February 11, 2013 Updated February 11, 2013
A spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) told us: "In the Lifeboat Loading for Training Purposes Policy only the crew that is essential for operating the lifeboat is onboard when it is lowered. This is a widely recognized safety principal throughout the maritime industry. The additional crewmembers are loaded once it is in the water." However, he added that determining the necessary number of crewmembers onboard "is up to the specific ship operator depending on factors such as the type of lifeboats in use, how they are operated and their internal safety procedures."
Alan Graveson, Senior International Secretary of Nautilus the U.K.-based seafarers' union, said: "I issued instructions seven years ago that preferably nobody should be in the lifeboat during a safety drill, and if that's not possible then there should be a maximum of two people.
"Lifeboats are meant to go one way -- and that's down -- I don't know why there were eight people onboard when they were winching it back up."
We have reached out to Thomson Cruises to clarify whether eight crewmembers -- the number onboard the lifeboat -- constituted the "required operating crew" or not. They directed us to Louis Cruises, the owners and managers of the ship, who e-mailed back that "there is no specific recommended number of persons to be put in the lifeboat, but the recommendation is to use the minimum crew necessary for the operation. The number of crew was the crew required for the operation of the particular lifeboat given the arrangement and position of the equipment. An additional deck officer was on-board for familiarization purposes."
We also contacted Captain Ben Lyons, who has sailed as an officer on both larger mega-ships and smaller expedition ships, to get an insider's perspective on the incident. "Lifeboat drills are almost invariably considered one of the most dangerous parts of life at sea for a cruise," he told us in an e-mail. "There is a strong sentiment amongst many seafarers that lifeboats (through drills) have killed and injured many more people than they have saved."
When asked about the number of crew in Thomson Majesty's lifeboat, he says, "Yes, you want as few [as possible] in the boat at a time. It depends on what the drill involved. If the boat was taken down, released and operated in the harbor for training, you'd need at least three people, probably -- to hook on the bow, the stern and someone to drive.... Eight (or rather seven if you take out the person in training) may in fact be the number of operational crew assigned to the lifeboat. So it becomes a bit of a balance -- you don't want to put an unnecessary number of people into a boat for a drill, but at the same time, do you want those crew never to have gone down in a boat if there was an actual accident?"
He also notes that if you have a large number of crewmembers training on a lifeboat, it's "good practice to remove them at the water's edge rather than hoist them back up." He agrees with Graveson that, in a real emergency, crew need to get the boats into the water -- and not back up again -- so that's the focus of the training.
Five crewmembers died when a cable snapped as a lifeboat was winched back up to the ship during a lifeboat drill. The boat plunged to the sea upside down, landing on top of them and trapping them inside. Three others were taken to hospital with minor injuries and subsequently discharged and are back onboard.
Thomson Majesty will stay in port in La Palma, Canary Islands, with passengers onboard while police continue to investigate the accident. About 1,400 people were onboard the 1,462-passenger ship when the accident occurred around noon G.M.T. yesterday (7 a.m. E.S.T.). None of the passengers was involved.
According to reports, those killed include three Indonesians, a Filipino and a Ghanaian. Two of those injured are said to be Greek, and a third Filipino.
The ship operates in the Canary Islands and Madeira, where it was due to set sail yesterday.
--by Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor, and Erica Silverstein, Features Editor