COLUMN | Of blockades, burning tires and migrants [Ferry Tales]

Last month I wrote of the unfolding warfare at the French port of Calais following the withdrawal by Eurotunnel of MyFerryLink services and the subsequent sale of that business to rivals DFDS. As predicted, that summer of chaos has continued to bring misery on both sides of the Dover Strait.

As Calais reeled under the strike by French seafarers who have occupied two ferries and blockaded roads to the nearby Eurotunnel terminal, thousands of illegal migrants attempting to cross the English Channel by any means possible took advantage of the wildcat strikes with constant attacks at the ferry and tunnel terminal points.

Migrants storm Channel tunnel

As I write, the Eurotunnel terminal is seeing groups of migrants up to 200 strong storming security fences en masse, giving the hugely outnumbered police little chance of stopping them. On each occasion at least a handful succeed in getting over fences protecting Eurotunnel trains, or into lorries bound for the UK. In one instance six police officers could do little to hold back a group of 50 men who ran at them. The migrants cheered as they breached the police line and sprinted off into the distance. All the police could do was get back inside their van and drive after them, by which time the men had fled in different directions.

Then 200 migrants tried to storm the Channel Tunnel itself. As a train from the UK pulled in they rushed at an exit where cars leaving the tunnel join a main road, causing British holidaymakers to swerve to avoid them. A handful made it through before riot police formed a cordon. A standoff between the migrants and the police ensued as more and more migrants appeared from all directions to join the crowd. Amid the chaos, a number began to scale the fence – a loud cheer going up every time one succeeded.

Police move in

Police have said 1,000 separate attempts were made to enter the Eurotunnel “secure zone” on one day alone, resulting in 30 arrests. This brings the total to 5,000 attempts in just one week. Ten migrants have died in two months, with dozens more injured trying to board moving trucks and trains. An estimated 5,000 migrants now live in the Calais camps. The Channel Tunnel is their main focus after ferry port security was improved.

In the UK the good people of Kent were living in siege conditions with “Operation Stack” – a police operation turning a 17 mile section of the M20 motorway into a truck park – bringing summer traffic misery. As the strike wore on army barracks in Kent were also used to relieve some of the M20 gridlock.

Dover has largely remained “open for business” with P&O operating full services to Calais and DFDS Seaways to Dunkirk, but not Calais. The Dover Harbour Board and the ferry operators were together working hard to serve all customers travelling to and from the continent. But there was little else it could do.

Government talks to continue

At government level there seemed to be some attempts to resolve matters. On the UK side there was talk of deploying troops across the English Channel, although how this would go down with the French remains to be seen!  There is not much sympathy for the British amongst the French who lay the blame for the demise of MyFerryLink squarely at the door of the competition authorities. Government ministers were also preparing to hold talks with ferry companies but the strikers scuppered plans by blocking roads to the port with a wall of burning tyres!

Every cloud has a silver lining

They say every cloud has a silver lining. P&O has attempted to ease some of the chaos by deploying the freight vessel European Seaway which was last in commercial service in early 2013. CEO Helen Deeble told staff that following the vessel’s re-introduction, the company “carried more units of freight – 123,000 in total – than in any previous month in our modern history”. Ms Deeble added that P&O carried 1.04 million passengers in July, making it the busiest July for the company in 11 years. “I am very proud that, at a time when capacity has been constrained by the well-publicised problems at the Channel Tunnel, we were able to bring the European Seaway back into service at such short notice,” she said.

On the western English Channel which has maintained normal services, ferry companies have seen an obvious increase in traffic. Brittany Ferries, which runs daily crossings to Roscoff in France and weekly crossings to Spain’s Santander port from Plymouth, saw July bookings increase by 12 per cent on last year. A spokesman for the firm suggested that the Calais crisis could cause hundreds more people to travel through Plymouth’s port this summer.

Fire on MOL ferry

Sad news from Japan where rescuers recovered the body of a missing crew member on a ferry that caught fire, prompting the evacuation of dozens of passengers.

The 11,401-tonne Sunflower Daisetsu, with nearly 100 passengers and crew aboard, caught fire off the coast of Tomakomai, Hokkaido. The ship had left Ibaraki Prefecture’s Oarai port, northeast of Tokyo, bound for the city of Tomakomai, a passage of several hundred kilometres.

All passengers and crew aboard were evacuated except for Kunihiko Orita, a 44-year-old navigation officer. Before he went missing he reported over the radio that visibility had worsened due to thick black smoke. Rescuers later said they discovered a body near the origin of the fire, which at the time of writing was understood to be on a truck.

MOL Ferry, a subsidiary of Mitsui OSK Lines, said the fire might have started in an area where three or four refrigerated container trucks were parked. Power to the trucks’ refrigeration units was provided via cables as the vehicles’ engines were turned off.

Nine coast guard personnel boarded the ferry by helicopter and looked for Orita for about 3.5 hours in the area where the fire started, as well as in the engine room and the steering gear room. The coast guard also tried to bring the fire under control but faced difficulties because using too much water could sink the ship.

The coast guard dispatched 15 patrol boats and five aircraft to the scene, while another four ships sailing nearby joined in the rescue operation. Thankfully, passengers and other crew were safely evacuated on lifeboats and then transferred to other vessels.

Meanwhile, a consortium led by a Chinese firm has won the tender to salvage the South Korean ferry Sewol, along with the remains of people still missing from the tragic accident.

The Sewol sank off the country’s west coast on April 16 last year while on passage to the country’s southern resort island of Jeju. Out of some 400 passengers, 304 people, mostly high school students on a school excursion, died. Nine bodies have yet to be recovered. To this end, the salvagers will enclose all openings of the ship with nets.

“The ministry carefully examined the proposed measure to prevent any loss of what is inside the ship, as the ultimate objective of the recovery plan is to find the missing people,” the ministry said in a press release.