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Legal Perspective - Lifeboats, Liferafts and the Cycle of Cause and Effect

November 8, 2019

Lifeboats and liferafts are not things that people at sea usually like to think about. Maybe it’s because they mean abandoning the warmth and safety of a large vessel for the cold uncertainty of the open sea. The setting is often one where distress calls have been made, flares have been fired, and seawater freely sloshes about in machinery spaces.
But in terms of literature and film, lifeboats are a subject that captivates audiences. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 black and white classic Lifeboat, survivors of a ship sunk by a U-boat find themselves left to the mercy of the Atlantic. And decades later in the age of computer graphics, Life of Pi offered a frightening and fascinating setting where a boy finds himself sharing a lifeboat with an angry Bengal tiger after a storm sinks his ship.
Hollywood may occasionally think about lifeboats and liferafts when it needs an exciting setting for a movie. But the Coast Guard thinks about them all the time. Recently, in the Commandant’s Final Action Memo on the sinking of El Faro, it was stated that, “The Coast Guard agrees that open lifeboats should be phased out of operation and supports proposals from vessel owners and operators to accomplish this.” For vessels with open lifeboats, the Coast Guard advised that it would initiate a concentrated inspection campaign to ensure that they remained in serviceable condition.
El Faro was the ill-fated cargo ship caught in a hurricane around the vicinity of the Bahamas in October 2015. The ship sank with the loss of all hands in a stretch of sea about 15,000 feet deep. Although there’s nothing good about such a tragic loss, the sinking did bring attention to the issue of open lifeboats. One of problems with a ship going down in extreme conditions is that even if a crew successfully abandons ship, they might face gale force winds or freezing temperatures in an open boat in wet clothes.
In the maritime community, both with commercial and pleasure vessels, we often see this cycle of cause and effect occur where a terrible event precipitates awareness that prompts changes in regulations. In the case of open lifeboats, the issue was known about for a long time. Observe any large ship today, and you’ll see lifeboats that look more like enclosed pods than traditional boats found on ocean liners of the 1960s.
We saw the issue of liferaft safety also come to light after the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race. The race demonstrated the need for better protection for survivors who found themselves at the mercy of the elements after a sinking. New safety standards emerged with ISO 9650. We see this cycle of cause and effect in many settings on the water. Following the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, new measures for pollution prevention soon followed in the form of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Perhaps the most well-known example of this maritime cause and effect was with the liner Titanic, which for all its state-of-the-art features for the day, set out to sea with a woefully inadequate number of lifeboats. This was due to the standards of the Board of Trade and the governing philosophy of the day toward the role of lifeboats. Safety measures that evolved from the tragedy ranged from lifeboat capacity to formation of the International Ice Patrol.
But for all the incredible things that happened on that fateful April night in 1912, it’s worth remembering something very noteworthy about Titanic. Although she was essentially driven into an iceberg at around 21 knots, she still gave her crew and passengers roughly two hours on a more or less even keel.
If we look at some of the famous sinkings of the 20th century, many modern ships built with far superior technology were not able to forgivingly provide those on board with such a stable platform. And while the loss was tragic and avoidable, Titanic played a profound role in this legal cause and effect in making the maritime industry safer for the millions of people who went to sea in the years that followed.
Best wishes to all of you for a Wonderful Holiday Season and a Happy New Year!

Ref: U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Information Bulletin 04-18, Concentrated Inspection Campaign: Open Lifeboats 05.02.2018 to 05.01.2019

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