It would seem everybody does it. I’ve done it all over the globe, Bangladesh, Trinidad, Canada, United States, New Zealand, and Australia. That’s taken a ferry. Pay your money and away you go. Most of us never think twice about it.
However, the events of the last few months might make us think twice about it. In British Columbia Canada, the largest ferry in the B.C. Ferries fleet sunk within an hour of striking a rock. The Red Sea sinking of an Egyptian ferry in early February may have killed as many as 1000 people. A Princess cruise ship this past week caught on fire off Jamaica. What’s up with all this?
Nothing could be much more terrifying than being on a sinking or burning ship. Sure, nobody likes to think about a plane going down. However, getting on an airplane statistically is so much safer than getting in your car for a cup of coffee or a kg of rice. Sinking on a ferry or in some other maritime disaster seems to have caught the world’s attention.
Dr. Haque and I have been on ferries many times, both in Bangladesh, Canada and the United States. We’ve even been on a B.C. ferry many, many years ago. When I was in Bangladesh, I’ve traveled on ferries on many occasions. I never thought twice about it. I never called their safety standards into question.
Of course when I traveled on ferries in Bangladesh the skies were bright and the weather was calm. It never crossed my mind there might be any danger.
The danger comes in the hot sticky months when Bangladesh gets heavy rains and thunderstorms whip up heavy seas. In Bangladesh many of the rivers are so wide, they are more like big lakes. When storms hit, the possibility of ferry disaster looms large.
So what the difference? Why are ferry disasters so catastrophic in places like Bangladesh and not so much so in places like British Columbia Canada? Start with 130 million people in Bangladesh. There are not enough roads, not enough bridges and not enough ferries. In Canada there is almost the opposite. Add in GPS guidance systems and Canadian winters and I think we can all figure out why there is such a difference.
The International Maritime Organization or IMO is a UN organization set up after WWII to foster maritime safety. They now have signed an agreement with Interferry to foster greater ferry safety in developing countries. Interferry is a shipping association, which represents the ferry industry on a global basis.
The hope is to foster greater ferry safety in the developing countries. In Bangladesh three pilot projects are being undertaken. According to the IMO they will be looking at issues such as overcrowding, terminal management, vessel design and management, passenger-carrying arrangements, stowage, hazardous weather, crew training and certification systems. Saving lives will surely be in the offing.
I have two maritime adventures I look back on with somewhat of a nervous twitch. One was way back in 1984, your loyal scribe found himself in Fiji. I took a ferry from one island to another. This ride took a couple of hours. I was a young man then, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
It started to rain and the sea rolled. I definitely was not used to that. My stomach churned as the local Fijians sang their traditional songs. I began to wonder when is this tub ever going to get to shore? And what am I doing here?
Rewind and fast forward to Trinidad and Tahiti in other years. When I took the ferry from Papeete to Moorea off Tahiti, the waves looked like a wall in front of me as the ferry leaned from one side to anther. Ditto off Trinidad where it was so rough beer trucks tipped over in the hold. However, for whatever reason I didn’t think about international ferry safety. I was just hoping this little bob on the water would stay afloat.
Of course one of the most memorable ferry rides was from Teknaf Bangladesh to St. Martin’s Island off the coast of Myannmar. Dr. Haque arranged that for us back in January 2000. Our ferry was an old wooden fishing boat with an engine sputtering oil with a plastic bottle for a fuel tank.
It was a wonderful journey until we hit the open Indian Ocean. It was then when the boat started to toss up and down like it was on a spring. Water came over the top. The wood creaked beneath me. I should know I spent the time lying face down on the deck. The enduring image of that trip was opening my eyes briefly to see Dr. Haque holding an umbrella laughing like he was at a festival.
So maybe we should build a bridge to everywhere. Clearly though, the economics of doing that don’t make much sense. Ferries in most cases are the cheapest most convenient and practical things to have. Should they make you nervous? Well maybe. After the events of the last few months on the high seas, I could understand. Let’s hope the IMO and Interferry get it right. Many lives might be in the balance.
Ferry Disasters – whose Fault?
Dr A. K. Enamul Haque
It was January in the year 2000 when Phil and I took a fishing boat to travel to St.Martin Island from Teknaf. That is still my last trip to that island. You know all about the ride now (in Phil’s part). The ride was so rough that my wife still is not willing to take the next trip.
Ferry disasters are not very uncommon around the world. In Bangladesh we are quite famous for this. A major cause is weak navigation facilities. Like airlines navigation facilities are often maintained by a government agency that often forget what they are supposed to do to ensure a safe voyage.
The problem for ordinary travelers is that they assume things are OK even when they are not. Many things can go wrong. For example, the channel may not be properly identified, the captain of the ferry may not be properly trained, and the navigation equipment may not work properly. It may also happen that the weather channel may fail to provide early warnings. Whatever may be the cause it is still possible to avoid losses if other departments also share responsibilities.
I cannot explain the case of the ferry accident off the coast of British Columbia but it has surprised me. It has given a blow to my hypothesis of an inefficient bureaucracy. In this hypothesis I thought that either corruption or inefficient bureaucracy and a violation of law occurs in terms of safety and navigation standards. As a result, accidents take place. I cannot imagine this to be the case in Canada. However, I would like to explain in terms of our “experience” in Bangladesh.
As I have mentioned ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh when you consider the number of accidents. Ours have a pattern. During the pre-monsoon period we have regular northwesters. These sudden storms occur between 5 and 7 pm. So, if a boat or ferry moves during this time and accidentally falls victim of such a very localized storm then disasters happen.
I remember one such incident. About 4 years ago we hired a tourist boat for some of my South Asian friends to go on a ride in the river. The trip was booked for half a day. Towards the evening the sky became black. The captain of the boat called it a day and decided to return. People on board (40 of them) were not happy but listened to the call of the captain. After getting home they discovered that the other boat, which was plying alongside capsized. There was no warning for us, no weather radio and yet our team survived. Some people think that in our world we stay alive because there is a God who signaled the captain and so we lived. Others think that the Captain had better intuition and so we lived. Interestingly it could have been avoided if the shipping Authority could have developed a better guideline given the fact that we all know the precise timing of the accidents.
A second pattern of accidents is linked with our festival seasons. This is mainly due to over-crowding. Shipping lines take excess passengers during this time while the shipping authority sleeps in front of them.
The third flow of accidents occurs due to human error. Here many shipping lines employ unqualified captains or allow substitute persons to pilot the ship. In a flowing river, pilot error could bring disasters.
The fourth pattern of accidents are linked with engineering errors. Interestingly, many of the passenger boats are made in our dockyards and sometime for reasons unknown they seem to experiment with approved structure.
The fifth pattern of accidents occurs due to bad navigation gadgets. However, here we are lucky. Accidents in this case are not fatal. Most of our riverbed is sandy because we are in the largest delta of the world. So navigation errors mean that the boat is going to be stuck for 12 to 24 hours.
Now you can see why inefficiency and corruption is blamed for ferry accidents in Bangladesh. My question is like that of Phil – What’s up with all these international accidents?