Since writing my original comment and reading what other commentators have said I have had a change of mind. The problem with a ship in trouble, whatever the cause, is that it can take a very long time to mount assistance or a rescue. When an aircraft gets into trouble the outcome is decided within hours, the plane will make contact with the ground (one way or the other), most likely at an airport with emergency services on the spot very quickly. In contrast, a ship at sea that experiences catastrophic…

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