Capsize of the Roll on Roll off Car ferry,                “Herald of Free Enterprise





At about 6.00 p.m. on 6 March, 1987 the English cross-channel car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized and sank just after leaving Zeebrugge harbour. Of the 459 or more people on board 189 died. The ferry had sailed with her bow doors open and as she passed the Outer Mole and increased speed, water came over the bow sill and flooded the lower car deck. The inrush of water destabilised her causing her to capsize. She sank in two minutes. Had she not come to rest on a sandbank, the resulting loss of life would probably have been greater. Most of those that were killed in the incident were killed from being thrown around in the ferry.



The Herald of Free Enterprise, like her sister ships Pride of Free Enterprise and Spirit of Free Enterprise, was a modern ro-ro passenger/vehicle ferry designed for use on the high-volume short Dover-Calais ferry route. She could accelerate rapidly to her service speed of 22 knots. She was certificated to carry a maximum of 1,400 persons.



At 433 feet long and 7,950 gross tons, the Herald was of record size at her launching in 1980 and was one of the prides of the 22-ship Townsend Thoresen fleet. She had two main vehicle decks and at Dover and Calais double–deck ramps connected to the ferry, allowing simultaneous vehicle access to both decks. At Zeebrugge there was only a single-level access ramp which did not allow simultaneous deck loading. Ferry turnaround time was longer at this port. This single ramp could not quite reach the upper vehicle deck and so water ballast was pumped into tanks in the bow of the Herald to facilitate loading.


When the Herald left Zeebrugge on March 6, 1987, not all the water had been pumped out of the bow ballast tanks, causing her to be some 3 feet down at the bow. Mr Stanley, the assistant bosun, was responsible for closing the bow doors. He had opened the doors on arrival at Zeebrugge and then supervised some maintenance and cleaning activities. He was released from this work by Mr Ayling, the bosun, and went to his cabin. He fell asleep and was not awakened by the “harbour stations” public address call alerting crew to take their assigned positions for departure from the dock.

The bosun left the car deck at the “harbour stations” call to go to his assigned station. He later said, “It has never been part of my duties to close the doors or make sure that anyone is there to close the doors.” The chief officer, Mr Leslie Sabel, was in charge of loading vehicles. He stated that he remained on the car deck until he saw – or thought he saw – Mr Stanley threading his way through the parked cars toward the door control panel. He then went to the bridge, his assigned position for departure from dock.

The Herald backed out of the berth stern first. The Herald had a new design of clamshell doors which opened and closed horizontally. This design made it impossible for the ship’s master, Captain David Lewry, to see from the bridge if the doors were opened or closed. As the ship increased speed, a bow wave began to build up under her prow. At 15 knots, with the bow down 3 feet lower than normal, water began to break over the main car deck through the open doors at the rate of 200 tons per minute.

In common with other ro-ro vessels, the Herald’s main vehicle deck lacked subdividing bulkheads. If water entered the deck, it could flow from end to end or from side to side with ease. The flood of water through the bow doors quickly caused the vessel to become unstable. The Herald listed 30 degrees to port almost instantaneously. Large quantities of water continued to pour in and fill the port wing of the vehicle deck, causing a capsize to port 40 seconds later. The Herald settled on the sea bed at slightly more than ninety degrees with the starboard half of her hull above water. There had been no chance to launch any of the ship’s lifeboats.




Under the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act, a Court of Formal Investigation of the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise was held in London between April and June 1987 before the Wreck Commissioner, the Hon. Mr Justice Sheen, a respected judge. The court had investigative powers, the power to suspend or remove a Merchant Officer’s Certificate of Competency, and the power to determine who should contribute to payment of the investigation’s costs. The court had no other powers.



The most important factor was that roll-on roll-off car ferries, with their large open decks, are inherently unstable. A small amount of water pouring into the open deck area will swill from side to side and cause the ship to capsize very quickly even in a gentle swell. The significant human errors included the following:

·         The assistant bosun, who was directly responsible for closing the doors, was asleep in his cabin, having just been relieved from maintenance and cleaning duties.

·         The bosun noticed that the bow doors were still open, but did not close them as he did not see that as part of his duties.

·         It seems that the captain was to assume that the doors were safely closed unless told otherwise, but it was nobody's particular duty to tell him. The written procedures were unclear.

·         The chief officer, responsible for ensuring door closure, testified that he thought he saw the assistant bosun going to close the door. The chief officer was also required to be on the bridge 15 minutes before sailing time.




However, Justice Sheen's report into the disaster found 'At first sight, the faults which led to this disaster were the aforesaid errors of omission on the part of the Master, the Chief Officer and the assistant Bosun, and also the failure by Captain Kirk to issue and enforce clear orders. But.....the underlying or cardinal faults lay higher up in the Company. The Board of Directors.........did not apply their minds to the question: What orders should be given to the safety of our ships?........From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness......The failure on the part of the shore management to give proper and clear directions was a contributory cause of the disaster '.

Examples of this sloppiness included the following significant latent errors:

·         There was no information display (not even a single warning light) to tell the captain if the bow doors were open. Two years earlier, the captain of a similar vessel owned by the same company had requested that a warning light should be installed, following a similar incident when he had gone to sea with his bow doors open. Company management had treated the request with derision. Following the loss of the Herald, bow door warning lights were made mandatory on roll-on/roll-off car ferries.

·         The top heavy design of roll on, roll off ships in this class is inherently unsafe.

Once again it was the combination of human errors (management, design and individual) that combined to result in the loss of 188 lives. However, it is the latent errors that are the crucial ones for disaster prevention.

In April 1997 new international maritime safety regulations were agreed. The regulations target the latent design errors and are intended to ensure that a roll-on, roll-off ship can maintain stability with the car deck flooded to a depth of 50.8 cm (20 inches). This will involve installing internal partitions (bulkheads) or additional flotation devices within the hull. The aim is to prevent disasters such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and more recently the Estonia, in which nearly 1,000 passengers were killed, by making the ships safe enough for the orderly evacuation of hundreds of passengers. Standard cruise ships are expected to stay afloat for at least half an hour after being irreparably holed.

Two thirds of the 107 car ferries on UK routes are near to the new standard and have therefore been given to the northern winter of 2001 to meet requirements. But three ships have to comply by early 1999 and the worst three by the end of 1997.



The Management of Townsend Thoresen

“….a full investigation into the circumstances of the disaster leads inexorably to the conclusion that the underlying or cardinal faults lay higher up in the Company. The Board of Directors did not appreciate their responsibility for the safe management of their ships. They did not apply their minds to the question: What orders should be given for the safety or our ships?

 “The directors did not have any proper comprehension of what their duties were. There appears to have been a lack of thought about the way in which the Herald ought to have been organized for the Dover-Zeebrugge run. All concerned in management, from the members of the Board of Directors down to the junior superintendents, were guilty of fault in that all must be regarded as sharing responsibility for the failure of management. From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness…It is only necessary to quote one example of how the standard of management fell short…It reveals a staggering complacency.

“On 18th March1986 there was a meeting of Senior Masters with management, at which Mr Develin was in the Chair. One of the topics raised for discussion concerned the recognition of the Chief Officer. Mr Develin said, although he was still considering writing definitions of these different roles, he felt ‘it was more preferable  not to define the roles but to allow them to evolve.’ That attitude was described by Mr Owen, with justification, as an abject abdication of responsibility. It demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to give clear orders. Clear instructions are the foundation  of a safe system of operation.

“It was the failure to give clear instructions about the duties of the Officers on the Zeebrugge run which contributed so greatly to the cause of this disaster. Mr Clarke, [counsel] on behalf of the Company, said it was not the responsibility of Mr Develin to see that Company orders were properly drafted. In answer to the question, ‘Who was responsible?’ Mr Clarke said, ‘Well in truth, nobody, though there ought to have been.’ The Board of Directors must accept a heavy responsibility for their lamentable lack of directions. Individually and collectively they lacked a sense of responsibility. This left, what Mr Owen so aptly described as, ‘a vacuum at the centre.’

 “…Mr Develin [Director and Chief Superintendent] was prepared to accept that he was responsible for the safe operation of the Company’s ships. Another director, Mr. Ayers, told the Court that no director was solely responsible for safety. Mr Develin thought that before he joined the Board, the safety of ships was a collective Board responsibility.

 “… as this investigation progressed, it became clear that shore management took very little notice of what they were told by their Masters. The Masters met only intermittently. There was one period of two and a half years during which there was no formal meeting between Management and Senior Masters. Latterly there was an improvement. But the real complaint, which appears to the Court to be fully justified, was that the “Marine Department” did not listen to the Complaints or suggestions or wishes of their Masters. The Court heard of four specific areas in which the voice of the Masters fell on deaf ears ashore.”









The ferry Estonia, on its way from Tallin, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden, sunk on 28 September 1994 with the loss of 852 lives. A design flaw in the ship's bow door allowed it to be jolted open by rough seas. Also, the crew were slow to respond and warning alarms did not sound until five minutes after the ferry began listing heavily, by which time it was difficult for passengers to escape.