Thirtieth anniversary of Herald of Free Enterprise capsize: Not much learnt

I was reminded by our friends at online maritime news site gCaptain that March 6 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the tragic capsize of the Ro-Pax ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in the North Sea off Zeebrugge. That “accident” resulted in 197 fatalities.

For a couple of years prior to that event, we had published a series of articles by Dag Pike highlighting the design, equipment and operational deficiencies of North Sea and English Channel Ro-Pax ferries. Ironically, we received a threatening letter from the lawyers of the previous owners of HoFP a few months before her capsize. They demanded that we cease, desist and apologise for the defamatory articles we had been publishing. 

That sparked my longstanding interest in ferry safety. Publishers who receive such letters invariably know they are onto something. I’ve received a couple of similar missives since. They only encouraged me to dig deeper.

It and the subsequent Scandinavian Star and Estonia accidents led to a tightening up of design, construction and operating procedure requirements for traditional monohull Ro-Pax ferries in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, the so-called Stockholm Rules. The pity of that was that the much needed rule tightening only applied to Northern Europe. It has been largely effective there. This, unfortunately, led to unsafe ferries being sold south to the Mediterranean and beyond.

That southward movement of “clapped out” old ferries from Europe and Japan continues. It has led to the appalling statistic of 32 per cent of the known ferry fatalities since 2000 being as a result of accidents involving Ro-Pax ferries in that category.

Less than a month ago I saw numerous poorly maintained, elderly and conceptually unsafe monohull Ro-Pax ferries operating around the Visayas in the Philippines. They are simply accidents waiting to happen

It is high time that all developed countries with conventional monohull Ro-Pax ferries on their registers banned, absolutely and with no exceptions, their sale or onsale to developing countries where they are unlikely to be properly maintained or safely operated.

Neil Baird

Alex Baird

Alex Baird is the Managing Director of Baird Maritime