EDITORIAL | 2018 – Another bad year for ferry fatalities

Survivors of the Butiraoi sinking
Survivors of the Butiraoi sinking

To the end of July this year there have been 635 known fatalities arising from 18 ferry accidents. In reality there have probably been many more. It is looking likely to be another very bad year.

This, very disappointingly, is despite the ever-increasing efforts of Interferry, the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, IMO and a number of national and regional government organisations to improve ferry safety. Their safety message is obviously failing to penetrate.

Of course, these fatalities continue to occur in the countries that have been the most dangerous for at least fifty years. Those fatalities involved accidents that affected 18 vessels in ten countries. Of those countries, eight are poor or comparatively poor while Thailand and the USA are significantly richer. The latter two, rather incongruously, remain among the most dangerous dozen.

Indonesia remains one of the three most dangerous countries and, so far this year has “top scored” with six fatal accidents taking 324 lives or more than half the total. The USA, India and Russia have each suffered two fatal accidents.

“Exacerbated by dreadful seamanship”

As often happens, one ship owner has become a “serial killer”. The Kirabati vessel Butiraoi that disintegrated with the loss of 99 lives was a near sister ship to a vessel owned by the same man. His other ferry, the Uean Te Rao II similarly disintegrated in 2009 killing 35 people. Both were appallingly badly designed, constructed and maintained wooden “canoe” catamarans.

Fifteen of the eighteen fatal accidents involved capsizes. That clearly means the vessels were unstable or overloaded, or as is usually the case, both. At least there is some good news in that so far there have been no collisions. As usual, though, the primary causes have been human error.

Unstable, overloaded and poorly maintained vessels that were poorly designed and constructed in the first place are the common factor in all cases. That is exacerbated by dreadful seamanship, which is usually in the form of continuing on in the face of bad and worsening weather.

The saddest thing about all this death and destruction, which is largely ultimately the result of poverty, is that in the remainder of the world ferries continue to become significantly safer and more efficient. They are also becoming ever more competently crewed and better maintained.

Apart from the obvious problem of conventional, monohull Ro-Pax ferries, which have caused 32 per cent of ferry fatalities over the past 20 years, there is little wrong with the design and construction of modern ferries. Naval architects and shipbuilders generally have much to be proud of.

“Safety improvement can be self-generated”

So, what can be done to improve the safety of ferry passengers in poorer countries? On this website we have become somewhat blasé about an apparently endless stream of new and mostly impressive ferries and tour boats. We almost never hear of any of them getting into anything other than human induced trouble.

The Austal-built Sleipner and RDM’s Kilimanjaro II are exceptions that come to mind. Both were involved in accidents that resulted in numerous fatalities but in neither case was any blame attributable to designer or builder. Major operator errors were to blame both times.

Those two tragic exceptions very convincingly prove the rule that well designed and built modern ferries are very safe if properly operated. They are capable of carrying out almost any passenger-carrying task anywhere. They can do so safely and economically.

There are two obvious factors that preclude their introduction into and safe operation in poor countries. The first is cost and the second is recruiting and training competent crews to operate them. Neither of those problems are impossible to overcome. Indeed, interestingly, the Philippines, which traditionally has been one of the worst two countries on the planet for ferry fatalities, only produced one of this year’s fatalities so far. The Philippines, mostly by its own efforts, is significantly improving both the quality of its ferry fleet and the competence of the people who operate them.

The Philippines is showing that even a comparatively poor and politically volatile country can make significant safety improvements. Even more notable is the fact that Bangladesh, which traditionally has been the most dangerous country for ferry travel, has not recorded a fatal accident so far this year. Neither the Philippines nor Bangladesh receives any significant foreign aid as far as ferry safety improvements are concerned. They pay for what they do achieve themselves.

While rich country aid would certainly be valuable, those two countries have proved that safety improvement can be self-generated. Probably the best solution would come from a combination of aid and self-improvement. That might assist even the poorest of countries to improve the safety of their ferries by obtaining the kinds of vessels, equipment and crew training that we take almost for granted in Work Boat World.

Neil Baird

Co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of Baird Maritime and Work Boat World magazine, Neil has travelled the length and breadth of this planet in over 40 years in the business. He knows the global work boat industry better than anyone.