A lesson not well enough learned


Jun 10, 2004
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There's an issue that increasingly intrigues me. It would appear that a ship has enough lifeboats if there are places in them for all aboard. However, the Andrea Doria illustrates that this ain't necessarily so, since her list eliminated half her lifeboats and made the remaining half more difficult to use. The ONLY reason this is not notorious is because she fulfilled her role as "her own lifeboat" and remained afloat long enough for help to arrive. But she could have capsized earlier and taken hundreds with her.
So this raises the question: should liners have lifeboats twice-sufficient for the people aboard? Then come the occasion of a collision leading to a 40 degree list, there will be still be enough lifeboats on the list side to save all aboard. For obvious reasons, this will never happen unless there is the necessary disaster to make it happen.
What's the view from experienced seamen? Are current lifeboat arrangements adequate, or is there quite real risk of the tragic lesson occurring?
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Just how safe is life?

No, not a flippant question. Nobody survives being born. We all die in time. Real life is fraught with inherent danger. For instance, how safe do you want to make your car? Will you pay for a car that can keep you alive in a 150-mph crash? How much would you pay extra for a cruise on a ship with double the number of lifeboats (and commensurately less deck space and paying cabins)?

At what point are you willing to walk outdoors without a hard hat even though meteors are falling?

As far as I can see, only in the fantasy world of the court system does 100% safety exist. Cars, ships, and planes are all as safe as the real world cost/benefit ratio will allow. They are not 100% safe, just reasonably so.

And, some solutions are really deadly. The rush to add extra lifeboats following Titanic is one of the causes of 850 deaths when the steamer Eastland rolled over in Chicago. No, the extra weight of the boats was not the only reason, but that weight did upset the already tender balance of the ship. However, the numbskull legislators who passed the regulation without knowing anything about metacentric height were never held accountable for what amounted to manslaughter.

Doubling the lifeboats would add weight high in the superstructure. This would reduce the righting moment, making the vessel more subject to capsize. To solve that problem designers would have to build lower vessels with fewer public rooms and grand arcades. Outside cabins would be sacrificed. The result would be a ship of less value to the paying customers who don't really come to be safer at sea than in their own automobiles.

And, a ship will a smaller number of cabins, a smaller casino, and fewer shops has to make up the income on ticket prices. The less desirable ship then becomes more expensive.

Every vessel is a compromise. These days we start out with the assumption of 100% coverage when it comes to lifeboats and life vests. (Actually, the number of vests exceeds 100% for technical reasons.) So, everybody has a "fair" chance, but chance at what? Even if all of the lifeboats get down safely nobody has been rescued from anything.

Lifeboats are rather tiny temporary containers for human life. A person in a boat won't die when the ship sinks, but their life is certainly at risk until taken out of their little orange boat. And, here's the rub. Nobody has yet figured out how to rescue 5,000 people from lifeboats in heavy weather, especially if they begin to scatter.

Also, the concern over sinking is like worrying about metors falling instead of minding the broken pavement beneath your feet. On a ship your clear and present life-threatening danger is food poisoning. Another real danger is fire. If you must worry aboard ship, worry that the fire supression system works and that the firefighters among the crew are well trained and have adequate equipment.

And, while you're up nights worrying, I think I'll have a midnight snack and enjoy a good night's sleep.

In the end your are only as safe as the person in command. Most of us have friends we won't ride with on the highway. Choose your airline and cruise line with equal concern. The guy or gal with 4 stripes is your real ticket home, not those orange boats.

-- David G. Brown
 
Mar 22, 2003
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You make some really goods points here Dave. I noticed the modern trend is to place the lifeboats much lower down, closer to the waterline than ever before, (see below). What happens if the ship takes on a severe down trim or list early on? Many of those boats might be under water before they could even be launched? Or just as bad, it might be impossible to get down the deck where they would be loaded from. Point is that ships flood from the bottom up. The advantage of putting them down so low however is very clear. More outside cabin space and obstruction free promenade space above. Now didn't Ismay decide not to add those extra lifeboats that the Welin davits were built for because it would interfere with promenade space on the boat deck? I could see the headlines now, "BUT WE COULD NOT GET TO THE BOATS."
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Dec 2, 2000
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The lifeboats thing is something of a no-win scenerio from the standpoint of ship design. Put enough on and you have a topweight problem. Put on too few, and you risk not being able to get everyone off befor the bloody thing sinks. Put them down low, and there's a good chance they'll be unusable if the ship rolls over. To add insult to injury, there are only so many places you can put them. Put them on the side, and half become useless if the ship takes a severe list. (Ask the Andrea Doria) but you don't really have a lot of other opions on where to put them.

You could put on inflatable liferafts, but then the question becomes how do you get out to them and get aboard, especially in cold stormy seas. Lifeboats for all is nice in concept, but in reality, it ain't the cure-all it's cracked up to be.
 
Jun 10, 2004
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We all know that you can't make a ship 100% safe. In terms of fatalities per million hours' use (f/mhu; the standard unit of risk) a trip on a ship will be way safer than a ride in a car, probably ten times safer. For most people the greatest direct risk aboard ship would be a fall on steps or off a balcony, along with fire, as David points out. These are also the major household risks.
I was more interested in this from the viewpoint of the political reaction. Here in Britain, the rail network is being crippled by unrealistic expectations of making enormous investments against tiny risks. This is hampering efforts to get more people into trains and out of cars. Obviously this is sub-optimal, but it happens because of the bally-hoo that happens when there's a train crash. By comparison, road deaths are constant and society is reluctant to take responsibility/lay blame/learn lessons for fear of endangering what are considered personal liberties.
Likewise in the case of a disaster at sea, the political reaction will be explosive piety; the virtuous will rage against "the guilty", and "the guilty" will have to seek forgiveness coming up with a suitable over-reaction. Twice-sufficient lifeboats might be hard to resist politically, irrespective of the technical counter-arguments.
Having written all that, it's just speculation, so probably not worth pursuing.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Malcolm -- Your last post is not only worth pursuing, it is at the crux of solving the coming transportation crunch. Automobiles will not go away, but the rising cost of fuel is going to force a change in the way they fit into the transportation mix.

However, progress stops wherever political emotions and/or courts are allowed to control technological development. Thats as true in Britain as it is the U.S., or anywhere else.

Highway deaths continue because "the guilty" (to steal your phrase) for the highway carnage are most often the various governments that have provided substandard roads. Government tries to dodge the issue by cracking down on drunk drivers or overzealous speed enforcement. But the fact remains that cars dominate in large part because the government is immune from responsibility. A private transportation system with the abysmal safety record of government-provided highways would face crushing legislative and court-imposed sanctions to the point of its economic extinction.

This is a subject well worth pursuit. However, it's probably better suited to a different forum.

-- David G. Brown
 

Jack Devine

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"the bally-hoo that happens when there's a train crash."
It's unfortunate that public policy is so often driven by the firestorm of publicity that follows a major crash. There are thousands of traffic deaths each week, yet the news focuses on a train crash that kills twenty. Perhaps it's not just the greater number of deaths, but the fact that there's a convenient "Guilty" party to blame. Fire & Death, Here's the Criminal, Let's Get Him, and there you have a nice neat thirty-second news spot before the weather report. It makes terrible public policy, but it sells. Too bad.
 

Noel F. Jones

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"You could put on inflatable liferafts, but then the question becomes how do you get out to them and get aboard, especially in cold stormy seas..."

In my experience, inflatables were 'routinely' inflated on deck and then craned off in the loaded condition, a process which is reasonably trim-tolerant.

Assuming you still have power on deck of course...

Noel
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Assuming you still have power on deck of course... <<

An assumption I wouldn't make for any casualty.\clipart(wink}

My own understanding is rather different as the ships I ran around on were warships and by neseccity, had very few boats under davits. (And it wasn't a given that any of them would survive in combat.) The inflatable rafts were stored in capsules along the side of the ship and could be released manually or would be released by hydrostatic pressure switches...for lack of a better term...when the ship sank.

The problem then becomes surviving long enough to reach any and climb in to safety. Especially if the local sealife is looking for lunch! In this respect, I don't see how a merchent vessel could do any better and would probably do a lot worse. Sailors at least are trained for this sort of thing whereas John Q. Passenger is not.

>>This is a subject well worth pursuit. However, it's probably better suited to a different forum.<<

I agree, though I'd qualify that by pointing to the Titanic herself. There was quite a bit of overzealous "Feel Good" legislation passed in the wake of that one which has been fodder for discussion here for years. Governments and "The Peepuhl" are old players in the "Zero Defects Mentality" game and knee jerk reactions to a disaster are just par for the course.
 
Mar 22, 2003
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I don't think the cruise ship industry has ever really thought it through. Obviously, there are regulations that they have to comply with, but I don't see any designs that have actually come out that take into account not only rapid launching capability, but also rapid loading from a fast sinking or burning ship. Airline safety, out of necessity, has gone beyond the shipping industry in this regard. Lightweight inflatable life vests in planes instead of those bulky things we put on during the lifeboat drill before the cruise ship leaves port. And inflatable slides on the plane that you jump onto allowing for rapid evacuation of passengers into inflatable liferafts instead of loading passengers into a lifeboat that has to first be uncovered and cleared, then loaded full of passengers, and then lowered and released. But design for safety is not the highest priority because the probability of an accident that would result in the need to use a more modern life saving system design is relatively low. Hey, who ever thought before 9/11/01 that design for escape from a high rise buildings needed to be reconsidered?
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Sam -- Passenger safety on commercial vessels is severely compromised by governmental regulations. You are correct about a huge number of advances in lifesaving appliances. However, the shipping companies are not the ones preventing adoption of better technology. (Many of the new devices are actually less expensive.) Truth is, most of the better lifesaving equipment is effectively illegal under the regulations governing passenger vessels.

Some regulations are understandable. The bulky commercial lifejackets are designed to be as idiot-proof as possible. They can't be put on backwards because both sides are the "outside." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tie the straps or snap the cinch belt. And, the flotation won't be lost if the device gets ripped on something during evacuation of the ship. So, while an approved device is dorky looking, it works pretty well at keeping a body above water where it will be cheap to recover.

A few years ago I was involved in getting type acceptance for inflatable life vests by the U.S. Coast Guard. At the time, all inflatables were non-approved. They were made out of ballistic nylon and the latest air bladder materials used in military vests. However, when the USCG approval came through, those excellent, high-quality devices did not qualify. The reason was that they were not made out of fabrics approved by the Coast Guard. The approval process is so onerous that inflatble manufacturers were forced to go back to cheaper, less durable...but approved...materials. So, a USCG approved inflataable vest is less strong, less durable, and more likely to fail than the non-approved predecessor.

Liferafts are often preferrable to hard boats in many sinkings. However, the regulations concerning annual inspections, etc. of inflatable rafts makes them too expensive. And, the logistics of getting them inspected on time every year raises the spectre of a ship not sailing because a raft was a day or two out of date.

A few years ago there was a situation in which a lot of people were tossed in the water in what I believe was an aircraft accident. Several USCG liferings with attached ropes were thrown to the swimmers. And, several non-approved rescue devices were also employed. The result was that none of the rings rescued anyone. Those who survived were saved through the use of the non-approved equipment. Yet, on my commercial vessel I am required to carry the proven inferior approved lifering.

The individual USCG safety officers know the score. The problem is governmental bureacracy. If an ancient technology lifering does not save lives, nobody's underwear gets in a bunch. After all, life rings have been "accepted" for generations, so they must be "good." But, if a new device saves all but one person, then it will be instantly blamed for that one death and not praised for the lives saved. And, the person who approved that new device may find himself looking for a new line of work.

So, we trudge along with lifesaving equipment only marginally better than that carried by Titanic. However, I would say that ships are infinitely ahead of airliners when it comes to public safety. We have adopted massive changes in construction to reduce fire danger, whereas the airline industry has done nothing to stop fires despite the fact technology exists to do so. Ships have watertight subdivision that Titanic proved works at least well enough to allow the launching of lifeboats. Where are the emergency wings on airliners?

I guess people accept flaming plane crashes because that's the way it has always been. When it comes to ships, however, mariners have managed to save their passengers against unbelievable odds. So, the public tolerates crispy critters, but not floaters. To me, I don't understand why the zoomies are held to such a low standard of passenger accident survival compared to mariners.

Then, I don't understand string theory, either.

-- David G. Brown
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Good observations Dave. Leave it to antiquated government regs to slow the pace of progress. Nothing new in that. And wasn't it the Coast Guard that couldn't do simple arithmetic when it came to calculate the maximum capacity of your boat last year?
 
May 12, 2002
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Hi Dave

String theory - spacetime has 12 dimensions, of which we can only experience 4 because the others are just too darn high in energy, and everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings ... and string theorists call it elegant! As far as I know it hasn't made a single testable prediction yet ...

There you go
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Paul
 
Dec 4, 2000
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My "string theory" is that all string will become tangled over time even without outside interference. Check the "junk drawer" in any kitchen for proof.

-- David G. Brown
 
Aug 31, 2004
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Couldn't you put some Britannic-like gantry davits on? It would be like three rows in one.

How about a cruise line that says in its ads, "More than enough lifeboats!"
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Couldn't you put some Britannic-like gantry davits on? It would be like three rows in one.<<

You could, but the problem then becomes one of excessive topweight. A cure which can be even worse then the purported disease. This lesson was learned the hard way with the Eastland. Even if this can be overcome, there still becomes the problem of having enough trained people available to man and operate them safely.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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>>Couldn't you put some Britannic-like gantry davits on? It would be like three rows in one.<<

They did. Sort of. Leonardo da Vinci had davits which could easily have lowered the boats on both sides, even had there been a Doria like list. In this case they were never tested in a crisis, but they were considerably better designed than the gantry system. Look for photo of daVinci's boat deck to figure out how the system would have worked.

Michael: Respectfully, the Eastland's stability problems predated the disaster and the additional lifeboats by 11 years. She was within inches of capsizing in deep water in July 1904 (just over a year into her career) and was known for her habitual rolling (the company offered a $10,000.00 reward to anyone who could prove she was unsafe) when standing still or travelling at low speed. The new lifeboats certainly did not help any, but given her yearly 'near misses' even had they not been added it was only a matter of time 'til she went all the way over. Of course, it is a moot point now....
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Jack Devine

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Jan 23, 2004
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"How about a cruise line that says in its ads, "More than enough lifeboats!"

Isn't that awfully close to "Less Likely to Kill You Than The Other Lines!" Everyone knows there's a certain risk with travel, but you seldom win friends and customers by emphasizing that fact. Better to design the ships for safety and hire a competent master, so you avoid most of the hazards.
 

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