OPINION: IMO should ban sales of second-hand monohull Ro-Pax “killing machine” ferries to developing countries

Photo: Wikipedia/Compdude123
Photo: Wikipedia/Compdude123 – Evergreen State

Last month I wrote about the excellent safety record of multihull fast ferries, both Ro-Pax and passenger only. Statistically, they are the safest ferry type by far.

Drawing on the same research, I have to regretfully record that, conversely, conventional monohull Ro-Pax ferries have a disproportionately bad safety record. That is particularly so when they are elderly vessels “sold south” from developed countries to developing ones. The dangers are so great that the southward flow of such vessels should be banned.

Examining our Baird Maritime Passenger Vessel Accident Database and focusing on the 750 fatal accidents that occurred in the fifty years to December 31, 2015, is depressingly revealing. The very good news is that only .001 per cent of passenger vessel fatalities involved catamaran fast ferries. The bad news, though, is that over the fifty years studied, 25 per cent of fatalities occurred in accidents involving conventional, monohull Ro-Pax ferries.

Even more alarming is that fact that over the final sixteen years of the study from January , 2000, some 32 per cent of fatalities involved conventional, mostly elderly, Ro-Pax ferries. Of those, 95 per cent occurred in developing countries. This is disgracefully disproportionate.

While the northern developed countries have significantly improved their Ro-Pax ferry safety records since the European Gateway, Herald of Free Enterprise, Scandinavian Star, Estonia and other disasters of the 1980s and 90s, the problem has very largely been “sold south”. This has become increasingly evident over the most recent seventeen years.

“Developing countries, however, are where major Ro-Pax catastrophes continue to occur”

The real problem, of course, is that conventional monohull Ro-Pax ferries are, because of their low, open vehicle decks and large access doors at each end, particularly vulnerable to even the slightest human error.

That may have become almost acceptable in northern Europe where crew training and discipline are now almost exemplary. There, they now seem to understand and respect the checks and processes required to ensure safe operations. However, in developing countries, where crews are generally inadequately trained and disciplined, the opposite applies. There, if anything can go wrong, it will, and does.

While there has only been one known fatal Ro-Pax accident in northern Europe since 2000, there have been fourteen in the Mediterranean. So, even the so-called developed countries of Spain, Italy, Turkey and Greece have not yet made their Ro-Pax operations completely safe. Developing countries, however, are where major Ro-Pax catastrophes continue to occur. Overloading, poor lookout, inadequate maintenance and general negligence ensure that the conceptual weaknesses of Ro-Pax ferries, particularly older ones, make them especially vulnerable to major disasters caused by human errors.

Since 2000, when the southward flow of second-hand Ro-Pax ferries turned into more of a flood, the number of Ro-Pax accidents has become disproportionately and unacceptably high. Because of their sheer size and carrying capacity, exacerbated by wilful negligence and gross overloading, the number of fatalities arising from each accident has become obscene.

The known Ro-Pax death toll in developing countries has reached 9,605 in 57 accidents since January , 2000. The comparable figures for developed countries were 500 fatalities in 22 accidents. Those figures give a good idea of the proportions of the problem.

In developed countries the major known causes of fatal ferry accidents have been nine collisions, five fires, two groundings and one capsize. All, almost certainly, due to human errors.

“Distressingly, the sale south of elderly monohull Ro-Pax ferries continues despite the obvious safety dangers they present”

In developing countries, however, capsizes are the major problem with fifteen accidents. There were twelve fires, four groundings and eight collisions. The capsizes, due to overloading, and the fires, due to negligence, emphasise the vulnerability of conventional Ro-Pax ferries to the kinds of behaviour that are routine in developing countries.

Put bluntly, developing countries simply do not have the cultural, educational, regulatory and enforcement muscle to ensure the safe operation of such complex and inherently vulnerable ships as conventional monohull Ro-Pax ferries.

Distressingly, the sale south of elderly monohull Ro-Pax ferries continues despite the obvious safety dangers they present. Even ostensibly responsible ferry owning organisations continue to sell grossly inappropriate vessels to poor countries. One such was the American state government-owned Washington State Ferries. In March 2017 WSF sold the 63-year-old Ro-Pax Evergreen State to Grenada. This, after seeing its non-Ro-Pax ferry Skagit sold on, via an intermediary, to Tanzania where it capsized and sank in 2012 with massive loss of life.

The Evergreen State, apart from being ancient, was designed for the sheltered waters of Puget Sound, not for the exposed waters of the aptly named Windward Islands. All this reputational risk for a miserable US$300,000!

The International Maritime Organisation, on its website under Introduction to IMO, claims that its measures cover all aspects of international shipping including, among others, disposal of vessels. It most certainly should do so but it has done a very poor job so far. IMO has enormous influence. It should use it to immediately ban the sale of second hand monohull Ro-Pax ferries to developing countries.

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.