Car Ferry Horror Stories

If you’re afraid of enclosed spaces, then you might want to avoid taking the Channel Tunnel. However, if you want to travel with your car, then your options are limited to the tunnel and car ferries. But car ferries are some of the dangerous maritime vehicles. Because of their weight and high centre of gravity, car ferries are notorious for sinking quickly as soon as they take on water. If you read some of the car ferry horror stories below, you might change your mind about taking the tunnel…

The MS Estonia

The MS Estonia was a car and passenger ferry that travelled a route between Tallinn, Estonia and Stockholm, Sweden. It sank in 1994. It is the worst peace time sea disaster in the Baltic and is considered one of the worst maritime disasters of the twentieth century. Of the 989 people on board, 852 died.

The disaster happened in rough seas at around midnight in late September. There is evidence that the crew did not slow down or otherwise take safety procedures despite rough weather. The main cause for the accident appears to be a failure of the locking mechanism of the bow doors, which resulted in the doors being forced open when they were hit by a large wave. This allowed water to enter the vehicle deck, and the ship to rapidly list to starboard and then sink.

There is also evidence that says poor cargo and car distribution inside the ship meant that the ship was not centrally placed in the water at the outset of  its journey. Due to freezing water conditions, more than a third of the passengers who had managed to escape the sinking ship had died of hypothermia before rescue boats reached the scene.

car ferry

The MS Herald of Free Enterprise

This is probably one of the most famous ferry disasters in Europe. The Townsend Thoresen ship was sailing between Zeebrugge, Belgium and Dover, England when it sank in 1987. At the time it was considered unbelievable that such an accident could occur in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

The ship left Zeebrugge at five past six in the evening carrying 459 passengers, 80 crew members and 81 cars. She passed out of the port at around twenty five past six and capsized less than four minutes later. As she passed out of the port water began to flood into the car deck, causing the ship to lose stability and list to port. Within seconds the water reached the ship’s electrical systems, destroying all power and leaving the ship dark. She ended up hitting a sandbar which left her half sunk in shallow water about a kilometre from shore.

A nearby ship noticed the lights of the Herald of Free Enterprise disappear, and alerted the port authorities, and rescue helicopters were on the scene within thirty minutes. 193 people died, many of them trapped inside the ship and dying of hypothermia. The accident was blamed on the bow doors of the ship being left open as it left port, and the crew member responsible for closing them being asleep at the time of the disaster.

Those of who were alive then remember the Townsend Thoresen name emblazoned along the side of the ship lying on its side for weeks. The company had to change its name; Townsend Thoresen is now Stena Line.

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Car ferries are considered particularly unsuitable for sailing during bad weather. However, since these ferries tend to ply routes that are popular and therefore competitive, they are unlikely to be pulled from service due to bad weather conditions. Taking a car ferry, especially when waves are high and the wind is strong, is always a risk. The majority of ferry accidents happen in bad weather. Taking the tunnel might not be such a bad option, after all…

Phil Turner regularly takes the ferry across from Ireland to England, because it is the only way to take his car. He always checks that his car insurance company covers him in the UK and it works out much cheaper than flying and hiring a car.

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