By Capt. Fred Davis

Most boaters with larger vessels carry an extra boat or even two, just in case. We might ask, in case of what? The response would be - to use as a lifeboat. Captains of large boats often find comfort in the fact they have a lifeboat. What they regard as a lifeboat however is often suitable only as a tender or perhaps a runabout.

If you intend to carry a lifeboat, you must first consider where and how it is to be mounted. You could have a problem if it takes too much time to launch, time better spent saving your vessel or placing a MayDay call for help. A small boat tied down on the hardtop is not a real lifeboat but if you do carry one there, a spring release mount is a better option than a tie down that needs to be untied.

In my opinion, a lifeboat cannot serve as a lifeboat if it is not capable of quick deployment. It can only be considered a toy or at best, a tender if it takes a great deal of effort to launch.
Sail vessels underway often tow a small boat behind or carry a small boat on their front deck. These boats might serve as lifeboats but most are intended for use as tenders to make a passage from an anchorage to shore and back. Occasionally they may be employed to run out an anchor or heel the vessel over when it is aground. These boats are usually readily accessible and serve better as lifeboats than many vessels found on big houseboats and yachts.

In recent years, midsize and large cruisers have been built with over-size swim platforms to provide room for an inflatable or rigid hull lifeboat to be carried on its side on the platform. The releases on most of these mounts are manual; a quick pull allows the vessel to fall off the platform with just a slight push and be easily boarded and then disconnected from the platform.

Some larger vessels carry an extra boat that requires davits to raise and lower it. These boats should not be relied upon to serve as lifeboats as I will explain. During thirty years experience in rescue and salvage work, I encountered many serious cases where people had an extra boat that did not serve well as a lifeboat. One case involved the grounding of a 60-foot cruiser equipped with a 20-foot whaler type boat mounted on its top. Power to the davits failed when called upon to launch the vessel. There were four grown men aboard who with tremendous effort dragged the boat from its cradle and pushed it off the vessels top. In its fall to the water, the outboard motor hit the cruisers rail and the small boat entered the water upside down. Although the boat provided a platform that the men could board and float upon, they had no protection from the weather and no means of control over the capsized vessel. Fortunately, a quick rescue favored the men who abandoned a still afloat yacht and deployed their intended lifeboat. The men were taken off the upside down vessel and the cruiser was salvaged and towed to shore. It took almost as much effort to salvage the small boat because righting it was impossible and towing caused it to dive and pull down on the towboat.

In another case, a trawler ran aground on a reef two miles offshore marked by a large lighthouse. The boats deep keel caused it to heel severely to port. A small plastic intended lifeboat was tied to rails on the top of the trawler with slipknots. Once released, the boat slide down the side of the cruiser striking both persons on board then flipped into the sea with one line still fastened to the top rail. It could not be freed from the stricken craft and was towed behind when the salvage crew recovered the trawler.

Another case file told of the captain of a large cruiser towing a 22-foot craft when he encountered rough seas. The towed vessel jerked and pulled on the towline so hard it snapped a fitting and broke free. Sea conditions prohibited recovery of the small boat and it washed up on a rocky island a few days later severely damaged. Actually, the owner was fortunate because a vessel adrift on the open sea with no operator was a hazard to navigation and the liability would have been on the owner of the craft.

Most stricken vessels sink slowly and after you place a MayDay call, you could have plenty of time to release your lifeboat. Unfortunately, it is seldom known how fast a vessel will sink until after the event takes place. I recall a case where a large cruiser struck a rocky reef and began taking on water. The captain placed a hurried call for help then released his intended lifeboat. In his panicked haste, his call for help was brief and he failed to give his position. Although multiple Coast Guard stations heard his call, all they could do was send all their resources to a probable location and contact nearby private companies to render assistance.

My salvage company was nearest the sinking and the first one to locate it. The vessel was hard aground in two feet of water and the most difficult part of the rescue was to locate the two people that had been aboard. They had left their craft in a small boat and wandered off into a fog bank. Had they noted the water depth, they would have realized they could drop anchor to avoid washing off the reef and just stay aboard until help arrived. Once again, boarding a lifeboat was not a good choice as one of these sailors found out. He was hospitalized due too injuries received dropping the boat to the water.
Lifeboats tied down or those that require power to lower to the water are just not very reliable. If you must go up on deck or onto the hardtop to release them, getting there may be a troublesome task in itself. Vessels tend to heel over when taking on water, which makes getting to the hardtop difficult. The weight of the lifeboat in a cradle or tied down when the craft is heeled over can cause an extensive strain on lines or straps holding the lifeboat and it may be impossible to release. In addition, shifting weight from the lifeboat and a person trying to launch it may cause the craft to heel further and increase its rate of sinking.

In the case of fire, other factors make the choice of attempting to release a lifeboat first a poor one. Keep in mind, the first few minutes after a fire breaks out are critical and may be the only ones you have to save your passengers and vessel. Fire always burns up in the direction of the lifeboat so you may waste precious minutes that you should be using to fight the fire and get PFD’s on everyone.

There are numerous case references I could make but the point to emphasize is; a small boat carried on board a larger craft is not necessarily a lifeboat and can actually become a threat to survival and rescue. There are a few exceptions such as a boat hanging from davits at the stern. If secured with quick release lines, it may serve as a lifeboat.

If you expect to venture well offshore and want the security of a lifesaver, the best available is a survival life raft that can be quickly inflated and put overboard. Good ones are equipped with an enclosure and lifesaving equipment such as flares, mirror and sound producing devices. Many also include blankets, water, food and first aid supplies along with additional survival equipment. Life rafts are pricey and require maintenance especially for the gas cylinders that automatically inflate them. In my opinion, they are the best option to count on to save your life.

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Copyright © Fred Davis. All rights reserved.