Everything You Need to Know About Lifeboats

Everything You Need to Know About Lifeboats

Lifeboats have always been an integral part of marine safety procedures. It is mandatory for every ship to have multiple lifeboats onboard that can be easily accessed and used if the situation arises. Whether it is a commercial cargo ship or a boat, it is important for the vessel to have a mandated number of lifeboats in cases of emergency.

Lifeboats are small boats that are kept aboard a ship to carry out emergency abandonment, in case mishaps such as man overboard, ship accidents, etc. occur. These lifeboats primarily function as a device for the evacuation of people in distress from the ship and then aid in taking them to a safe location.  

Lifeboats are quickly deployed from ships with the help of a launching system which is fixed on the side of the ship. They include a motor, unlike inflatable rafts and boats which are smaller and slower. There are also inflatable lifeboats which consist of an auto-inflation system, that is quicker and more convenient for the people in distress.

In this article, we try to cover everything you need to know about lifeboats – types, release mechanisms, SOLAS requirements, safety equipment, and lifeboat maintenance, to make an informed decision. Read on!

Types of Lifeboats

Due to the unpredictability of circumstances, it is required for a ship to carry at least one rescue boat, in addition to a number of lifeboats. Lifeboats are of three types, depending on their application:

  • Open Lifeboats

These types of lifeboats, as their name suggests, are open and have no roof. They are mainly manually propelled by the means of oars. Some of them may also include a compression ignition engine which allows the lifeboats to be propelled forward.

However, due to the strict safety norms currently, open lifeboats have become obsolete. They might be seen very rarely in older ships.

Open LifeboatSource: Wikimedia

  • Closed Lifeboats

As the name suggests, closed lifeboats are covered by enclosures that shelter the people in it from rain, sea water currents, and strong winds. These boats, if toppled, stay upright on their own. There are two types of closed lifeboats – Fully Enclosed Lifeboats and Partially Enclosed Lifeboats.

Source: Wikimedia 

  • Free Fall Lifeboats

Free Fall lifeboats are stored and launched from a downward sloping slipway for maximum clearance. They are heavier and stronger, made to sustain their impact with water when they drop directly once released from the vessel. 

Free Fall lifeboatSource: Wikimedia 

Other than these three common types, there are two additional more advanced types of lifeboats – Fireproof Lifeboats which are used during oil spills and can withstand flaming substances due to heavy insulation; and Hyperbaric Lifeboats which help divers escape without undergoing decompression.

Now that we’ve seen the types of lifeboats, let’s see how their releasing mechanism works. 

Lifeboat Release Mechanism 

No matter the type of lifeboat, the most important consideration is to make sure it releases quickly and perfectly, so as to aid the people in distress as fast as possible. Hence, there are three different types of boat release mechanisms. 

  • On Load Mechanism

This type of mechanism focuses on releasing lifeboats from the wire, with crew members inside the boat. It is operated when the boat is about to touch the water, to ensure a smooth landing of the lifeboat without causing damage to the boat or harming the crew inside.

  • Off-Load Mechanism

This type of mechanism releases lifeboats after the boat is fully on the sea. It includes a hydrostatic piston unit at its bottom which is connected to the operating lever. Once waterborne, the water pressure moves the lever up which will release the fall wire.

  • Free Fall Lifeboat Release Mechanism

The Free Fall Lifeboat has a release mechanism where the lifeboat is launched from its stowed position by the operation of a lever inside the boat that releases it. It causes the boat to slide through the titled ramp and on to the surface of the water.

There are several other design ideas coming up for lifeboats and release mechanisms, however, there are some specific standards set by the SOLAS regulations which they have to adhere to. Let’s take a look at the SOLAS requirements for lifeboats.

SOLAS Requirements for Lifeboats

According to the LSA codes and SOLAS, there is a set of requirements that ensure the safety on a lifeboat. These requirements are:

  • The ship’s crew will decide the capacity of the lifeboat for a vessel. The number of lifeboats and liferafts should be enough to house at least 125% of the number of passengers and crew. The lifeboat should not be less than 7.3 m in length. Per ship, at least two lifeboats should be provided on either side of the ships; i.e., the port and the starboard.
  • The lifeboat of a cargo ship with 20,000 GT must be capable of launching when the ship’s speed is at 5 knots.
  • All the equipment described under SOLAS must be carried in a lifeboat to ensure survival at sea. The equipment includes fresh water, compass, distress signaling equipment, food and rations, and first aid.
  • The ship must carry a minimum of one rescue boat for rescue purposes in addition to a number of lifeboats. If more than one lifeboat is present onboard the ship, one of them can be designated as a rescue boat.
  • The gravity davits must be held and slide down the lifeboat even when the ship is heeled to an angle of 15 degrees on either side. Ropes called gripes are used to hold the lifeboat with the cradle in the stowed position.
  • Falls are the wires which lift and lower the lifeboat. A lifeboat should not descend at more than a speed of 36m/min, with the speed being controlled by centrifugal brakes.
  • With the boat loaded to its full capacity, the hoisting time for the boat to launch its launching appliance should not be less than 0.3 m/sec
  • The Lifeboats are to be painted with an internationally-approved bright orange color and the ship’s call sign is to be printed on it.
  • The lifeboat station, where safety awareness posters and launching procedures are posted must be easily accessible for all the crew members in at all times and under all circumstances.
  • To ensure that the ship’s crew members are capable of launching the boat in minimum time in case of an emergency, regular drills must be taken as practice.

Apart from these requirements, lifeboats are required to have the necessary safety and survival equipment onboard as well.

Lifeboat Safety Equipment

This is a list of the basic life-safety equipment that is required on lifeboats. You can read the complete list here.

  • Compass

A lifeboat should contain a portable compass in order to check the direction in which it is to be steered. Having a compass is mandatory as it is a crucial component required to stay on course during rescue operations.

  • Signaling Mirror

A signaling mirror is a device that reflects light to grab the attention of a vessel passing by or a rescue plane.

  • Embarkation Ladder

An embarkation ladder has two ropes fixed with wooden or metal steps and is used either to ascend or descend from one ship to another during an evacuation procedure.

  • Dipper

When stranded on a lifeboat, potable water is a very precious commodity which needs to be used sparingly to last longer. However, there are great chances of the water being spilled while pouring due to the swaying motion of the sea. A dipper is a device that minimizes the spillage of lifeboat water.

  • First Aid Kit

A medical kit comprising of basic medicines, bandages, and first aid required to treat minor injuries must be included aboard every lifeboat.

  • Food Rations

The emergency ration is food stored in lifeboats and rescue boats in case the people on it have to stay for multiple days. The stored food ration includes wheat flour, glucose, soya fat, vitamins, and fresh water.

in addition to stocking the lifeboat completely, it also needs to be checked periodically and maintained properly in order to ensure its continued efficiency.

Maintenance Required in Lifeboats

Lifeboats can make the difference between life and death on the open sea and hence need to be functioning perfectly at all times. Here are some tips for seafarers and engineers regarding proper lifeboat maintenance.

  • To avoid rupture and damage, lifeboat maintenance must be done every 3 months by the ship staff to check for damages.
  • The lifeboat hull must be checked regularly for any cracks and drills.
  • The air support system in lifeboats should be checked. The pressure of air bottles must be verified so as to avoid the passage of toxic gases in it.
  • There is a sprinkler system installed in lifeboats. It should be checked regularly to see if the valve functions properly and that it is not frozen or damaged.
  • The engine of a lifeboat must be tested at least for 3 minutes every week as per the SOLAS regulations.
  • The lifeboat battery which is responsible for providing lighting to the lifeboat, as well as for starting the engine should be checked regularly. The battery should be renewed every 2-3 years.  


Lifeboats play an important role in rescuing passengers, crew, and the other people on a ship who are in distress. Not only are they an integral part of marine safety culture, but are also important from the perspective of ensuring the mental well-being of seafarers as well. Lifeboats are the reliable backups a ship needs, in case things go south, literally!

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