Flashback in history: Herald of Free Enterprise – Capsized and sank on 6 March 1987 with 193 lost lives


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.

Herald of Free Enterprise, on better days




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    • The blame was put on the owners not just P&O but Towsend Thorenson as well. Why? Because the vessel had "clam shell" bow doors, which not not visible from the bridge, The Master of both companies had requested an alarm / indicator on the bridge indicating the doors condition open / closed. Evidence was produced that the request had been rejected due to cost. I sailed with Townsend Thorensons for a period in the late 1970's. I was on the ferries with raised bow doors, which were clearly visible from the bridge when open. Despite this there were strict rules! The C/O always witnessed the closing of the outer and inner doors. He reported it to the bridge usually as we left the berth certainly before the vessel left the harbour. It is my opinion that a task of that importance must always be managed by two people. An officer must be in charge and the second person who carries ot the closure operation can be a rating.

    • I sailed with Townsend Thoresen as 2/O of the "Free Enterprise VI" in 1977. I was very impressed with their safety culture. During each 12-hour shift, we would cross the English Channel 4 times (Dover-Calais-Dover-Calais-Dover). Each daytime in Calais one lifeboat would be lowered and unhooked. So every L/B was lowered once in 12 days.The ship had 124 fire-dampers, and after my meal break, I was obliged to operate as many as I could, and sign the maintenance book for each one operated. All 124 were operated on a 4-5 day cycle. The "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster was classic case of "the holes in the Swiss cheese being in alignment". Several Masters had written to the company asking for a "Red light/Green light" display in the wheelhouse so as to give positive evidence that the Bow doors, which could not be seen from the Wheelhouse, were in fact closed; the company rejected the request on the grounds of cost. The company Procedures required the Chief Officer to be SIMULTANEOUSLY at the Bow Doors, AND present in the Wheelhouse for departure. Les Sable was a very dedicated officer, but he could not be in two places, four decks apart, at the same time! The Assistant Bosun, whose job it was to close the Bow doors, was, according to my ship-mates, (I never met him) a most reliable man, but on that one day, he overslept. The ship had had to take on ballast forward so as to fit onto the Ro-Ro ramp, and was still discharging ballast as it sailed, tied to a tight schedule, with the Bow doors open to the sea. The holes in the Swiss cheese were in perfect alignment. The disaster directly led to the introduction of the I.S.M. Code. It is a fitting memorial for the crew of the "Herald of Free Enterprise".

  1. The Herald of Free Enterprise was actually owned by P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd. In more details: In January 1986, P&O purchased a 50.01% interest in European Financial Holdings Ltd, which held 20.8% of shares in European Ferries, followed in 1987 with the purchase of the remaining shares of the European Ferries Group whose ferry services were trading as Townsend Thoresen. Following the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in March 1987, the operations of Townsend Thoresen were renamed P&O European Ferries on 22 October 1987, with operations from Portsmouth, Felixstowe and Dover.