Congress to vote to repeal survival craft requirement

ISSUE:  This week the U.S. House of Representatives to will consider a bill that would eliminate the requirement that all survival craft on existing vessels keep people out of the water



At the end of this column I will issue a challenge to any Member of Congress, the Coast Guard, or owner of a vessel that believes Congress should repeal the requirement that survival craft keep people out of the water. But first, some background on this issue.


When a person on vacation decides to go on a charter fishing boat or whale watching excursion, they have every expectation that they will return home safely.  But what if something goes wrong – accidents do happen. What if everyone on board is forced to abandon ship – can they all survive until the Coast Guard arrives, up to 2 hours later? It has been over 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic and all vessels carrying passengers still are still not required to have survival craft to keep everyone out of the water. This may be particularly dangerous for the elderly, children and those with disabilities.

In 1901, the Federal Government approved the use of a device called a “Carley float” (pictured below). Today it is referred to as a “survival craft”- either a Buoyant Apparatus or Life-Float – and is something that one can hang onto until rescued – if one can hang onto it.  Today we have hundreds of thousands of passengers going out on excursions – including children, the elderly, and the disabled – that probably could not hang onto this device in a pitching sea for up to 2 hours.

                                Rigid Boyant apparatus       Life float photo

                                 Rigid buoyant apparatus (left) vs life-float (right)

In 2010, Congress intervened to protect the public. Section 609 of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010 (1) requires all survival craft to keep people out of the water; (2) prohibits the Coast Guard from approving survival craft that do not keep people out of the water beginning on October 15, 2010; and (3) allows vessels that have the existing survival craft to use them until 2016 – by which time they would have to replace them with survival craft that keep people out of the water.

There are basically two options to replacing the existing survival craft.  First, the vessel owner can replace them with an inflatable survival craft such as an Inflatable Buoyant Apparatus that has a floor.  Some vessel owners object to this because of the cost – including the annual cost to test them to ensure they will inflate.

The second option is to replace them with a rigid survival craft – similar to the existing craft – but with a floor in the bottom. During World War II, the Navy/Coast Guard recognized the need to replace the old Carley floats with something that would help our soldiers and sailors survive if their ship was sunk. They developed a survival craft called the “Winner Float”.

                                          ERE - survival craft

The Coast Guard  approved rigid survival craft that would keep people out of the water until the 1950’s.  It is time to bring them back.  There is a large market for a manufacturer to build this type of survival craft with stronger and lighter modern materials.

Casualty investigations by both the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigations have recommended that survival craft keep individuals out of the water, such as in their 1973 reports on the M/V COMET which sank off Point Judith, Rhode Island killing 16 people.

A 1989 study by the NTSB titled “Passenger Vessels Operating from U.S. Ports” recommended that the U.S. Coast Guard:

“Require that all passenger vessels except ferries on river routes operating on short runs of 30 minutes or less have primary lifesaving equipment that prevents immersion in the water for all passengers and crew.”

A letter dated November 15, 1989, from the NTSB to the Coast Guard stated:

Life floats (and non-inflatable buoyant apparatus) are antiquated pieces of survival gear that should no longer be allowed on board inspected vessels. They should be phased out of service, just as the cork life preservers and calcium carbide water light were phased out of service. The Safety Board opposes the continued use of life floats and non-inflatable buoyant apparatus as primary lifesaving devices.”

A 2005 study by the Coast Guard titled “Report on Small Passenger Vessel Safety” stated that buoyant Apparatus and Life Floats,

“which have been in use on commercial vessels for at least 70 years, are similar in that they are both like very large life rings. The primary difference is that a life float includes a platform suspended from the buoyant portion of the device by netting or similar means. Neither device supports a person out of the water; with the exception of a few persons who might be able to stand on the platform in the center of a life float and only be immersed waist-deep, they generally only provide something for persons in the water to hold on to, with most of the rated capacity hanging on the outside edge.”

Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 (as introduced) repeals out-of-the-water protection for all existing vessels.

Section 302 of  the proposed Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2015 (H.R. 1987, as introduced) eliminates the requirement that all existing vessels , such as charter fishing boats and whale watching excursion boats, have craft that will keep their passengers and crew out of the water in the event of an emergency.

It only requires out of the water protection for vessels built after January 1, 2016 AND that operate in cold water areas.

This issue is not just about cold water – it is about protecting the lives of children, the elderly, and the disabled that are on these vessels for an enjoyable trip regardless of whether they are operating in cold water. Should a disabled veteran, wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq, forgo an enjoyable charter fishing excursion just because the charter boat will not provide survival craft designed with out- of- the- water protection that will ensure his/her safety? The Coast Guard’s own performance standards for Search and Rescue sets a maximum time interval it should take them to get to a casualty is 2 hours.  How are these people to survive that 2 hour wait if they are immersed in water and cannot hold on to a survival craft? This is compounded by the fact that an American Red Cross survey found that 44 percent of Americans cannot perform basic swim safety skills.

Section 302 can lead to unnecessary loss of life. It is time to leave the technology of 1901 behind and for all vessels carrying survival craft to provide out- of- the- water protection for all those onboard.

CHALLENGE:  I challenge any Member of Congress, the Coast Guard, or vessel owner to hold onto an existing survival craft for 2 hours, 20 miles off the coast of San Diego.  If they want a more significant challenge – do it with one hand tied behind their back or both their legs tied together to partially simulate the challenges of a disabled individual.

If you would like to contact your Member of Congress to oppose section 302 of H.R. 1987, you can enter your zip code in the attached link and it will help you make that contact.  Link: Contact Member of Congress.

I know that my family will not be sailing on a whale watching boat or charter fishing boat that is required to carry survival craft unless it provides out-of-the-water protection.  What about yours?

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