Flashback in history: Herald of Free Enterprise – Capsized and sank on 6 March 1987



Herald of Free Enterprise

Herald of Free Enterprise – Capsized and sank on 6 March 1987 due to taking on water just minutes after leaving the harbour at Zeebrugge in Belgium.

MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry which capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew, of the 539 people aboard.

The modern 8-deck car and passenger ferry, owned by P&O, had been designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route, and there were no watertight compartments. When the ship left harbour with her bow-door open, the sea immediately flooded the decks, and within minutes she was lying on her side in shallow water.

The immediate cause of the sinking was found to be negligence by the assistant boatswain, asleep in his cabin when he should have been closing the bow-door. But the official inquiry placed more blame on his supervisors and a general culture of poor communication in the ferry company P&O European Ferries.

Although the vessel was salvaged and put up for sale, there were no takers, and she ended her days in a scrapyard in Taiwan.

Since the disaster, improvements have been made to the design of RORO vessels, with watertight ramps, indicators showing the position of the bow-doors, and the banning of undivided decks.

This incident caused the highest death-count of any peacetime maritime disaster involving a British ship since the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland in 1914.

Click here for relevant news article from BBC.


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  1. I worked on the Free Enterprise 3 and the Viking Viscount of Townsend Thorensons in the 1970's. They both had up and over bow doors and the inner door. It was always the duty of the Chief Officer to see that these doors were secure and report this to the bridge orally before departure.

    The Herald had clam type doors which were not visible from the bridge and there was no indicator system to confirm the doors were closed. In evidence given to the enquiry an indicator system had been requested by ship's staff but red penciled by the operators. In view of the above I would have considered having the Chief Officer confirm the securing of the doors a high priority. Verbal confirmation should have been a necessary before proceeding to sea. Designating the task to a petty officer and not requiring confirmation before departure seems to be and proved to be, a failure in safety procedures.

    I am not a great fan of todays "Checklist culture", they are unduly complicated and time consuming. On my first command in 1971 I introduced verbal check lists, similar to those used in aircraft, a simple question and answer "aide memoire". Simple and effective but of course not acceptable in todays "paper bound world".

  2. The vessel was not undivided as reported, at least no less than modern Ro-Ro vessels. She was built to SOLAS requirements and as such had all the necessary subdivision below deck. This, however, was not a "standard" side damage, SOLAS takes into consideration. She capsized because of the large quantity of water on Ro-Ro deck (the now known "Water on Deck" problem, addressed by the Stockholm Agreement after the similar sinking of M/V "ESTONIA" some years later) creating a large "free surface moment" in addition to the actual weight of the water itself thus radically diminishing the vessel's metacentric height (GM).