Everything You Need to Know About Lifeboats

Everything You Need to Know About Lifeboats

Important as lifeboats are, most crew and passengers on ships would rather they remained unused. However, they are a necessary last resort for those on board and over the years many have been grateful that they were provided.

Lifeboats have always been an integral part of marine safety procedures. Important for the vessel to have a mandated number of lifeboats on board that can be easily accessed and used in case of an emergency.

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

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

In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about lifeboats – types, release mechanisms, SOLAS requirements, safety equipment, and lifeboat maintenance. Read on to make the choicest and most preferable pick for your vessel. 

Types of Lifeboats

According to SOLAS Regulations, each vessel should contain enough lifeboats to accommodate 37.5% of crew and passengers on either side. While inflatable or rigid liferafts must accommodate 25% on each side of the vessel.

Lifeboats are of three types, depending on their use, area of application and effectiveness:

  • Open Lifeboats

    As the name suggests, these lifeboats are open and have no roof. They are mostly manually propelled by oars. Sometimes one may also use a compression ignition engine to navigate the lifeboat.

    However, due to the strict safety norms currently, open lifeboats have been discounted. They are very rarely seen in older ships.


Open LifeboatSource: Wikimedia

  • Closed Lifeboats

Closed lifeboats are enclosed with a roof that shelters the people in it from rain, seawater currents, and strong winds. These boats, if toppled, stay upright on their own. These are further classified into 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 so as to sustain their impact with water when they drop directly when released from the vessel. 

Free Fall lifeboatSource: Wikimedia 

Other than these three common types, there are two additional advanced types of lifeboats namely, Fireproof Lifeboats and Hyperbaric Lifeboats.

  • Fireproof Lifeboats 

    These boats are used during oil spills and are heavily insulated to withstand flaming substances.  The high sustenance nature allows it to envelop the boat against heat and flames for up to 8 minutes once waterborne.

  • Hyperbaric Lifeboats 

These boats consist of a sealable diving chamber with hatches large enough for people to enter and exit without undergoing decompression. The pressure vessel renders compressed breathing gas supply to raise the internal air pressure.

Now that we’ve seen the various 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 tilted ramp and on to the surface of the water.

There are several other advancements being made in lifeboats and release mechanisms.

Having touched upon the topics of lifeboats and their release mechanisms, let’s now look at what standards to adhere to when using the aforementioned.

SOLAS Regulations list some specific standards which every vessel shall observe with relation to lifeboats and their use. Let’s take a look at these regulations below – 

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 people onboard determine the capacity of the lifeboat required on a vessel. The number of lifeboats and liferafts should be enough to accommodate at least 125% of the number of passengers and crew. The lifeboat should not be less than 7.3 m in length. Every ship shall carry at least two lifeboats 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 the SOLAS code must be carried in a lifeboat to ensure survival at sea. The equipment mainly includes freshwater, compass, distress signalling equipment, food and ration and first aid.
  • The ship must carry a minimum of one rescue boat for rescue purposes in addition to the 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 slid down the lifeboat even when the ship is heeled at 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 and this speed is 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 colour 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 conducted.
  • Apart from these requirements, lifeboats are required to have the necessary safety and survival equipment onboard as well.

Lifeboat Safety Equipment

A lifeboat alone is enough to aid people to a safe place, but there is certain basic life-safety equipment each boat should carry.  Here is a list of this equipment: 

  • Compass

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

  • Signaling Mirror

A signalling mirror is a device that reflects light to grab the attention of a vessel passing by or a rescue plane. Any reflective object can be used, but signal mirrors are designed to make targeting your flash a lot easier. They have a hole in the middle with a retro-reflective surface that allows you to train a bright indicator on your target, so you’ll know for sure that you’re shining in the right place.

  • 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. Also known as Pilot ladders, they need to be well-secured and stored at the strongest point midway along with the ship. They must cover the entire length from the ship’s deck down to the water level and one must ensure that the ladder is kept clear of all ship discharges. 

  • Dipper

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

  • First Aid Kit

A medical kit consisting of basic medicines, bandages, and first aid required to treat minor injuries must be present on 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 freshwater.

In addition to stocking the lifeboat completely, it is highly crucial the lifeboat is checked periodically and maintained properly in order to ensure its continued efficiency.

Here’s how to keep them functioning and efficiency of your lifeboats in check…

Maintenance Required in Lifeboats

The presence of lifeboats on board can make all the difference when it comes to quick evacuations at sea in case of emergencies. Hence, they need to be functioning perfectly at all times. 

Here are some tips for seafarers and engineers on how to assure proper lifeboat maintenance at all times.

  • To avoid rupture and damage, lifeboat maintenance must be done every 3 months by the ship staff to check and repair 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.
  • The sprinkler system installed in lifeboats should be checked regularly to see if the valve functions properly and is not frozen or damaged.
  • The engine of a lifeboat must be tested at least for 3 minutes every week.
  • The lifeboat battery which provides lighting to the lifeboat and helps start the engine should be renewed every 2-3 years.  


Having covered everything you need to know about lifeboats, it is clear that they are the most basic and mandated safety equipment. From ensuring physical safety to guaranteeing the mental well-being of seafarers, they are etched into the marine safety culture. 

At SHM Shipcare, as maritime stakeholders, we believe in putting safety first. With years of offerings and years of experience in safety solutions, we provide a wide range of lifeboats as well as the installation and refurbishment activities we offer. 

Take a look at our extensive range and choose the best safety equipment for you! 

If you found this blog informative and interesting, go ahead and share it with a mariner, water adventurist or even a friend.

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