Cruise Ship Lifeboats (Are There Enough?)

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Two fully enclosed crusie ship lifeboats on Scarlet Lady in Miami, Florida

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Cruise ship lifeboats are an essential safety feature on board any cruise vessel. These life-saving vessels are designed to protect passengers and crew in emergencies when evacuation is necessary.

Modern lifeboats are carefully constructed for optimal safety, ensuring quick and efficient evacuation in an emergency.

The capacity of lifeboats on cruise ships is a crucial aspect to consider when evaluating overall safety.

Passenger ships must have enough lifeboat space for a minimum of 75% of the ship’s maximum capacity. Cruise ships also provide liferafts for the remaining 25%.

However, it’s important to note that the provided lifeboats are often more than enough, as cruise ships rarely sail at maximum capacity.

Lifeboats on cruise ships also serve another purpose, acting as tender boats when needed. In certain situations, cruise ships must anchor away from the shore, requiring smaller tender vessels to transport passengers between the ship and the dock.

These multi-purpose lifeboats ensure cruise ships are well-equipped for routine and emergencies.

Lifeboat Regulations and Standards

Two fully enclosed crusie ship lifeboats on Scarlet Lady in Miami, FloridaPin

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is the main regulatory body responsible for setting standards and regulations related to lifeboat safety on cruise ships. SOLAS aims to ensure that lifeboats are adequately maintained and can safely accommodate sufficient passengers and crew in an emergency.

Amendments to SOLAS, which came into effect on January 1, 2020, included additional measures for maintenance, thorough examination, operational testing, overhaul, and repair of lifeboats and rescue boats, as well as their launching appliances and release gear.

Cruise ship lifeboats must adhere to SOLAS regulations, which require lifeboat capacity and provisioning during drills to follow specific guidelines.

Although lifeboats are required to accommodate a certain percentage of passengers and crew, they do not necessarily need enough lifeboats for everyone on board.

Instead, SOLAS allows for a minimum of 75% lifeboat capacity, with a minimum of 37.5% of the ship’s passenger capacity accommodated on each side of the ship. Additional liferafts cover the remaining 25%.

Don’t let that number scare you. Cruise ships always have enough lifeboats and rafts to accommodate all passengers and crew members.

Cruise ships rarely sail at total capacity, so there is always ample space for guests. Additionally, most cruise ships provide more lifeboat capacity than the minimum standard. Modern cruise ships usually have enough capacity for 150% of the maximum ship capacity.

Lifeboat Types and Design

Life rafts on Virgin Voyages Scarlet LadyPin
A partially enclosed life boat beside five barrels of liferafts on Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady cruise ship.

Cruise ship lifeboats are an essential safety measure designed to ensure the well-being of passengers and crew in an emergency.

There are several types of lifeboats, each with unique designs and features. This section covers the three most common types: Enclosed Lifeboats, Partially Enclosed Lifeboats, and Inflatable Life Rafts.

Enclosed Lifeboats

Enclosed lifeboats offer high levels of protection against the elements and are the most common type of lifeboat on cruise ships. These lifeboats are fully enclosed with a hard shell, providing shelter from harsh weather conditions, waves, and possible fire hazards.

Passengers and crew can find seating, life vests, and necessary survival equipment.

Depending on the design, enclosed lifeboats can accommodate a few dozen to several hundred passengers.

Enclosed lifeboats typically have built-in diesel engines, allowing them to move independently from the ship in an emergency.

Partially Enclosed Lifeboats

Partially enclosed lifeboats, also known as open lifeboats, are more commonly seen on older cruise ships. These lifeboats provide a level of shelter but are not fully enclosed like their modern counterparts.

They typically feature a partial roof or canopy to protect passengers from the weather while the sides remain open to provide visibility and ventilation.

Partially enclosed lifeboats can hold a similar number of passengers to enclosed lifeboats, depending on the design.

Inflatable Life Rafts

Inflatable life rafts are a lightweight and compact alternative to traditional lifeboats. While not as sturdy as their hardshell counterparts, they offer quick and efficient means of emergency evacuation.

Cruise ships often carry inflatable life rafts and enclosed and partially enclosed lifeboats to ensure adequate capacity for all passengers and crew.

Some attributes of inflatable life rafts include:

  • Portability: Due to their compact and lightweight nature, inflatable life rafts can be stored easily on cruise ships.
  • Ease of Deployment: Inflatable life rafts can be launched quickly, often with minimal assistance.
  • Capacity: Inflatable life rafts come in various sizes, accommodating anywhere from a handful to over a hundred passengers depending on the design.

Boarding and Launching Lifeboats

Oasis of the Seas LifeboatPin
Oasis of the Seas Lifeboat (372 passenger capacity)

When boarding and launching lifeboats on modern passenger ships, use Davit systems. These crane-like devices enable lifeboats to launch swiftly, even in rough seas.

During the launch, passengers and crew gather at their assigned assembly points, put on lifejackets, and board the lifeboats.

Three basic release mechanisms are used to launch a lifeboat from the davit. 


Lifeboats using an on-load mechanism can release at any point from the davit. This system allows lifeboats to be released when they are not in the water.

An on-load release allows for quick evacuation but must be watched to ensure no accidental release of the lifeboat.

The lifeboat is usually released right as it’s about to enter the water to minimize damage to the lifeboat or injuries to the occupants.


An off-load release requires the weight of the lifeboat to be off the hook. Once the lifeboat reaches the water, the weight transfers to the water.

When the ship’s weight is transferred to the water, the water pressure moves a hydrostatic piston to the up position, pushing a lever and releasing the hook.

The Titanic used a more basic type of off-load mechanism. When the Titanic’s lifeboats reached the water, the slack in the line allowed a person to release the hook attaching the rope to the lifeboat.


Free-fall release mechanisms are the most basic. The lifeboat is on a ramp and slides off the ship. It provides the fastest means of evacuation but may cause injuries to the boat’s occupants.

Emergency Procedures and Drills

Norwegian Jewel in Skagway Alaska performing a lifeboat drillPin
Crew members can be seen performing a lifeboat drill on Norwegian Jewel in Skagway, Alaska.

Muster Station

muster station is a designated area on a cruise ship where passengers gather in case of an emergency. Passengers are assigned to specific muster stations based on their cabin location.

The purpose of a muster station is to ensure that all passengers are accounted for and can be safely evacuated if necessary.

They also provide an organized evacuation means as passengers are assigned to a specific lifeboat.

Safety Drill

fully enclosed Yellow lifeboats on royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas cruise shipPin

By law, all passengers must attend a safety drill (also known as a muster drill) before the cruise ship departs.

This mandatory briefing educates passengers about emergency procedures, the use of life vests, escape routes, and their designated muster stations. By participating in the safety drill, passengers become familiar with the ship’s layout and safety measures, better preparing them for potential emergencies.

Most cruise lines offer the safety drill via passenger TV for some time following the initial demonstration. Many cruise ships also provide virtual muster drills through the cruise line app.

Crew Training

Ensuring the safety of passengers and crew members is a top priority on cruise ships. To achieve this goal, crew members undergo extensive training and regular practice in emergency procedures.

They spend significant time learning how to:

  • Evacuate the ship
  • Launch and operate lifeboats and life rafts
  • Fight fires
  • Provide medical assistance

Lifeboat Maintenance and Testing

Regular maintenance and testing of lifeboats are crucial for ensuring the safety of passengers and crew aboard cruise ships. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has established guidelines and requirements for lifeboat maintenance, including the SOLAS.

The maintenance of lifeboats mainly involves checking and servicing essential components, such as engines, batteries, and other equipment. This process often includes cleaning, lubricating, and adjusting the various parts of the lifeboat to ensure proper functioning.

Additionally, thorough examinations help identify potential issues or defects that may impact the lifeboat’s performance or safety.

Operational testing is essential to lifeboat maintenance, as it ensures that lifeboats can be safely launched, maneuvered, and recovered. Crew members typically conduct these tests during scheduled drills, which may occur in various ports of call when most passengers are off the ship.

You’ll often hear an announcement by the ship’s captain before a drill.

Tests simulate emergencies, complete with alarms and the lowering and raising of lifeboats with crew onboard.

Survival Equipment and Supplies

Cruise ship lifeboats are equipped with essential survival equipment and supplies to ensure the safety and well-being of passengers and crew members in an emergency.

One of the critical components of a lifeboat is its engine, which allows it to travel and bring people to safety.

Lifeboats also carry oars as a backup means of propulsion should the engine malfunction or run out of fuel. These buoyant oars enable the crew to navigate and steer the lifeboat when the engine is unavailable.

Lifeboats come with a food ration as part of the mandatory survival gear. This food usually comprises energy-rich and compact bars designed to provide sustenance during an emergency.

Lifeboats are equipped with water supplies to keep people hydrated.

Lifeboats carry flares and other signaling equipment to signal for help to nearby vessels. These pyrotechnic devices emit a bright light or colorful smoke to draw the attention of rescuers and facilitate locating the lifeboat.

Apart from flares, other signaling devices found in lifeboats include mirrors and whistles. These tools are helpful when visibility is limited or if there is a need to communicate with other lifeboats or rescuers nearby.

Lastly, lifeboats supply essential first-aid supplies for treating injuries and fulfilling medical needs during survival situations. These first-aid kits come in waterproof cases to ensure their contents remain usable and protected from the elements.

Notable Lifeboat Incidents

Quantum of the Seas loses a lifeboat. 1 Dec 2022

On December 1, 2022, a lifeboat accident occurred on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Quantum of the Seas. During maintenance, the ship’s number 12 lifeboat unexpectedly detached from its davits and fell into the water. Fortunately, no passengers were onboard the lifeboat, and no one reported any injuries. However, this incident highlights the potential risks of lifeboat operations on cruise ships.

Equipment failure, lack of maintenance, design flaws, and insufficient training are common factors contributing to lifeboat accidents. In the case of Quantum of the Seas, investigators believe that the davits responsible for securing the lifeboats to the ship may have been vulnerable due to wear and tear. Similar lifeboat accidents have been reported in the past, underscoring the importance of regular inspections and maintenance.

A similar incident occurred in December 2018 onboard the Carnival Dream when the lifeboat sheered from the davit hook and fell into the water. Fortunately, no one was in the lifeboat or injured during the incident.

While the Titanic tragedy is often associated with lifeboats – or, more specifically, the lack of them – it is essential to point out that cruise ship lifeboat operations have come a long way since 1912. In the aftermath of the disaster, maritime safety regulations have been significantly enhanced, with contemporary cruise ships now carrying enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers and crew in an emergency.

Most recently, on May 22, 2023, port-side lifeboats on Royal Caribbean International’s Navigator of the Seas detached from the vessel and flipped upside down in the water during maintenance. No one reported any injuries.

Lifeboat accidents still occur despite these improvements, highlighting the need for vigilance in safety procedures, training, and equipment maintenance. By learning from past accidents and keeping a friendly and proactive attitude towards safety, the cruise ship industry can continue to work towards minimizing the risk of lifeboat-related incidents and providing a more secure environment for passengers and crew alike.


Are There Enough Lifeboats On A Cruise Ship?

Cruise ships have enough lifeboats and liferafts to accommodate passengers and crew members. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) requires a cruise ship to have lifeboats holding at least 75% of its maximum passengers and crew. The remaining 25% can be accommodated using life rafts and other life-saving equipment.

Do Cruise Ship Lifeboats Have Engines?

Yes, modern cruise ship lifeboats have engines. The engines enable lifeboats to navigate in the water. They also provide oars and other manual propulsion methods as a backup in case the engine fails.

Is There Food In A Lifeboat?

Yes, lifeboats store food as a part of emergency supplies. The food typically consists of high-energy food bars, water, and other non-perishable items. Food storage ensures passengers can survive for a specified period, usually at least three days, until help arrives.

Is There A Toilet In The Lifeboat?

Cruise ship lifeboats do not have toilets. The only means of relieving yourself is out the door or in a bucket or bag.

Why Didn’t Titanic Have Enough Lifeboats?

The Titanic tragedy resulted from multiple factors, including insufficient lifeboats.

At that time, lifeboat regulations were based on the ship’s gross tonnage rather than its passenger capacity, leading to fewer lifeboats than needed for the number of passengers on board. The Titanic actually sailed with four more lifeboats than the legal minimum requirement.

Additionally, the belief in the “unsinkable” nature of the ship contributed to the inadequate number of lifeboats. Many believed the vessel could stay afloat for several hours before sinking into a disaster.

Surprisingly, the Titanic was designed with enough lifeboats to accommodate all passengers and crew at full capacity. However, the ocean liner’s owners thought that the lifeboats cluttered the top deck and would obscure the views of the first-class passengers.

What Is The Capacity Of A Cruise Ship Lifeboat?

Most cruise ship lifeboats can hold 150 people. However, the larger lifeboats used by Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels can accommodate up to 372 individuals.

Article by

Marcello De Lio

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