Oasis-class ships revolutionize the lifeboat

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The term “lifeboat” just didn’t fit. This was so much more than that.

For centuries, it evoked images of passengers and crew who escaped a troubled ship by sitting in an open boat, exposed to weather and rough seas, pulling oars to move away from trouble.

Synchronous rowing for efficient propulsion is an acquired skill, so these open lifeboats left much to be desired. Early in the 20th century, with the development of “Fleming gear,” lifeboats began to be equipped with levers that were pushed and pulled by the occupants, driving a propeller shaft to move their boat forward – similar to the workings of a paddle boat.

In time, other amenities were added – partial or full enclosures, communications systems, engines. It wasn’t until late in the first decade of the 21st century that a true step change in lifeboat design and construction came about by necessity.

Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, required a new kind of lifeboat. For starters, it had to be much bigger, more than double the existing 150-person maximum capacity set by maritime regulations.

“In the International Maritime Organization’s SOLAS or Safety of Life At Sea regulations, there was a provision on equivalent safety,” says Rich Pruitt, RCL vice president of safety and environmental stewardship. “So we thought we could build a lifeboat that’s at least as safe, if not safer, even though it might exceed 150 persons.”

“It” came to being as the CRV55, no simple lifeboat, but a new kind of “rescue vessel,” the term Royal Caribbean officials prefer.

Built by Norway’s Schat-Harding (now called Harding), each vessel can hold 370 people, including 16 crew members, and weighs 44 tons when fully loaded.

Vacuum-molded from Fiberglass reinforced polyester, it is completely enclosed and has a profile reminiscent of the traditional railroad caboose. A catamaran hull provides increased stability in high seas. Twin diesel engines and twin propellers enable the vessel to move at a speed of six knots, and twin rudders allow excellent maneuverability.

“It has built-in firefighting systems for the engines,” Pruitt explains. “And it has a little water closet. Typically lifeboats don’t have toilet facilities. Now granted, 370 people sharing a toilet is not going to be much fun, but at least it’s there.”

Besides meeting all SOLAS requirements, the rescue vessels are easier to board because of their central location on the embarkation deck and easier to deploy with a new davit design eliminating the outswing required by earlier models.

“The guests literally just walk on, sit down and the vessel is lowered,” Pruitt says. “There’s just less moving parts and less actions that have to be taken to get the boats ready to be launched. So in addition to the quality and the improvements in the boats themselves, the deployment and location of them on board the vessel leads to additional safety.”

The revolutionary new rescue vessels were designed for all Oasis class ships, including Harmony of the Seas, now under construction in France for launch in 2016.