Do the Sinkings of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia Have Any Bearing On Us?

The two named incidents are among the most famous in the maritime world when RORO or ROPAX accidents are mentioned and discussed. The two cases have been used in many times to highlight the weakness of ROROs compared to conventional freighters which feature watertight compartments which the ROROs are sorely lacking (watertight compartments prevent ingress of water in case of a hull breach). Moreover, the two incidents have been used as rationales for RORO design changes and reforms in safety policies.

From “The Express” of UK

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a 131.9-meter ferry built in 1980 then sailing from Belgium to England. She sailed on a night of March 6, 1987 but the deck crew forgot to close the bow door and this door was not visible from the bridge and there was no CCTV to check that. When the ship reached cruising speed the sea entered the deck in great quantity which produced what is called the “free surface effect” which in this particular case was sea water sloshing within the hull that destroyed her stability causing her to capsize. That happened just minutes after leaving the port of Zeebrugge.

The MS Estonia was a 157.0-meter ferry built in 1979 then sailing from Estonia to Sweden. She sailed one night on September 28, 1994 on stormy seas of winds of 55 to 75 kilometers per hour which was considered normal in the part of the Baltic Sea in that part of the year. The significant wave height of the sea was estimated to be from 13 to 20 feet. On that particular night the visor bow door of the failed and it dragged the bow ramp of the ship. The visor door was not visible from the bridge. Water then entered the ship in great quantity and flooded the vehicle deck of the RORO and the free surface effect caused her to capsize much like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise.

From “The Local” of Sweden

These two grievious sinkings upset the ROPAX world causing changes in RORO designs like the recommendation that instead of having a bow ramp it is better for the ROROs to just have front quarter ramps where the blow from the waves will not be in great force. There was also the suggestion that front ramp mechanisms be done away completely and it seems this might already been adopted at least in principle. One effect is the sealing of bow ramps on some ships that have this feature. And the visor bow door was almost completely gone in RORO designs because of the MS Estonia incident as the thinking that it was an unsafe design (the hinges bear the whole weight of the visor door which are heavy).

But do these twin sinkings have any bearing on us, the Philippines, where a lot of ROROs especially the small ones have active bow ramps? All our basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs just have one ramp and this is located at the bow of the ship. Even the next size of ferries to the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, those that are over 40 meters in length and have a passenger deck of more than one also commonly feature an active bow ramp (I am comparing this to ROROs that have bow and stern ramps but the bow ramp is not actively used or is permanently closed). And then all our LCTs and many of these are in passenger-cargo application also have just one ramp and the specific feature of LCTs is all of those just have one ramp and it is at the bow.

Superferry 18

The quarter-front ramp of the SuperFerry 18 (Photo by Jonathan Boonzaier)

But did any of our ferries with just one active ramp and at the bow at that ever sink like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia? The answer is a big NO. We had sinkings of our ROROs with active bow ramps but not in the same circumstances as the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. 

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of crew negligence and/or mistake. How would you call a ship sailing with its bow ramp and door open? Anywhere else that is plain idiocy. But here it happens commonly (LOL!). A lot of our small ROROs do not really close their ramps fully when sailing when the weather is good so that the hot car deck will have more ventilation (o ha!). That is against MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) rules of course but there are no MARINA people roaming the ports anyway. And if the bow ramps need to be completely closed that is easily checked and it is also very visible from the bridge as small RORO just have one car deck and so the bow ramp is almost line of sight with the bridge (actually if there is a problem it is that the bow ramp hampers the view of the navigation crew). Our ROROs also have a lot of crewmen and apprentices that failing to check the bow ramp is almost an impossibility and besides the Chief Mate will always be there (that high a position ha!) because he is in charge of the loading and unloading. So I say the MS Herald of Free Enterprise incident has no bearing here.

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The basic, short-distance ferry-RORO that only has a bow ramp

Our small ROROs also don’t have bow visor door like the MS Estonia. How can it be when their mechanisms are very simple? They don’t even have hydraulic three-piece ramps and winches are all that are needed to raise the ramps to close or lower it to open the ramps. So how can one thing fail when it isn’t there? Now, if there are cracks or rust-throughs in the ramp mechanism that will be visible to all including the passengers, the drivers of the cars, the truck crews, the arrastre people and the hangers-on in the port. And Coast Guard people check on the safety of the ship before departures and supposedly they are very good on that and so what is then the problem? If there is already weakening of the ramp mechanism that will easily show when a heavy truck is loaded or unloaded and all would notice that. After all we are very good in noticing things unlike the Europeans (we notice what one wears and what are the latest rumors in town).

And besides all our ships here don’t sail in gale-force seas like the MS Estonia. Here when there is what is called a tropical depression (which means winds of 45 kilometers per hour), trips are already suspended. Even if there is no storm but the wind is high and the seas are choppy the local weather agency PAGASA that does not follow international conventions will already issue a “gale warning” even if there is no gale. So how can an MS Estonia incident happen here? That is impossible already when Malacanang and MARINA got too strict in sailings in bad weather.

Morever, our small ROROs were mainly built by the Japanese and Japan-built ships were never involved in failures and sinkings like what happened to the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and the MS Estonia. We might have salty seas that produce rust but not the frigid waters and weather that accelerate the cracks in the metal like what befell the MS Estonia. Besides if there are ramp weakenings that is repaired early (who wants to earn the ire of vehicle owners when their rig can’t get out of the RORO and the RORO can’t sail and not earn revenues?). Our shipyards are experts in that type of repair/replacement (due to the high weights of some trucks and trailers the ramps normally buckle in loading and if it is already bent enough it is sent to the shipyard for ramp replacement).

Additionally, our local crew are really good and we are even known internationally for supplying hundreds of thousands of crew in international ships. There are small ROROs whose ramps fell our while in use but no sinkings ever happened because of that. But of course nobody would report such incidents to MARINA but I vow such things actually happened. Doesn’t that speak of the quality of our crews unlike the European crews (har har!). And our code of omerta?

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An LCT (Photo by Aris Refugio)

If we had capsizings of our small ROROs with bow ramps it was not because of “free surface effect” but of unbalanced loading maybe like what happened to Baleno Nine in Verde Island Passage and the Lady of Mt. Carmel in the Burias Gap. But I thought the Philippine Ports Author (PPA) had already installed weighing stations at the entrance of the important ports and so what is the problem? Our cargo masters are also very good in estimating the weight of a truck by just looking at its wheels, if there is no weighbridge available.

If sea water entered the car deck of our small ROROs it seemed the point of entry was at the stern like what happened to the Emerald 1 which seemed to fail in a sea surge off Matuco Pt. in Batangas and the Ocean King II which seemed to be a victim of a rogue wave in Surigao Strait (both of these ships also sank in the dark like the MS Herald of Free Enterprise and MS Estonia; it seems the dark is additional danger as checking of things are more difficult). This is also what happened to British RORO Princess Victoria in 1953 when her crew can’t handle water from storm surge in the English Channel entering the car deck through the stern door and ramp. So, empirically, shouldn’t we be closing stern ramps and not the bow ramp? I mean let us be consistent and logical? We should not just copying some rules because some dumb European ships experienced failures. Let us proceed from evidence.

We also have a RORO, a half-RORO at that because she looks like a conventional cargo ship but she has a stern ramp and she had a passenger deck built atop what should be cargo deck. This was the Kalibo Star which sank in daytime on a rainy day with choppy seas in 1997. Water seeped into a hatch that the crew failed to close and “free surface effect” capsized the ship. So from evidence it seems what we really should we be closing are the stern ramps and not ROROs (well, even the capsized Princess of the Orient and Princess of the Stars were stern loading ROROs). I mean shouldn’t we proceeding from empirical evidence instead of being copycats? (Disclosure: I have a private database of over 300 Philippine ships that was lost since the end of the war which I have consulted.)

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The Samar Star, a ship similar to the lost Kalibo Star (Photo by JC Cabanillas)

Hindi tayo dapat uto-uto (we should not be like marionettes). If there is a marionette in our maritime world it might our MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency who is wont to sign all the protocols handed down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) so as the claim “we” are “IMO-compliant” and brag as if that is an achievement. Why, we don’t even use IMO Numbers as MARINA insists on its own numbers that are not searchable anywhere else. And when former Senator Miriam asked that those protocols be submitted to the Senate for ratification the government of Noynoy flatly refused. Now it seems these signed protocols are being bandied about as if they are official, as if those have the force of law like what they do with the ISPS protocol. From what I know only our Congress can pass national laws and that was why the late Miriam was pointedly challenging MARINA then. These protocols we signed are not part of our laws, they do not have the effect of a law and if one searches there are no penal provisions attached unlike in a law.

Besides we should not be bandying some rare failures in a different land (or sea) as if they general application. In engineering, the lessons derived from a cause of failure is specific in use and is not generalized. If a bridge or a building collapsed it does not mean that all the bridges and buildings with similar designs have to be torn down or closed. If a plane of sweptback wing design crashes not all sweptback planes are banned. Is the maritime world not an engineering world too (it was not when hulls were still wooden and we have not graduated from that?). So the maritime world is not an empirical world but a world of knee jerk artists?

Rather than blindly following IMO protocols we should have our own empirical study of our ship losses so more concrete lessons can be gained.

But then I doubt if MARINA and the Philippine Coast Guard even have a complete database of our ship losses (it seems they can’t provide a list of more than 50 sinkings).

As they say, let us proceed from evidence. Let us not assume we are as dumb like some Europeans.

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