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Do Modern Cruise Ships Have Enough Lifeboats? (Safety at Sea)

Many people worry that cruise ships don’t have enough lifeboats if an emergency evacuation is needed.

Evacuations from cruise ships by lifeboat are incredibly rarebut all cruise ships must carry enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew.

All ships are governed by SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) regulations. These regulations make sure that all ships have the necessary safety equipment onboard, and regular safety checks and crew training take place.

Costa Smeralda

A Short History of Lifeboats

For over a century, Ocean liners were the main way people travelled when making intercontinental journeys.

Ocean Liner travel began in the middle of the 19th century and continued until travel by plane became possible and affordable in the 1950s. The popularity of travel by Ocean Liner then declined.

Large Ocean Liners carried passengers, cargo and mail. Find out more about Ocean Liners here:

Ocean Liners, They Still Exist: Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Although ships were getting bigger and more people travelled, safety rules regarding lifeboats were woefully inadequate.

British legislation said that the number of lifeboats needed onboard was based on the tonnage of the ship. Any ships under 10,000 gross registered tons were excluded completely.

The Sinking Of The Titanic Led To Changes

It is a well-known fact that Titanic didn’t hold enough lifeboats to hold all of the passengers onboard.

Why would she? the White Star Line said she was “unsinkable.”

The shortage of lifeboats was not due to the lack of space, she had actually been designed to accommodate up to 64 lifeboats.

There were only 20 lifeboats onboard on her ill-fated maiden voyage. This was enough to save only around 33% of the people onboard.

The White Star Line felt that too many lifeboats on Titanic would clutter the deck and obscure the First Class passengers’ views.

Titanic sailed under safety regulations that originated nearly 20 years earlier – when the largest passenger ships weighed 10,000 tons. Titanic was more than four times that size.

Introduction of SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea)

After the sinking of the Titanic, it was decided that ships should carry enough lifeboats for everyone onboard. There would also be lifeboat drills and inspections to avoid another similar disaster.

The SOLAS Convention sets out the minimum standards for:

  • How ships should be built
    • Minimum standards / Quality control etc
  • How ships should be equipped
    • Including Machinery, electrical equipment, fire protection, life-saving appliances, radio communications, navigation safety, and cargo carriage.
  • Operations to ensure their safety.
    • Regular drills, crew training etc.

This is why you MUST carry out a Muster Drill when you take a cruise.

A muster drill is a mandatory safety exercise with the objective to familiarize all guests and crew with the location (muster station) where they are to assemble in the unlikely event of an emergency. During this drill, additional safety information (i.e., how to don a life jacket) is presented.
The International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulatory guidelines require that a muster drill be held within 24 hours of a ship’s departure from its embarkation port.

Royal Caribbean International

Find out more about cruise ship Muster Drills here:

What is a Muster Drill on a Cruise? Everything You Need to Know (REVIEW of Traditional and Virtual Muster Drills)

azamara onward ship port

It Is VERY Unlikely That You Would Be Evacuated By Lifeboat

If a modern cruise ship were to get into any difficulties, it is very likely that they would quickly detour to the nearest available port.

If Cruise Lines thought that bad weather may cause a ship problems, they would avoid the area or cancel the cruise, rather than risk the passengers or ship coming to harm.

Find out the ways cruise ships avoid bad weather in the article below:

5 Ways Cruise Ships Avoid Bad Weather – and How It’ll Affect Your Cruise

Emergency Situations At Sea

Some ships have found themselves in an emergency situations at sea – although this is very rare.

Some well-known examples include:

Viking Sky

When MS Viking Sky got into difficulties off the coast of Norway in March 2019, a partial evacuation by helicopter took place.

MS Viking Sky is a cruise ship that was carrying 1,373 passengers and crew,

She sailed from the northern city of Tromso, heading for Stavanger in southern Norway, but the ship began struggling with engine failure. She started to list dangerously, took in water, and was in danger of being blown ashore.

Norwegian weather was reported at the time as having wind gusts up to 43 mph and waves of over 26 feet. 

Just under 500 people were evacuated by helicopter before the ship managed to start some of her engines and limped back to port. She finally docked under her own power in the port of Molde.

Star Princess

In March 2006 there was a serious fire onboard the Star Princess. 23% of her cabins were destroyed in that fire.

No one was evacuated by lifeboat, but this led to yet more safety improvements on cruise ships.

Find out about that fire here:

Lifeboats Used When The Costa Concordia Sank

Some lifeboats were launched when the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of the island of Giglio in 2012.

The Costa Concordia ran aground after Captain Francesco Schettino detoured from his approved course, sailing close to an Island and gashing the ship’s hull on a reef.

4,200 passengers and crew had to evacuate in the dark, and 32 people died.

Unfortunately, because the ship had listed heavily to starboard, it made it impossible to launch all of the lifeboats.

Find out more about that disaster here:

What Happened to The Captain of The Costa Concordia? – Conviction and Sentence

What Are Lifeboats Like on Modern Cruise Ships?

Modern Lifeboats are well-equipped, and carry enough food and water for passengers onboard to survive for a week at sea.

They also carry seasickness tablets, first aid kits, thermal blankets – and far more besides!

They are usually bright orange, so they can be easily seen against the blue sea or dark skies.

Disney Cruise Line are an exception to this rule.

Disney Cruise Line was the first cruise line to have yellow lifeboats, instead of the traditional regulation orange. Disney was granted special permission from the U.S. Coast Guard to paint the lifeboats yellow, to keep with the special colour theming of the ship.

Disney Cruise Line
Disney Magic Promenade Deck
Yellow Life boats hanging above the Promenade deck on Disney Magic

Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises also use yellow lifeboats, instead of orange.

As well as the rigid-bodied lifeboats onboard, there will be some inflatable life rafts too.

When I sailed onboard P&O’s Arvia, the crew spotted a liferaft out at sea. The ship spun around and headed back to recover it.

Find out all about that here:

Normally life rafts are reserved for the crew because they’re not as comfortable.

Crew may have to use slides to reach them, rather than just stepping onboard them from the ship’s deck.

Able-bodied guests may be required to slide down a chute and into an inflatable life raft in a case of emergency.

Find out everything you could ever wish to know about lifeboats – and more – here:

Inside a Cruise Ship Lifeboat (Crew Tour) – Emergency Food, Engine, Seating Plan and More

MSC World Europa
Orange lifeboats onboard MSC World Europa

Lifeboats Are Also Used As Tenders

Tendering is where guests use a lifeboat, or smaller boat, to get from the cruise ship to the port.

Tendering usually happens when the ship is too big to dock in a certain port or the port is already occupied by another ship.

Guests are able to find out before a cruise if a port is tendered, as it is detailed on the itinerary.

Find out all about tendering from Cruise Ships here:

Cruise Ship Tendering – 5 Tips You NEED to Know

When I sailed onboard the Celebrity Edge we tendered to the port of Portofino. On the way back the ship’s Captain sailed the lifeboat back to the cruise ship! Watch that here:

Before You Go

Find out more about the route of Titanic’s maiden voyage in the article below:

The Titanic’s Route – From Shipyard to Sinking (Via Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown)

Find out about the bizarre superstitions surrounding sailing on ships here:

7 Bizarre Cruise Superstitions (That You’re Probably Breaking)

Free Insiders Cruise Line Guide