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Passing the test: How cruise ships test their lifeboats to the max

Every cruise line (and passenger) hopes they will never have to use the lifeboats. And it’s true that the vast majority of lifeboats will hang off the ship for decades, never fulfilling their purpose of saving lives.

But that doesn't stop the cruise line from testing the lifeboats on a regular basis, so they can be confident they can rely on the lifeboats when it counts.

How many lifeboats does a cruise ship carry?

If you were to look around any cruise ship and add up the lifeboat capacities, you’d calculate there are enough lifeboats to safely carry every passenger on board plus more. That’s because the cruise industry regulations require every ship to carry sufficient lifeboats for every passenger and to be able board everyone within ten minutes of the alarm.

Where do they test lifeboats?

Lifeboat drills will take place while the ship is in port, and usually involves those lifeboats that are facing away from the harbour.

What does the testing involve?

Actually, lifeboats are tested before they even make it onto the cruise ship. Once the lifeboats are built, manufacturers use water weights to test the loading capacity of the boats. Bags are filled with water to represent the weight of passengers, and then moved into different spots in the lifeboat to test the safe load in a variety of scenarios.

On the ship, lifeboat testing covers everything from safely lowering the lifeboats to training the crew on how to properly and safely use everything on-board. Because every crew member is responsible for a specific task during an emergency evacuation, only those crew who are specifically in charge of lifeboats will receive additional in-depth training on how to properly and safely prepare, lower, and pilot the lifeboats. This training is put into action during the frequent emergency drills.

They will test the lifeboat’s equipment and check the inventory, including the survival kits with food and water rations, first-aid supplies, signal and communication equipment, and so on.

Cruise lines will also make sure their lifeboats pass routine inspection, testing and certification by third-party organisations.

How regularly does testing take place?

Inspections and testing is required on a frequent basis. Depending on the cruise line, this means the crew will carry out weekly or monthly inspections, as part of a drill. This ongoing testing and training ensures the ship carries safe lifeboats, which, in the event of an emergency, can be handled by fully qualified crew.

Depending on the country in which it is registered, the ship will also be subject to checks by regulatory bodies. For example, Carnival ships are registered in Panama, Malta and the Bahamas and so are subject to regular safety inspections by the local authorities, as well as annual inspections by a third party and the lifeboat manufacturer. That’s a lot of tests!

How is testing regulated?

If the lifeboats aren't up to scratch, the trained inspectors will report the issue to the International Maritime Organisation, which will take further action.

It’s worth noting that when it comes to safety, most cruise lines will go above and beyond the industry regulations.