Lifeboat safety

Moira Baird
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Memorial researchers aim to improve lifeboat training

It's hard to imagine squeezing 20 people wearing bulky survival suits into the covered lifeboat in the ocean near the Holyrood marine training facility.

Known as a Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft - TEMPSC, for short - it is designed for 20 people. All of them small, apparently.

Memorial University researchers test lifeboat navigation skills using an obstacle course in the waters off Holyrood. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

It's hard to imagine squeezing 20 people wearing bulky survival suits into the covered lifeboat in the ocean near the Holyrood marine training facility.

Known as a Totally Enclosed Motor Propelled Survival Craft - TEMPSC, for short - it is designed for 20 people. All of them small, apparently.

As researchers at Memorial University and the Institute of Ocean Technology (IOT) test lifeboat navigation training and skills in "icy" waters off Holyrood, sandbags are standing in for passengers.

The ice - represented by 50-gallon plastic barrels lashed together and scattered throughout the water like an obstacle course - provides 10 per cent ice coverage.

The trials are designed to find out how much training in lifeboat navigation is needed for mariners and offshore workers.

"Can we enhance training such that we'd be able to navigate with obstacles, debris or through ice, and can we do it more efficiently?" asked Antonio Simoes Re, senior research engineer with IOT.

"Does simulator training complement physical training?"

The research is aimed at lifeboat training in Arctic conditions, but Simoes Re said it can be applied anywhere - particularly to the next generation of lifeboats.

"Can this be a platform for us to make improvements before the next generation comes through? I think we can."

The lifeboat navigators are divided into three groups - those who received pleasure craft training only, those who also received classroom training, and those who received a third level of training using simulators that replicated a lifeboat in ice-filled waters.

"What was really interesting was ... that the simulator really did behave like the boat," said Scott MacKinnnon, professor in human kinetics at Memorial.

"The first time they were ever in a boat was when they came out here. It was nice to know that the fidelity of the simulators is really good."

Laura Critch, a Memorial masters student in kinesiology, was behind the wheel during the first trial last Thursday morning.

Two others were in the boat as well, plus a reporter whose presence noticeably pushed up the CO2 levels inside the boat. (To avoid tainting the results of test, the reporter exited via the fast rescue craft on hand.)

Critch's job: steer through the icefield five times, following a set course. It's no easy task.

The wind was blowing, though the sea looked calm. The winds averaged 24 kilometres per hour, and stronger gusts pushed the lifeboat off course. Winds gusted higher the previous day, producing whitecaps and forcing postponement of the afternoon trials.

Sitting in the raised coxswain's seat, which is in the middle aft section of the lifeboat, Critch's head was just inches from the ceiling hatch in the cockpit.

"One of the things we did notice ... the tall guys probably hit their head on it several times during a run," said MacKinnon.

Critch craned her neck, trying to get a better view out the narrow, rectangular windows in the cockpit.

"I can't even see anything," she said. "With the simulator, I felt I could see down more."

The distance view is fine, but not so good when looking downward at potential ice or debris in the water near the lifeboat.

The bright-orange, snub-nosed lifeboat is just over 17 feet in length, and the steering wheel is located in the back third of the boat.

The passenger seats consist of a moulded ledge ringing inside of the fibreglass hull where people are supposed to sit side by side strapped in by harnesses.

The seating ledge forms a semi-circle around the boat's engine, which is housed in the centre and encased in a box that limits foot space for some. On top of that box is the coxswain's seat.

Critch was hooked up to a variety of monitors to measure heart rate variability.

"That is a measure we can use to determine if they are stressed," MacKinnon said.

"Of course, we expect them all to be stressed. But we're also hoping that the people who've seen some of these scenarios before in a virtual environment will actually be less stressed."

There are also TV cameras on the boat. One was trained on Critch, who appeared relaxed as she freely turnedthe wheel and steered through the ice field.

The boat is wired with accelerometers to measure the number of contacts with ice, the impact of those contacts, time and course, and the lifeboat's movements are tracked with a global positioning system.

It's also rigged with an aluminum frame to hold cameras in place and a tower to transmit sensor signals ashore.

"We monitor them live here," said Simoes Re. "Because we're trying to measure the ambient inside the lifeboat, we have grids of CO and CO2s at bow, midship and stern."

Another grid measures the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels from the floor of the boat to the cockpit.

Lifeboat exhaust was an issue during one day of trials.

"We were moving so slow through an icefield and it was beautiful, calm day. We were basically recycling back our own gas cloud," Simoes Re said.

Last week, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board issued a safety notice to offshore oil companies - reminding them of the "possible buildup of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other dangerous gasses" in enclosed lifeboats.

A source of that buildup is the engine and exhaust system. The board recommended regular maintenance, inspection and testing of the lifeboat engines and exhaust systems to prevent carbon monoxide and other gases from leaking into the boat.

Over the summer, researchers will go over their data, analyze it and make recommendations on training and possibly lifeboat design.

MacKinnon said it's not always easy to make just one change to the design of lifeboats. Sometimes, one small change can be easily made; other times it has a ripple effect requiring major redesign changes.

"Redesigning certain aspects of the boat has implications on perhaps how the seats have to be redesigned, or maybe the cradle and how it's launched, and how it's recovered," he said.

"I think oil companies and regulators are going to be more amenable to changes if (they are) research-informed. ... they're more likely to make those changes."

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Institute of Ocean Technology, Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board

Geographic location: Holyrood, Arctic

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Recent comments

  • Rod
    July 02, 2010 - 13:35

    Not to second-guess either the experts or the author, but I'm sure they realize that although oil companies and regulators influence and control training, they have little influence lifeboat construction. Lifeboats used here are manufactured for use all over the world and structural and design changes take years to be implemented and approved.

    An interesting sidebar would be a mention of the current difficulties facing offshore operators with respect to lifeboat capacity. Several offshore facilities have severely down-manned (voluntarily, I might add) due to the discovery that lifeboats designed for smaller individuals are ill-equipped for todays (typically) larger offshore worker. Crew levels have been forced downwards by as much as 25%, causing the remaining crew to work longer hours. Good for some discussion I'm sure...

  • Rod
    July 01, 2010 - 20:25

    Not to second-guess either the experts or the author, but I'm sure they realize that although oil companies and regulators influence and control training, they have little influence lifeboat construction. Lifeboats used here are manufactured for use all over the world and structural and design changes take years to be implemented and approved.

    An interesting sidebar would be a mention of the current difficulties facing offshore operators with respect to lifeboat capacity. Several offshore facilities have severely down-manned (voluntarily, I might add) due to the discovery that lifeboats designed for smaller individuals are ill-equipped for todays (typically) larger offshore worker. Crew levels have been forced downwards by as much as 25%, causing the remaining crew to work longer hours. Good for some discussion I'm sure...