The Petrolia, a semi-submersible with a conventionally positioned lifeboat

In an industry which is fixated with acronyms, lifeboats have not escaped, and since the most commonly installed are totally enclosed, to cope with the possibility of fire on the sea surface they are known as “TEMPSC” (Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft), although in this article they will continue to be called “lifeboats”, because, lets face it, that’s what they are. The siting and operation of these craft have been influenced by a number of disasters offshore, most notably the Alexander Keilland in Norwegian waters in 1980, the Ocean Ranger offshore Canada in 1982 and the Piper Alpha disaster in the UK 1988.

In all cases the existing lifeboat systems were found wanting. On the Alexander Keilland four of the lifeboats were lowered to the water without problems, but in the extremely rough seas prevailing at the time, the crews found it impossible to release the falls, and as a result the boats were thrown against the rig structure and suffered damage. The Ocean Ranger capsized in hurricane force winds off the coast of Newfoundland, with the loss of the lives of all 82 personnel on board. Although there were no witnesses to the evacuation efforts on the rig, one of the boats got away but was seen to be damaged during the time that efforts were being made to recover the survivors to the Seaforth Highlander. Unfortunately before anyone could be rescued the boat capsized and everyone was lost in the freezing water. At Piper Alpha no boats got away. Almost as soon the accident occurred the communications were destroyed, and so no formal evacuation processes were put in place, however a number of recommendations regarding evacuation means were made by the court of enquiry.

The failure of the survivors to release the boats from the falls on the Alexander Keilland has resulted in the almost universal adoption of on load release gear, to allow the boats to get away once in the water. The related IMO resolution requires the designers to put in place some sort of safety system which will ensure that the boats are actually in the water before release can take place, but as all readers of this article will know, the inadvertent release of one or both ends of lifeboats while still in the stowed position, or on the way down, has resulted in many accidents and a number of fatalities. Probably most recently, while a boat was being recovered after a drill on the semi-submersible Pride of Rio de Janeiro in Portland, Oregon, the release gear failed and the boat fell sixty feet into the water. One of the three people on board died and the other two were injured.

In Canada the authorities have concentrated on the means of ensuring that the boats, if used, will not be set back against the structure and as a result the “PROD” (Preferred Orientation and Displacement System) is an essential component of all lifeboat systems there. The PROD system consists of a very long fibreglass pole from the end of which a wire is attached to the bow of the related boat. When the boat is stowed the prod is vertical and as the boat is lowered the prod takes up a horizontal position and bends as the boat enters the water. When the falls are released the boat is pulled away from the installation.

After Piper Alpha it seemed to those in the industry that every amateur inventor in the country had put their minds to developing innovative evacuation devices. Most of these seemed to be based on some sort of capsule which would be released from the installation, and would provide the occupants with a safe environment, secure from the adverse effects of wind and weather. However none of these devices were put into production. The recommendations from the public enquiry included a requirement that where possible lifeboats should be oriented to point away from the installation, and additionally it suggested that “The regulatory body should work with the industry to develop equipment and methods to enable TEMPSC to be launched clear of the installation including where, as on existing installations, they are oriented so as to point along the side of the installation”.

This last suggestion has had few visible results except for something called the “TOWS” system, which consisted of wires connected to the bows of the lifeboats which were then lead away to the seabed, through a sheave and connected to a  buoy. When the boat was released from the falls the buoy would rise to the surface and therefore pull the boat away from the installation. One can hardly imagine the prospect of having to maintain the system, and despite considerable publicity in the last decade of the twentieth century, it has never caught on.

There is a fundamental problem with lifeboats used in the marine industry, and therefore the offshore industry. The manufacturers of lifeboats construct them to the  precise “minimum” standard laid out in the SOLAS regulations, because if they were of a higher specification, and therefore more expensive, who would buy them? Because they are tested in terms of their ability to survive impact with the flat side of a ship, concerns are being raised by a number of authorities about their suitability as a means of evacuation for offshore installations.

The on-load release gear continues to create problems, the only real solution to which seems to be to improve the training of those who are supposed to operate the boats. The regulatory bodies on both sides of the Atlantic have been reviewing the specification of the boats in terms of carrying capacity. The SOLAS regulations require that the capacity of lifeboats be determined using a weight per seafarer of 75 kilos, which may be pretty fair for the average Filipino, but the HSE in UK carried out a study which determined that the average weight of an offshore worker was in fact 89 kilos. In the Gulf of Mexico the average weight of an offshore worker may be as much as 95 kilos. Also in UK, the regulations require that there be sufficient boats for 150% of the personnel on board the installation, and in Norway capacity for 200% is required. While problems are not anticipated on many production platforms, which have, over the years, shed personnel, this change if accepted, would create difficulties for the operators of mobile units They have seen their numbers on board rise steadily as more and more specialists are employed, and as limitations on working hours have been implemented.  Of course we should note that because of the possible dangers from accidental release, boats are never filled, so no-one actually knows whether the personnel assigned to a particular boat will fit in it.

Probably the only major change in recent years has been the introduction of the free fall lifeboat. The first lifeboat of this type was installed on a ship in 1961, but it was not until the 1990s that the system achieved widespread use in the offshore industry. The free fall boat overcomes two of the challenges to successful evacuation, the first is the possible set-back caused in adverse weather and which devices such as the PROD are intended to overcome, and the second is the limited capability of the coxswains. The free fall boats on offshore installations are usually skid mounted, and when released will run down the skid and dive outwards, hopefully hitting the water at a suitable angle, to partially submerge and then surface with sufficient forward motion to propel them away from danger. However, recent studies have indicated that the construction of these craft may not be sufficiently robust to withstand the impact with the sea surface under certain conditions, particularly since the testing requirements do not take into account the possibility of adverse weather. This investigation was ongoing in 2007.

A group of freefall lifeboats on the Elgin Platform 

People outwith the oil industry may also be surprised to learn that lifeboat coxswains on offshore installations are very unlikely to have any marine qualifications or even a marine background. In the UK they will have been on a course which has a total duration of 29 hours, although OPITO (the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation) the developers of the course requirements, would suggest that this is only a starting point, and that the course should be supported by constant training and exercise. But then one would have to ask how this could be achieved if there is such a lack of confidence in the means of deployment, and of course in some seas of the world, if there was very little likelihood that the boat could be safely recovered.


Of course, the disasters already mentioned have resulted in many improvements to the safety of offshore installations which will limit the possibility that evacuation will be necessary. And in any case there are helicopters, and the means of personnel transfer to support vessels, which would probably be used before anyone even thought about getting in the boats. So, finally, should it be assumed that the SOLAS regulations are adequate, and that the coxswains despite their limited training, will manage in the very, very unlikely event that the boats would have to be used, or should the industry continue to search for a better means of evacuation, regardless of the likely cost? Even though formal risk assessment techniques now indicate that may be pointless to provide offshore installations with lifeboats, or in fact any means of waterborne evacuation, the answer to both parts of the question would appear to be “yes”.

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