The FIRST system in a test with the Stena Jutlandica, Photo: Andreas Kron/Sveriges Radio
100 years after the Titanic

Saving more lives at sea

It may be easy to evacuate people from a sinking ship. But it is a lot harder to get them out of the water to safety. A conference was held here this week to try to solve that problem.

Sweden is especially aware of the dangers of the sea following the 1994 sinking of the Estonia, when more than 800 people lost their lives.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and we were reminded that such tragedies are not completely a thing of the past in January this year, when the luxury liner Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast, and more than 30 lives were lost.

Experts say that evacuating people from sinking ships is not the hard part. The difficulty is getting those people out of the water and onto rescue vessels. That was the problem with the Estonia, 22 ships were nearby when it sank, but they weren’t prepared to save the people in the water. And the situation is worse today when the growing size of cruise liners means that perhaps 2000 passengers or more might have to be saved.

This week has seen an important international conference on this problem in Gothenburg. Organized by the International Maritime Rescue Federation, it attracted representatives from government agencies, sea rescue organizations, shipping companies and trade unions from more than 100 countries.

It follows up on a meeting in Gothenburg two years ago. Then as now, one of the main initiative takers was the Swedish Sea Rescue Society. They have fought for a change in the international regulations to make it easier to get people out of the water and onto rescue vessels. The society’s president is Rolf Westerström.

He says the society, together with the Chalmers Institute of Technology and the ferry Stena Jutlandica have for many years been testing a system using smaller lighter rescue boats, together with a special winch, in severe weather conditions like those the night the Estonia sank. This, he says, can get between 300 and 500 people an hour onboard. That compares to 6 to 8 in a helicopter.

The system, called First, has its own website, along with videos demonstrating it in action.

Rolf Westerström of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, which developed the First system, says the aim now is to take the recommendations from the Gothenburg conference to the International Maritime Organization, the responsible UN agency.

He says they have direct proposals they can present to the IMO in London, and will call on the agency to implement them as soon as possible.

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