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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Referring to the December 2014 edition of Sea Breezes, on page 47 there is a photo of the burnt out ss Morro Castle with some lifeboats unlaunched.

Morro CastleOn page 54 there is a photo of the half sunk ss Nicholas Paquet with five unlaunched lifeboats on the port side as the ship lists to starboard. The ss Morro Castle in 1934, had 137 deaths from 318 passengers and 230 crew, although fire was the major contributor. The ss Nicholas Paquet fortunately had no deaths. Sea Breezes, most months, records disasters at sea both historical and close to the present time. In January 2012, the Costa Concordia with some 4,000 on board after tearing a 70 foot hole in the hull on submerged rocks, ended with the starboard side immersed on a nearby shore and 32 deaths. Television news pictures, at the time, showed persons not escaping by lifeboat but sliding down the hull into the water. Whilst it was reported that the ‘Abandon Ship’ call was delayed for a long time, it seems likely that some deaths would have occurred even if the Captain had realised sooner the extent of the damage.

Page 6 shows a photo of the world’s largest cruise ship, the Oasis of the Seas 225,528gt with 6,360 passengers and 2,200 crew - total 8,560 persons. There are ten decks above the “boat deck”. The ship has eight or nine lifeboats visible with, I presume, eight or nine on the port side. Although not visible there are presumably numerous life rafts as well. The lifeboats would each need to carry over 400 persons and would take very many minutes to load simultaneously, made more difficult in rough weather or if the ship was listing. Are these sufficient lifeboats / rafts to carry everyone on these very large ships? Since the Titanic disaster in 1912, numerous laws up to the current SOLAS regulations will require that there are. As an engineer in the 1960s, I sailed on the British India passenger cargo vessels ss Santhia and ms Dwarka. They had double banked lifeboats to ensure there were sufficient lifeboats for the ships compliment of passengers and crew. The Dwarka’s sister ship, ms Dara, sank in 1961 after a bomb explosion ignited the ship, many lives were lost as the fire spread so rapidly that many lifeboats could not be launched. During the enquiry the Department of Trade tested the speed of launching the double banked lifeboats, they recorded a time of at least 20 minutes to launch the first lifeboat, embark and lower to the water, recover the falls, attach the lower lifeboat, embark and lower it to the water, all in calm weather conditions with the ship upright! Nowadays single gravity davits are usually fitted to speed the launch of the lifeboats but can still take time to embark.

Both I and another retired ships engineer, who I meet weekly in church, served during the 1960’s and 1970’s on passenger cargo and cargo ships with weekly “boat drill” at sea, assembling on the open boat deck. In port, the drill included dropping the boats into the dock and motoring or rowing about. On one occasion, my friend had to actually take to a lifeboat in bad weather, not an experience he wished to repeat again as a trained officer. We both wonder how it is possible to safely evacuate these very large cruise liners after an incident with no clear boat deck to assemble on, rather the boats appear to be accessed from the narrow passage way of one of the lower decks. Often, many passengers are elderly and unable to move quickly. Lighting may fail and ships rarely sink vertically, listing soon after a collision so that lifeboats on the high side may not be able to drop down the hull. Whilst on the low side, the lifeboats are difficult to board as they lean away from the hull.

Have the Maritime Authorities that register large cruise liners witnessed evacuation of the full complement of the ships? A recent television documentary of the major overhaul of a jumbo passenger jet showed some 500 volunteers evacuating down the inflated ramps to simulate speedy escape following a crash landing / fire. The complement of cruise liners is six to sixteen times as many as the large passenger aircraft. I hope there will not, soon be recorded in the national press and Sea Breezes, a major loss of life from a cruise liner being too large to fully evacuate without loss of life.

JONATHAN CLARK
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