SAR Matters: The Ongoing Ferry Disaster

Posted in LIFELINE October 2015 - English

This column provides a forum for LIFE LINE readers worldwide to contribute to debate on any SAR issue. Have a look at previous discussions in our Newsletter Archive: every LIFE LINE since 2010 is available there for free download. You can join in the debate by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. It’s good to talk!

In this edition we have a look at the continuing problem of domestic ferry safety.

We noted in the August 2015 edition of LIFE LINE (available from the online newsletter archive) that the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association (WFSA) have analysed ferry accidents between 2000 and 2014 from around the world. They report that there were over 17,000 fatalities in ferry accidents in this period, with developing world nations accounting for 95% of them.

Often when people think of passenger vessel accidents they think of cases that have hit world headlines, such as the grounding of the cruise ship Costa Concordia in 2012, or the fire aboard the ferry Norman Atlantic in the last days of 2014. These were major accidents and major SAR cases, of course – but most passenger ferry accidents are not so well reported, or, it seems, investigated, as the IMRF’s Kiersten Sander found when she set out to research the SAR responses to the accidents the WFSA had identified. (Kiersten’s report may be found at the WMRC Website.

Passenger ships trading internationally are subject to rules agreed at the International Maritime Organization – the IMO. These rules set out minimum standards for the construction, equipment and operation of ships, as well as the training of their crews. But they do not apply to domestic ferries: ships and boats vital to local communities, the regulation of which is the responsibility of local Governments alone. Far too often, local standards are set too low or are not enforced – and vessel operators say that anyway they can only make a living by breaking the rules, for their customers cannot afford the higher fares that improved safety provision would necessitate.

The latter argument may be morally unjustifiable in general – but individual operators cannot be expected to act alone. This is a hard reality with which we must engage.

The IMRF’s role is to help improve maritime search and rescue globally. We define ‘maritime’ loosely, for the problems of major river and lake traffic have much in common with problems encountered at sea. We also recognise that ‘SAR’ is the end of a longer process. You can only rescue someone after you have found them.

To find them alive, they have to be able to let you know that they are in trouble, and to survive until you can get to them; which implies the need for equipment and training.

But the best way of ensuring that people’s lives are not threatened is to try to prevent accidents happening in the first place. SAR will always be needed in some circumstances – but we certainly support any initiative that means it will be needed less!sar1

We therefore strongly support recent moves at the IMO to address domestic ferry safety, even if such shipping is strictly beyond the IMO’s remit. The Secretary-General, Koji Sekimizu, has called for a new approach, and has announced the IMO’s intention to strengthen its technical assistance programme to this end. He has also proposed the development of recommended standards for domestic passenger ferries, to cover design, engineering, structural modifications, operation, manning, training, and survey and certification.

The Philippines Government hosted a conference on the subject in Manila in April of this year. This resulted in the Manila Statement on Enhancement of the Safety of Ships Carrying Passengers on Non-International Voyages. The Statement urges States to work with other stakeholders on the problem, with the “long-term objective” of aligning national requirements with those of the relevant IMO Conventions. The Manila Statement also recommends the use of guidelines finalised by the conference and asks for feedback; and the IMO has now endorsed this approach.

Meanwhile the WFSA continue to encourage improved safety from the design perspective, with their third student design competition for a safe, affordable ferry.

This year’s challenge is to design a RoPax ferry for Indonesia: see www.ferrysafetydesigncompetition.org.

The ‘ongoing disaster’ of passenger ferry accidents must be tackled holistically. The IMRF will continue to work with both WFSA and IMO, in support of our shared aim of saving lives on the world’s waters.

(See also Mass Rescue in Singapore, and Vietnam’s Safe Ferry Programme’.)

Contact Info

International Maritime Rescue Federation
50 Allardice Street
Stonehaven
AB39 2RA
United Kingdom

Telephone: +44 (0) 1569 767405

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Log In Members

Members can log in here. Have you forgotten your username/password? E-mail us at info@imrf.org.uk for resetting your password. Or use the "Forgot Login?" function below.