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Saving the Shipwrecked

Lifesaving Equipment on Ships

However good the systems for preventing shipwrecks and other accidents, human errors and the power of the sea ensure that disasters will still happen. So, as well as improving safety, efforts have been put into saving lives when things go wrong at sea. Here you can learn how lifesaving equipment and methods have developed, just how successful the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been, and how government agencies play their part in saving the shipwrecked.


Lifeboat drill

Magnifying glassLifeboat drill

The ship`s best-known piece of equipment for saving life is the lifeboat, although it was not until as late as 1929 that regulations made it compulsory for a ship to have enough for everyone on board. It was argued that, if the ship took a heavy list, it would be impossible to launch all the boats anyway. This now sounds like an argument to have more boats rather than less!

Like other equipment, lifeboats have evolved greatly. Even 1950, many cargo ships would have boats that could only be propelled by rowing (difficult when it was crowded with survivors) or sails. Nevertheless, there were many epic voyages made in such boats, particularly in wartime when ships had been sunk by enemy submarines far from land. Perhaps the most extraordinary story is that of Poon Lim, a Chinese steward on the British ship Benlomond, which was torpedoed in the South Atlantic in November 1942. Poon Lim survived for an incredible 133 days on a liferaft, using a hook he found to catch fish. When eventually rescued by a Brazilian fisherman, he could not walk, but soon recovered and expressed a desire to go back to sea! Motor lifeboats were first provided for big passenger ships and these were often fitted with wireless radios.

The biggest difficulty with lifeboats has always been launching them, especially if the sea is rough, or the ship has heeled [definition] over. Passengers or crew need to get into the boats, which then need to be swung out over the ship`s side and then lowered carefully into the sea. All this can be difficult and dangerous for those in the boat if the ship is listing or the sea is rough. Along with lifeboats themselves, the devices for lowering them, called davits, have evolved to make launching safer.

Lifeboat on `Oceana`

Magnifying glassLifeboat on `Oceana`

Today, ships are often fitted with lifeboats that are totally enclosed. This protects those inside from the weather, but also means that the crew have a better chance of escaping if their ship has a dangerous cargo which is leaking. Imagine trying to escape from a tanker whose cargo is leaking on to the sea and is ablaze. Where possible, the lifeboat is mounted on a steep ramp fitted above the stern [definition] of the ship. This means that it can be launched even if the ship has a heavy list [ definition] and it can safely move away from a burning ship.

Liferafts and other buoyant apparatus

As well as lifeboats, ships carry other sorts of buoyant apparatus. On ferries and other craft which are never too far from land, the seats on deck are designed to float, and have lifelines attached. The hope is that rescuers will soon come along if the vessel sinks.

Liferafts have also become very popular. They can be stored on deck easily and quickly inflated when needed. Unlike a lifeboat, they cannot be steered, and rely on rescuers finding them. High-sided passenger ships have marine evacuation systems, where chutes lead down to huge liferafts.

Radio transmitter

The most effective piece of lifesaving equipment on a ship, however, does not float at all: the radio transmitter. It can be used to summon help unless the disaster happens very quickly, in which case there is little chance of the boats or rafts getting away.

Now, there is even an automatic way of sending distress messages, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Ships carry an EPIRB, a radio set in a container designed to float off if the ship sinks. It then automatically sends out an alarm signal that is picked up by navigation satellites that can monitor its position very accurately. Of course, this can send out false alarms. A distress signal was once picked up whose position was found to be in the middle of England. The equipment off a ship was being driven to an inland depot for maintenance when it was accidentally set off!


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