Postcards #1: The ship is your best lifeboat
Jan 5, 2015
It's our first day at sea aboard the Maersk Seletar, about half way between Busan, South Korea and Yangshan, China. Clear afternoon skies. Sunny. Hot. The sea is calm, almost as flat as a sheet of glass. An alarm starts to sound. The Captain's Liverpudlian voice comes clearly over the PA. "Abandon Ship. Abandon Ship."
It's a drill, one we've been warned about in advance. I know what I'm supposed to do. Head to my cabin, through the corridors liberally covered in workplace Health and Safety posters. Put on my safety boots, overalls, hard hat and a lifejacket. Grab the immersion suit from the cupboard. Take the external stairs down to the port-side lifeboat, passing a cadet heading to the bridge to collect a SART.
But I'm not sure if I'm supposed to do a full 'run for your life' dash to the lifeboat or a casual 'oh gosh is that the office fire alarm going off yet again' stroll. I opt somewhere in the middle, a fast walk. It's the wrong choice. I'm the last person at the lifeboat.
I stand in line on the yellow circular number 12 marker. Everyone on the ship is assigned a number to stand on, along with which of the two lifeboats to report to and any duties to perform. As a passenger I only have to 'assist as required'. Crew have to collect equipment and supplies such as EPIRBs, VHF radios and drinking water.
The EPIRB, VHF radio and SART are for ensuring rescuers can find the lifeboat. My favourite is the SART, which emits x-band radar signals. These appear on a ship's radar display as a distinctive series of 12 dots in a straight line.
Us newcomers have to step forward and show we remember how to launch the lifeboat. Plug the bottom of the boat, disconnect the mains power cable, remove locking pins and other stuff I've since forgotten. Climb into the boat. Battery power on, gear in neutral, press the engine start button. Easy. Turn the engine off. Then try hand-crank starting the engine, in case of battery problems. Less easy. Turns out my arms aren't quite strong enough to hand-crank the engine.
It's unlikely I'll have to do this for real. I can't imagine a possible situation where we have to abandon ship but the 26 others aboard the ship are missing or unable to help. But we practice anyway, just in case the worst did happen. And also in case we encounter a Port State Control, a random strict ship safety check that can happen when arriving in a port. PSC have the power to impound a ship. We heard a story about one PSC where they asked only the bottom ranking crew to launch a lifeboat unaided.
The lifeboat doesn't get lowered into the water during our drill, a process which can be dangerous. One crew member mentions that more people are injured in lifeboat drills than are saved by lifeboats.
None of our crew have had to abandon ship in a real situation. One mentioned a friend who had to abandon the Maersk Miami after the engine room caught fire, the deck so hot that safety boots were melting while running to the lifeboat.
But this is an extreme case. If there's an emergency it's usually much safer to stay aboard where there is equipment and shelter. Leaving the ship is a last resort. As our Captain said, the ship is your best lifeboat.