In the midst of some maritime-related research, my mental record needle stopped upon reading this counterintuitive claim:
Statistics indicate that lifeboats have cost more lives during training drills than they saved during actual rescue situations. The hook release system, which attaches the boats to the wire and winch that lowers them into the water, is the cause of about 80% of these accidents.
Really? So our species would actually be slightly in the plus column if we just left shipwreck victims to their own devices? It sounds too brutal to be true, but there is credible evidence to support the contention here:
In 2001 the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) studied (PDF) the UK’s merchant fleet accident reports for ten years and it showed that alongside entering confined spaces and falling overboard, lifeboat practice was the most dangerous area of operation. Sixteen per cent of fatalities happen during lifeboat drill – one death in eight – a chilling statistic.
MAIB concluded that there were major three factors in lifeboat training accidents which in the studied decade killed 12 seafarers and injured a further 87. Ironically over the same period they did not record one single instance where someone was saved by a lifeboat.
The report emphasized deficiencies in lifeboat design, maintenance and training. Their findings were confined to UK waters and therefore only pointed towards the global problem, but they were backed up by the Norwegian and Australian authorities with their separate investigations coming to similar conclusions. The Norwegians estimate that globally there are about 214,000 drills a year causing 1,000 accidents and as many as half causing fatalities.
So let’s say that puts us somewhere around 500 fatalities per year due to lifeboat accidents. How does that compare to how many lives the small vessels save annually? That’s tougher to calculate, for there do not seem to be any international statistics. On top of that, we do need to question whether lifeboats launched from shore to rescue shipwreck victims are equivalent to those stored on the ships themselves. But there is one data point from the United Kingdom here, and it definitely hints at the fact that the claims of lifeboats’ overall lethality could hold water.
None of this may be good reason to jettison lifeboats from ships. But perhaps the maritime industry should follow Allen Iverson’s fabled lead and disdain the practice of practice.