The history of seafaring has been marred by tragic incidents largely attributed to human errors, leading to significant loss of lives at sea. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), established in 1978 and subsequently amended in 1995 and 2010, plays a pivotal role in setting and enforcing competence and professionalism standards for seafarers, ship-owners, training establishments, and maritime administrations. The creation of the convention was prompted by the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912, resulting in the loss of over 1500 lives. The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, initiated in 1913, has undergone multiple revisions to enhance safety measures, focusing on rescue equipment in subsequent years. Given that over 80% of maritime incidents result from human error, global efforts by maritime administrations strive to mitigate such risks.

Vocational training for seafarers has been recognized globally as pivotal, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) establishing unified standards through STCW 1978. Amendments in 1995 and 1997 further enhanced global standardization, allowing the IMO to assess the practical implementation of international regulations, leading to the creation of the IMO whitelist in 2006. The primary safety and survival goals identified include protecting individuals from hypothermia, ensuring safe evacuation during fires, rapid departure in the event of ship overturning or sinking, and expediting sea rescues.


Addressing emergencies

Handling emergencies at sea requires confidence, calmness, and effective training through regular drills on board. Shipowners should conduct safety inspections of all ship parts, tools, and equipment at appropriate intervals. Seafarers must be well-informed about potential emergencies to safeguard lives, property, and the environment correctly.

Possible emergencies

Various emergencies at sea require specific actions to ensure safety. For flooding, informing the Master, closing watertight doors, and preparing lifesaving appliances are crucial. In the event of a blackout, notifying the officer on the bridge, stopping the main engine, and taking preventive measures are essential. Fire or explosion demands sounding the alarm, informing the Master, and executing duties as per the muster list. Shipping accidents necessitate immediate distress signaling, damage assessment, and relevant reporting. In cases of illness or injury, calling the first aid team, transporting the casualty to the ship’s hospital, and planning for potential Medivac are vital. Oil or chemical accidents mandate closing scuppers, alerting ship staff, and implementing oil spill procedures. A prompt and coordinated response to these emergencies ensures the vessel’s and its crew’s safety.


Circumstances/emergencies that lead to evacuation

Ship evacuation is necessitated by unforeseen emergencies, which their potential adverse effects can be categorized. These events include those that cause no harm, those that could lead to harm, and those directly causing harmful consequences. Evacuation primarily occurs due to maritime accidents such as sinking, stranding, collision, fire/explosions, and damage to hulls or machinery. Navigation planning, reporting systems, and communication links have reduced accidents, but marine casualties often involve a sequence of events. International navigation adheres to SOLAS Convention standards, detailing evacuation procedures, including closing doors, preparing life-saving appliances, lowering boats, gathering passengers, and firefighting duties. Leaving the ship is a last resort, and the Master decides based on the threat level, with staying onboard considered the safest option.



Ship sinking can result from various factors, including loss of buoyancy, stability, and hull strength. Loss of buoyancy, often caused by flooding through openings due to improper closure or malfunctions, occurs predominantly in low-altitude ships. If the flooded water exceeds reserve buoyancy, the ship sinks. Loss of stability and overturning may be triggered by external forces or changes in weight distribution, leading to excessive tilting torque. Rollover can occur when the tilting torque surpasses the stability torque. Loss of hull rigidity allows water penetration, reducing buoyancy and creating additional tilting moments, especially in large ships without longitudinal bulkheads. Sinking due to loss of longitudinal strength or structural fracture is more likely in older ships. Although sinking happens rapidly, organized evacuation is challenging, emphasizing the importance of prevention and safety measures for avoiding catastrophic incidents at sea.



A vessel is stranded when it grounds to a degree, hindering further navigation without causing damage. Stranding can occur intentionally for ship rescue or unintentionally due to navigation errors, anchorage challenges, or machinery malfunctions. Intentional stranding is a last resort to avert immediate dangers like sinking. Navigation errors can be mitigated through improved waterway marking and navigation systems. Stranding during anchorage often results from sudden adverse weather and unprepared crews. Machinery malfunctions require tractor unit assistance. Stranding poses damage risks and tipping hazards influenced by external forces or low water levels. Evacuation, typically conducted with a breeches buoy or life car, becomes essential if overturning seems imminent, especially near the shore.

Collision and impact

collision and impact

A ship collision is an impact on an object during navigation, anchorage, or mooring, potentially causing hull damage. Collisions usually result from the fault of officers on watch, with probability linked to traffic density and median relative speed. The most perilous scenario involves a ship striking another at a 45° angle, creating large openings and rapid sinking. A collision with a bulbous bow is also hazardous, causing sinking upon separation. After impact, the impacted ship’s crew must wait for separation, return for examination, and evacuate promptly. Statistics show that one or two out of six collisions lead to sinking, emphasizing the importance of prompt evacuation and thorough inspection before reboarding.

Fire and explosion

fire and

A ship fire is an uncontrolled burning of the entire vessel or its parts, while an explosion involves the instantaneous combustion of cargo, particularly flammable gases and vapors. These incidents can occur after a collision or due to improper crew procedures during navigation, anchorage, or in port. If significant hull damage occurs, fires or explosions may lead to the ship’s sinking. Beyond the direct threat to human life, such events pose risks like smoke inhalation or ship overturning. Notably, a well-trained crew can mitigate the consequences of a ship fire through timely and practical actions.

Damage to hulls, equipment and machinery and other hazards that call for evacuation

Ship abandonment may result from hull, equipment, or machinery damage hindering navigation. Crew intervention can sometimes resolve issues, but towing may be necessary. Problems near the shore can be critical if the crew can’t address them, and bad weather conditions may lead to stranding or sinking. Warfare, piracy, and fraud are other hazards causing ship abandonment. Military attacks on merchant ships or direct damages (e.g., mines) can occur in war zones. Organized robberies target ships for material gain, commonly in areas like the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea, African coasts, and the Central American region.

Muster and fire drills

muster and fire drills

The SOLAS convention mandates monthly ship abandonment and fire extinguishing drills for all crew members, with additional exercises required within 24 hours if over 25% of the crew changes. On passenger ships, muster drills should occur within 24 hours of boarding, ensuring passengers are familiar with emergency operations, lifejacket usage, alert signals, assembly points, and evacuation procedures. The muster drill involves signaling to leave the ship, gathering passengers, clothing and life vest checks, cabin search exercises, and preparations for launching lifeboats and rafts. Evacuation exercises include lowering different rafts and checking emergency lights and power sources. Fire drills cover fire signals, reporting to assembly locations, fire pump installation, equipment checks, communication verification, and inspecting ship exits and ventilation systems.

Muster list

The SOLAS Convention establishes standardized rules for evacuation procedures, outlined in the muster list. It covers various aspects, including donning vests and suits, movement on the ship, assembly, boarding, lowering and releasing lifeboats, lighting of rescue vessels, survival equipment, detection devices, communications, first aid, use of the engine, securing lifeboats, cold-related risks, helicopter evacuation, alert schedules, repair instructions, etc. Copies of the muster list are displayed in prominent ship locations, approved by competent authorities like the Harbour Master’s Office, to prevent disorganization during evacuation.

Leaving the ship

leaving the ship

The decision to abandon a ship lies with the Master. It depends on factors such as the number and condition of individuals, reasons for evacuation, time constraints, evacuation method, rescue appliance conditions, and weather conditions. Training significantly influences evacuation success, with a well-trained cargo ship crew evacuating quickly, while cruise ships may take longer due to a lack of training. Good organization, familiarity with emergency schedules and life-saving appliances, authoritative command, and proper dressing are crucial. Crew members prepare lifeboats meticulously; additional supplies are loaded if time allows. Lowering all rescue boats and rafts, even if not all capacities are needed, ensures readiness for any emergency.

People in the sea

people in the sea

Leaving a vessel poses the risk of hypothermia, where body temperature drops below 35°C, especially in cold water. To delay hypothermia, individuals should wear more clothes, cover head, neck, feet, and hands, use an immersion suit, and avoid jumping into water. Clothes trap air, providing thermal protection. In case of barracuda or shark threats, climb on an object, stay clothed, swim slowly, and avoid erratic movements. Warm baths at around 40°C are the quickest way to heat up. Sub-cooled individuals should be kept horizontal to prevent heart strain. Hypothermia, if not addressed promptly, can lead to death when body temperature drops to 20-27°C.



Lifeboats are crucial for prolonged survival at sea after a shipwreck and are typically constructed from materials like wood, aluminum, steel, or, most commonly, Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP). GRP lifeboats resist rotting, fire, and corrosion, ensuring easy maintenance. They consist of a hull, bench, and cover filled with polyurethane foam for buoyancy and insulation. Life rafts, without propulsion, are also vital, lasting up to 30 days at sea. Lifeboat air tubes are made from materials like PVC or polyurethane. Lifeboats, designated for a maximum of 150 people, feature motor propulsion with a minimum speed of 6 knots, providing essential transportation and safety during emergencies at sea.

Types Of Lifeboats

Semi-enclosed lifeboats

They are used only for passenger vessels and can accommodate 100-150 people. This type of lifeboat allows for faster boarding of people due to a larger opening on the ceiling which is particularly important for passenger ships. Ceiling of such vessel, made of solid materials, is set to at least 20% of the length from the stern and the bow toward the center.

types of lifeboats Semi enclosed lifeboats

Enclosed lifeboats

These boats must provide watertight closure and protection of persons from outside influences. A slip gear is situated inside the boat. Each seat is equipped with a safety belt.

types of lifeboats enclosed lifeboats

Boats with toxic gas protection

They are used on ships carrying dangerous goods or occasionally generating/releasing toxic gases. These boats do not penetrate gases (the interior is pressurized), and normal breathing is possible for all persons for at least 10 minutes. This provides sufficient time to move away from the danger area.

types of lifeboats toxic gas fire fesistent

Closed fire-resistant lifeboats

They are used on tankers where the risk of fire is increased. Vessels are equipped with a system for the safe departure from the ship, consisting of a pump and a system for soaking the outer surface of an enclosed vessel with seawater.

Lifeboat Equipment

Lifeboat equipment is comprehensive and designed for emergencies. Equipped with a rudder oar, wooden handrails, and tubular handrails for re-alignment after a possible rollover, it features watertight spaces for storage and rainwater collection. Some boats include desalinators. Lowered from boat davits with steel ropes, caution is crucial during release. Boats have lamps for visibility, survival instructions, a compass, oars, boathooks, bailers, water containers, food, rockets, torches, smoke signals, Morse lamps, heliographs, whistles, first aid, seasickness medicine, pocketknives, tin openers, rescue ropes, pumps, fishing gear, tools, fire extinguishers, reflectors, radar reflectors, and heat loss protection. This comprehensive equipment ensures readiness for various scenarios during ship evacuation.

Rescue boats

rescue boats

Fast rescue boats, ranging from 3.8 to 8.5 m in length, are essential for offshore interventions where lifeboats may face challenges. These boats accommodate at least five people sitting and one in a recumbent position. They can have a rigid or pneumatic bottom and are equipped with external or internal motors for speeds exceeding six knots when towing a fully loaded life raft for four hours. Unlike lifeboats, they may feature gas engines or jet engines. These boats, suitable for RO-RO passenger ships, ensure quick and successful maneuvers with dedicated cranes for lowering/lifting and can stay at sea for at least 30 days.



Life rafts, unlike lifeboats, lack propulsion systems. They can be rigid or pneumatic and are designed to last for 30 days at sea. Lowered by cranes, boat davits, or free fall, they must withstand impacts from at least 18m in height. Fully loaded rafts should be towed at a speed of at least 3 knots. The cover must endure a person’s jump from over 4.5m, with entry/exit openings and ventilation. Each raft accommodates at least six people, and boatfalls are used if their weight exceeds 185kg. Floating rope aids in sea retention, and mooring lines are at least 15m or twice their onboard location’s height.

Types Of Liferafts

Pneumatic liferafts

Life rafts are typically made of bright red rubberized canvas and stored in solid plastic containers or rubberized canvas bags on deck pedestals or ramps. Inflating takes less than 1 minute using a non-refundable CO2 gas bottle. Boarding is via a semi-solid ramp or ladder immersed in water. Rainwater collectors and ballast pockets are present, with an automatic light activation upon deployment. Rigid rafts, using expanded plastic foam for buoyancy, are less common due to space considerations. Release, dropping, and pulling activate the raft, with boarding done using ropes, life jackets, or from the sea.


Lifesaving appliances

Life-saving appliances, essential for marine safety, encompass instruments, devices, and tools outlined in the SOLAS Convention. Ships carry various appliances, including lifeboats, lifebuoys, lifejackets, and life rafts, documented under SOLAS Chapter 3. Passengers and crew must be informed of their availability during emergencies. The International Life-Saving Appliance (LSA) Code provides technical production, maintenance, and documentation requirements. Vessel-specific numbers are mandated, with the code establishing minimum requirements for seaworthiness.


Life-saving appliances, crucial for personal safety at sea, include lifejackets, inflatable vests, lifebuoys, and rescue suits. Lifejackets, worn when leaving the ship or falling into the sea, prevent drowning and provide buoyancy. Inflatable vests have two chambers and are activated by pressure vessels or manual inflation, equipped with eight-hour lights. Lifebuoys, evenly spaced on ships, prevent drowning and serve as sea markers, some equipped with rescue ropes and lights. Rescue suits protect against cold or heat, with one type worn beneath a lifejacket and another having its buoyancy. These suits must meet specific requirements and are crucial for crew members in charge of urgent departure systems.


The importance of moral

After abandoning a ship, individuals in a boat or raft face extreme mental and physical challenges, necessitating reasonable, timely, and organized actions for survival. Morale becomes a fundamental factor in successful survival at sea. Crew members must be well-versed in handling life-saving appliances, ensuring even untrained individuals can follow written instructions. Without the captain and deputy, the most experienced crew member should assume command, making judicious decisions to prevent panic and maintain authority. The commander organizes life on board to foster a positive psychological state, establishing services, monitoring resources, assigning tasks, and promoting collective awareness of interdependence among the stranded individuals.

Visual Distress Signal Appliances

Distress signals are crucial in maritime safety, emphasizing reasonable and timely use. Smoke signals attract aircraft attention most effectively during daylight hours, while parachute and hand-held flares are suitable for nighttime use. Rocket parachute flares are hand-fired, reaching a minimum height of 300m, opening a parachute, and burning with a bright red light for at least 40 seconds. Hand flares provide a steady bright red light for 60 seconds, remaining lit even when briefly immersed in water. Floating smoke signals emit vibrant smoke for 3 minutes, ideal for daytime use. Line-throwing appliances are rocket guns launching flare-equipped lines, reaching a minimum length of 230m, and are crucial for communication and rescue operations at sea. Each vessel must have a line-throwing apparatus with spare rockets and lines, ensuring readiness for distress.  




The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), established by the SOLAS convention Chapter IV, mandates ocean-going ships to carry internationally standardized radio equipment for safety and distress communication. Key equipment includes Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), NAVTEX, satellite communication, high-frequency radios, search and rescue locating devices, and digital selective calling, all aimed at enhancing safety, communication, and rescue operations for distressed ships, boats, and aircraft.

Emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB)

EPIRB is an emergency locator beacon, a portable radio transmitter powered by a battery and used in emergencies to help locate vessels and persons in distress. In an emergency, the transmitter is activated and starts transmitting a continuous radio signal used by search and rescue teams to locate the emergency and provide assistance. Satellites operated by an international consortium of rescue services catch the transmitted radio signal. The basic purpose of this system is to help rescuers find survivors as soon as possible.


Navigation warnings are commonly conveyed through the NAVTEX (NAVigational TEleX) system, operating at 518kHz. It comprises coastal stations and ship receivers, broadcasting messages received from official coordinators. NAVTEX is organized into groups with up to 25 stations in one NAVAREA area, transmitting messages six times daily. It offers three message types: ROUTINE (regular transmission), IMPORTANT (immediate transmission), and VITAL (preceded by a signal instructing other stations to cease broadcasting, starting when the frequency is released). The system enhances safety by providing timely information to ships.


The satellite system comprises INMARSAT and COSPAS-SARSAT. INMARSAT offers international communication at 1.6GHz and 1.5GHz frequencies for ships. COSPAS-SARSAT, a search and rescue system, locates EPIRB distress signals globally at 121.5MHz and 406.025MHz. Both systems contribute to maritime safety through effective communication and distress signal location. High-frequency (HF) radio equipment with digital selective calling (DSC) and HF narrow-band direct printing channels are part of a GMDSS system. Ships in polar regions must carry HF DSC and NDBP equipment. Additionally, Search and Rescue Transponders (SARTs) emit radar signals, displaying their direction and aiding rescue efforts. SARTs must be waterproof, durable, and have a visible SOLAS tag on the navigating bridge.

Digital selective call (DSC)

The DSC system facilitates various calls, including distress, ship, and selective calls. Danger calls convey safety, emergency, or distress messages, while other calls address routine ship business. DSC alerts follow a standardized format, including accident type, position, time (UTC), and proposed communication method. Standardized accidents encompass fire, explosion, flooding, collision, grounding, listing, capsizing, sinking, disabled, adrift, undesignated distress, abandoning, and EPIRB emissions.


Helicopter operation at sea

helicopter assistance

Aircraft, particularly helicopters, serve as effective rescue tools, lifting individuals from boats or rafts and transporting them to safety, often from lifeboats to the mainland. Essential for helicopter-ship rescue is a radio connection, with communication on aviation or marine hazard frequencies. Lifting is performed by a technician, not the pilot, using equipment like belts, baskets, nets, stretchers, or seats. A belt is commonly used, with lifting managed by one person signaling readiness. Deck areas are cleared and marked, and lighting is crucial, with all individuals involved wearing lifejackets. Communication includes details like position, course, speed, and weather. Specialized lifting equipment ensures safe and efficient helicopter-based rescues.



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