Planned maintenance on a lifeboat launch system for a polar research vessel was halted before a bungled debut sea test left three crew members injured, according to a UK marine investigation report.

The system failed on the 15,609-gt research ship Sir David Attenborough (built 2021), resulting in the lifeboat holding the men falling to the deck before being pulled into the sea and rolling on its side, the report found.

The lifeboat became completely submerged and water started to flood through a hatch opening before the lifeboat righted itself, the report said. The men were not seriously hurt.

The incident in March 2021 added to concerns over the high level of accidents involving lifeboats during testing and emergencies.

Trade association InterManager said that 514 people have died and 396 have been serious injured in accidents involving lifeboats since 1980. More deaths occur during drills than any under any other conditions, according to its figures.

Campaigners have called for a re-invention of the lifeboat because of safety concerns over the launch systems.

The report into the accident by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) found that routine monthly maintenance on the davit — the small cranes that lower the lifeboat — had halted because engineers were overwhelmed with fixing faults on the newbuilding.

The $279m Sir David Attenborough — which earned wider fame after an online poll suggested the ship should be named Boaty McBoatface — had just been handed over to the British Antarctic Survey by British shipbuilder Cammell Laird.

The report found that checks and maintenance had not been carried out on the davit since it was installed in November 2019 and part of the system had corroded and seized up.

The failed lifeboat drill on board the Sir David Attenborough. Photo: MAIB

The crew members were injured during the first opportunity to test the launch procedure at sea while the Falkland Islands-flagged ship was at anchor off the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

Change of procedure

The davit had not been installed in line with specifications but was signed off anyway by approving authorities, the report found.

The ship was returned to the yard for repairs after the accident to remedy the problems. The BAS has since changed its procedures so that crew are not inside the lifeboats for drills.

Under Safety of Life at Sea regulations, lifeboats must be launched at least once every three months during an abandon ship drill.

InterManager has championed crewless drills, saying that the regulations do not require crew to be onboard the lifeboats.

Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, said: “This MAIB report reveals worrying failures which must be addressed urgently.

“Lifeboats should be onboard to save lives but too many times we have seen injuries or deaths occur as a result of lifeboat failures.”

Safe environments

The Container Ship Safety Forum, an industry association, said in May that lifeboats and launching equipment needed to be “reinvented” to be made safer.

Aslak Ross, the group’s chairman, said: “For way too long, we have seen able seafarers being injured when launching lifeboats even though crews have been trained and the lifeboat is modern and fully compliant.

“Everyone knows we have a problem. Seafarers are scared to launch lifeboats.

“A change is needed to provide a safe environment for seafarers and to regain trust in lifesaving equipment.”