Inspectors Find Deficiencies Aboard U.S. Fleet's Open Lifeboats

Open lifeboat aboard the El Yunque, a sister ship of the El Faro, 2015 (NTSB)

Published Jun 17, 2019 4:49 PM by The Maritime Executive

Open lifeboats, the manually-propelled launches banned aboard ships built after 1986, are still in use aboard 45 American vessels, according to a recent U.S. Coast Guard inspection campaign. The count is equal to about one quarter of the listed U.S.-flag deep sea fleet

Open lifeboats do not have to meet SOLAS 1983 seaworthiness standards or propulsion requirements. After the loss of the con/ro El Faro in October 2015, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended phasing them out aboard American ships. El Faro was exempt from the requirement for enclosed lifeboats due to her age, and while she underwent a major conversion in the 1993, the Coast Guard did not require her owner to upgrade her lifeboats to current standards as part of the process.

The evidence suggests that El Faro's crew did not attempt to use either of the ship's two lifeboats, but NTSB determined that crewmembers would probably not have been able to board or launch them due to the ship's heavy list. Even if they had launched successfully, NTSB concluded, the boats "would not have provided adequate protection" in the severe weather conditions on scene. 

In its recommendations, NTSB asked the Coast Guard to "require that open lifeboats on all US-inspected vessels be replaced with enclosed lifeboats that meet current regulatory standards and freefall lifeboats, where practicable." The USCG agreed, and then-Commandant Paul Zukunft said the agency would support "proposals from vessel owners and operators or legislation to accomplish this."

In the interim, the commandant directed a targeted inspection campaign for the fleet's remaining open lifeboats, and this review recently concluded. Coast Guard marine inspectors documented nearly 70 deficiencies on 35 of the lifeboats in service, including "visible cracks on the [lifeboat] hull, wastage on davits, delamination and cracking on various components, inoperable winches, and oil leaks," according to a final report. 

The Coast Guard says that it will continue to monitor the condition of the open lifeboats through annual inspections. Additionally, it plans to regularly evaluate crewmembers' proficiency and company maintenance programs to ensure lifeboats are serviceable.