Lifeboats save lives. Titanic had a limited number of lifeboats onboard because its construction was considered a technological miracle of safety and luxury. And this is why 1,500 out of the 2,200 people onboard perished in what is considered as the world’s most famous maritime disaster.

Except from these well-aware facts, what do we really know about lifeboats?

1. Lifeboats

-Open lifeboats

Open lifeboats have no roof and are considered the least safe type of lifeboat, as there are no safeguards for bad weather and water ingress. They normally use hand-propelled ores for propulsion.

Credit: Shutterstock


-Closed lifeboats

This is the most popular type of lifeboats used on ships, as they provide a safe environment against inclement weather, cold and rough waves. Their most valuable feature is that they are able to get upright on their own if toppled over by waves.

These are distinguished into partially enclosed and fully enclosed lifeboats.

  • Totally enclosed lifeboats:

Credit: Shutterstock

  • Partially enclosed lifeboats: 

Credit: Norwegian Maritime Equipment


-Free fall lifeboats

Credit: Shutterstock

These are similar to closed lifeboats, but their way of launching is different.

A free fall lifeboat is specially constructed for free-fall launching, so nobody gets injured although the boat falls from height.

Their specific advantage is that they are capable to launch nearly instantly in case of an emergency, while they provide high reliability in any sea conditions.

This type is required on bulk carriers, which are in danger of sinking too rapidly for conventional lifeboats to be released. (See here the story of Stellar Daisy).

Oil rigs are also generally equipped with this type of lifeboat.


2. Inflatable life-rafts

Credit: ISO

Life-rafts in general are collapsible, stored in a heavy-duty fiberglass canister, which contains compressed air to allow automatic inflation.

As they are designed with an auto-inflatable system, their launch is much easier than this of a conventional lifeboat. They also provide a good alternative for storage onboard.

SOLAS mandates for merchant ships to have liferafts on each side of the ship, sufficient for all those onboard.


Watch a life-raft launch here:


*Lifeboats VS Life-rafts*

  • Modern lifeboats have a motor; life-rafts usually do not.
  • The risk of a lifeboat is the launching procedure which is critical in an emergency combined with human error.
  • The equipment carried in a liferaft is much less than in a lifeboat.
  • Lifeboat is open and visible onboard, while life-rafts are normally sealed.
  • Crews are not allowed to open life-rafts, which are inspected annually only by certified facilities onshore. In contrast, SOLAS requires crews to regularly inspect lifeboats.


Other specialized types

-Fireproof lifeboats

This special type is required for tankers. Fire protection of such boats is provided by insulation and a sprinkler system which has a pipe system on top, through which water is pumped and sprayed to cool the surface while the boat is driven clear of the flames.

-Airborne lifeboats

Airborne lifeboats were powered lifeboats used during World War II by UK and US, that were made to be dropped by fixed-wing aircraft into water to aid in air-sea rescue operations.


Spare a moment to note…

A great deal of discussion surrounds the use of lifeboats in the last months, as the new IMO requirements for the maintenance, examination, operational testing, overhaul and repair of lifeboats and rescue boats entered into force on 1st January 2020.

The amendments set out, among others, that weekly and monthly inspections must be conducted by authorized service providers, or by shipboard personnel under the direction of a senior ship’s officer.


A glance of history

  • Until 1912, safety rules surrounding lifeboats were out of date. It was not until after the sinking of Titanic that a broader movement began to require a sufficient number of lifeboats on passenger ships for all people onboard.
  • The need for so many more lifeboats on the decks of passenger ships after 1912 led to the use of most of the deck space available even on the large ships, creating the problem of restricted passageways. This was resolved by the wider use of collapsible lifeboats.
  • The first enclosed, unsinkable, self-righting lifeboat was launched in Delanco, New Jersey in 1944 after it was found that the chance of the crews of merchant ships surviving in open lifeboats was not very good during World War II and the Battle of the Atlantic.
  • In 1870, the ‘City of Ragusa’ became the first small lifeboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Cork to Boston with only two men crew.

Did you know?

Lifeboat and rescue boat are not the same thing. Lifeboat is a survival craft used for sustaining the lives of persons in distress from the time of abandoning the ship while rescue boat is to rescue a person in distress (overboard) and to board the ship.