Abandoning ship by lifeboat in a storm has always been hazardous. The danger is greatly increased on floating drill platforms, where boats must descend from the 10-story heights of a structure that may be tilting and affords no protective lee against wind and sea.
Several novel potential solutions to the problem remain on the drawing boards of American lifeboat companies. The one major innovation in escape systems is the "diving" lifeboat, a design underwritten by the Norwegian government and marketed by Harding Safety Systems Company.
Installed in a launcher as high as 130 feet above the sea, the largest "diving" boat holds 75 people, who strap themselves into contoured couches with multiple seat belts. Upon release, the bullet-shaped craft plunges in free-fall, submerges as deep as 30 feet, then surfaces with a momentum of 10 knots -- heading away from a burning or sinking rig.
The design is radical, and critics say the boat will not work on a listing rig. Dave Riffe, a former risk coordinator for Gulf Oil, tested one and found it terrifying. "A rig emergency is a harrowing experience. People panic," said Riffe. "What if somebody sets this thing off before everyone is strapped in? What about injured or unconscious men?"
The system has been installed on 30 Norwegian ships and rigs, and the government requires every crewman of a vessel equipped with a "diving" boat to ride one in a practice. According to Terji Wiik, president of Harding, only one U.S. company has made a purchase: Sonat Offshore Drilling, which will install four of the $250,000 boats on a new deepwater explorer rig.