FEATURE | Taking a ferry can be hazardous to your health

Princess of the Stars. Photo: US Navy

Neil Baird has long been a vocal advocate for ferry safety, but the accidents keep happening and the world barely notices. There is a good reason for this, of course, because most of the accidents happen in the Third World far from the television cameras.

Perhaps the recent tragedy in Budapest will help bring ferry safety back into the spotlight, but don’t hold your breath. A string of accidents in the Congo at the same time, which produced a far higher body count, went largely unreported. It seems we need more disasters on the Thames or the Brisbane River before the world will take the problem seriously.

Those of us who live, work and travel in less developed nations have probably all taken trips that could have turned us into statistics. I remember crossing the Pearl River Delta in a strong northeast monsoon on an elderly car ferry which had been build decades earlier for service on Japan’s Inland Sea. The passengers were soon becoming unwell, so I ventured out onto the deck for much-needed fresh air and amused myself by conducting a safety survey.

The liferafts were particularly interesting. The seals had disappeared, so the valises resembled two halves of an eggshell with some rubber stuffed inside. The inspection dates were so long ago the writing had weathered away and was illegible, and the hydrostatic releases existed only in my imagination.

“All we really need is some foreign aid to construct a lot of vessels for the less developed parts of the planet”

The fact is, though, that if you want to travel in remote foreign parts you have to take whatever transport will get you to your destination. And if the lifejackets on the ferry were never approved by any recognised authority, you simply have to like it or lump it. I have crossed rivers where the only safety gear was a lifejacket, and the only reason I could recognise it as a lifejacket was because it had once been coloured orange.

To be fair, China has improved dramatically in recent years, but I cannot say for sure that overcrowding never happens, or that all the safety gear is now pristine.

There are adventures to be had almost anywhere. One business trip to a remote island in the Southern Philippines turned interesting when we discovered that our destination was said to be haunted, and people on the larger island from which we set out refused to go there. We eventually found an elderly bangka owner (both the boat and its owner being elderly) who agreed to take us for an enormous sum of money, and we set off in a glorified canoe with no safety gear whatsoever and a single dodgy outboard, which died regularly.

We chose to make that journey, so would have had nobody to blame but ourselves if it turned into a disaster. As it happened, we arrived to find an island populated almost entirely by women and children and had an excellent visit. We discovered all the men were sailors who plied the world’s oceans to send money back to their families, and I suspect they started the rumour about the ghosts to keep other males away during their long absences.

“It would be nice to think some of the profits will be ploughed back into establishing a genuine safety culture”

Then a couple of years ago I was in Budapest, and my wife insisted upon taking a romantic dinner cruise on the beautiful blue Danube, which is neither blue nor particularly beautiful, although the city looks spectacular when it is illuminated at night. Upon boarding our conveyance I did what most mariners do and looked for the muster list, emergency instructions, lifejacket lockers, emergency escape routes and all the other safety-related items that we tend to expect.

There was nothing.

I apprehended a passing crewmember who was busy waiting on the tables, and asked him where the safety equipment was stored, and when we might expect a safety briefing.

“Do not worry about that, sir,” he replied smugly. “If anything happens the crew will tell you what to do. We have training and we will keep you safe,”

Personally, I would not have trusted him to keep his thumb out of the soup, but the river was low, there was not much current, it was the middle of summer and we were seated near the exit, so I decided not to make a fuss. I was fairly sure I could get out if I had to although, sadly, my wife cannot swim.

All this came back to me when I heard about the tragedy that claimed the lives of a South Korean tour group in Budapest. Let us hope there will be a thorough investigation, and the authorities will be forced to implement proper safety procedures, because I did not see any.

Budapest makes a lot of money from the tourists who take short river cruises in the city, so it would be nice to think some of the profits will be ploughed back into establishing a genuine safety culture, or perhaps even building ferries with a modicum of reserve buoyancy and stability.

Pipe dreams

Sadly, admitting that the present system is unsafe might force the authorities to do something about it, so they have responded in the normal manner and arrested the captain of the larger vessel that hit the tour boat.

It is saddening that most of these problems could be solved fairly easily. There are plenty of designs for cheap, relatively uncomplicated ferries that are safe and easy to maintain. Australian designers have been particularly good in this area, so all we really need is some foreign aid to construct a lot of vessels for the less developed parts of the planet. Many of the designs could probably be built locally, giving a boost to struggling economies, so why not?

The answer is that this could have been done already, but politics and greed are always with us so it is likely to remain a pipe dream, and people will continue to die.

See all the other content from this month’s Passenger Vessel Week right here, including reviews, features, opinions and news.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.