On 6th March 1987 the ro-ro ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just outside the port of Zeebrugge. 150 passengers and 38 crew members lost their lives. The accident was investigated by the Department of Transport under the auspices of the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act.

(The illustration originally in "The Motor Ship" is included in the official report on the investigation)

The Ship.

The Herald was a triple screw vessel, each propeller being served by an engine developing 9000 bhp, giving it rapid acceleration and a service speed of 22 knots. Above the double bottoms there were eight decks the lowest being H Deck. The main vehicle deck was G Deck which was accessed by a single weathertight door at the stern and double “clamshell” weathertight doors at the bow.

These doors had to be equally strong as a conventional bow and stern. F Deck was a mezzanine deck accessed from G deck and E Deck was an upper vehicle deck within which was a suspended deck, D Deck. The design allowed an upper and lower linkspan to be used to discharge and load the ship, and for different quantities of cars and trucks to be carried. C Deck and above contained passenger areas and crew accommodation, and the bridge.

The ship carried a “Class II Passenger Certificate” allowing it to carry out short international voyages of not more than 600 miles. Under the provision of this certificate with a freeboard of 1110 mm the ship could carry 630 people and with a freeboard of 1310 mm the ship could carry 1400 people. Hence in the former case “C1” the maximum draught was 5.7 m and in the latter case “C2” the maximum draught was 5.5 m. Additionally in the C1 status there was an assumption of one compartment damage stability and hence that the passengers would be able to embark in the lifeboats, and in the C2 condition the majority of the passengers would embark in liferafts. Later in the report the court were to determine that in neither case were the assumed damage conditions actually realistic, requiring as they did that the ship would remain upright for 30 minutes.

For those who might be slightly bewildered by the notional freeboard of just over a metre when the ferry had slab sides apparently extending skyward. The main deck on such vessels is generally the main vehicle deck, hence the deck from which the freeboard is measured and the superstructure is a non watertight extension considered to be able to contribute to the stability if “weathertight”. At the bow and the stern of the ship type was a level of “belting” which was an extended platform below the bow and stern doors which would butt up against the loading ramps, securing the ship against the linkspans. 

The ship was provided with a full set of safety equipment which included over 1500 lifejackets.

The three ships of the class were built for the route between Dover and Calais and on that route they were manned by a Captain, two Chief Officers and a Second Officer who worked 12 hours on and 24 hours off. The crew worked 24 hours on and 48 hours off. The off time being spent ashore in both cases. Since the time at sea on the Dover Zeebrugge route was four and a half hours it was considered that the officers could relax, and so the second Chief Officer was not carried. The Herald was manned by five sets of officers and three crews. Hence the officers and crews did not work together (I found myself wondering how this distribution of officers and crew worked but have found nothing to clarify the information).

The Port

The report notes the differences between the port of Calais and the port of Zeebrugge, and importantly due to the differences in manning between the two routes there was one less Chief Officer available during and on completion of cargo operations. Also, maybe even more importantly, the linkspan in Zeebrugge only allowed for one deck to be worked at a time, and in certain states of tide it was necessary for the ship to be ballasted by the head, which involved filling No 14 deep tank at a rate of just over 100 tph, and discharging it at the same rate on the return trip to Dover. The capacity of this tank was 268 m3. The ship was provided with high capacity pumps intended to keep the ship level during loading but these pumps were not connected to No 14, which was serviced by the ordinary ballast pump.

The Event

1805. The ship moves astern from No 12 berth then turns to starboard and proceeds to sea through the inner harbour.

1820. Vessel passes the Inner Breakwater.

1824. Vessel passes the Outer Mole. The master sets the combinator (the combined engine and pitch control) at “6” and it seems likely that, despite his testimony to the contrary, the speed rapidly increases until the bow wave is above the forward belting or “spade” and water starts to enter G Deck, since the bow doors are still open.

1828. Clear of the harbour the ship takes an initial list to starboard of about 30 degrees and is briefly stable at an angle of loll, but water continues to enter the hull through the open bow doors and thereafter it capsizes to port and comes to rest on the seabed with the starboard side above the sea surface.

1830. The dredger Sanderus informs the Zeebrugge port control what has happened and set out to the scene of the accident. The British coaster River Tamar leaves the port and begins to search for survivors.

1845. The River Tamar goes alongside the casualty. At the same time the tugs Burgermeester Van Damme and Sea Horse come alongside the Herald.

1856. Nordic Ferry sails from Zeebrugge to assist.

1900. The crane barge Zeebrugge 1 is on scene and supplies divers and small boats.

1900 about. No 1 Zeebrugge Lifeboat has been launched and the ferries Gabrielle Wehr and European Trader are dispatched from the port. They are to anchor close to the scene, and the European Trader sends its Second Officer and Boatswain aboard the Herald to help with casualty recovery due to their knowledge of the ship.

1910. The first Belgian Sea King helicopter is on the scene.

1925. The first Belgian diving team is aboard.

1955. The ro-ro Duke of Anglia launches a lifeboat which attempts to enter the stern area of the Herald, unsuccessfully.

2000. HMS Hurworth which is in Ostende sends her divers by road to Zeebrugge.

2020. BNS Ekster sails from Zeebrugge with more divers.

2050. The Duke of Anglia’s Chief Officer boards the Herald leaving his boat under the command of the Second Officer.

2100. Most of the windows on the starboard side of the Herald have been broken and survivors were being pulled out. Two divers from HMS Hurworth arrive on board by helicopter.

2153. A UK helicopter with 20 divers on board arrives in Zeebrugge.

2250. The Chief Officer of the Duke of Anglia becomes On Scene Commander and nominates his own ship as co-ordinating vessel (the investigators stated that this arrangement seemed to work well, eliminating language problems). He is constantly requesting lights, plans, ladders and information about the ship, mostly supplied apart from the lights and eventually diving has to cease due to the danger to the divers.

2330. At this time reporters are getting aboard the Herald from tugs, and are impeding the rescue operations, which are now turning into a search for bodies.

0115. Three survivors are found in the forward driver’s accommodation, and these are the last people to be found alive.

0315. Duke of Anglia hands over rescue co-ordination to HNLMS Middleberg and at 0325 this was handed over to the salvage team.

The Investigation.

The investigation carried out a number of tests using the other vessels of the class and independent calculations and determined that its status at departure was not much like that assumed by the ship’s staff, but it was intended that the ship would transit in the C1 condition – hence a mean draught of 5.7 m. In fact due to the ship’s “growth” of about 150 tons and the under declaration of the weights of the vehicles it is likely that the departure draught was 5.85 m with a trim by the head of 0.83 m. The investigators found that the crew could not read the draught anyway, nor had they ever been able to read the draught, in contravention with the regulations, and a fictitious draught was always entered in the official log book.

Had the bow doors been closed there would have been no problem and the ship would have gone to sea, still discharging the No 14 deep tank and the watchkeepers would have taken up their roles on the bridge while it made its way towards Dover, but since the doors were open what actually happened before the loss was of considerable interest to the investigators. They established that it was the job of the Assistant Boatswain to close the bow doors, and that he had in fact been asleep and the tannoy had not awakened him. Down in the vehicle deck the Second Officer had been in charge of the loading, but had been informally relieved by the Chief Officer, and despite some quite close questioning there seemed to be something undiscovered in this situation. The Second Officer said that had he been left to complete his job he would have made sure that the Assistant Boatswain was at the door ready to close it, but since he had been relieved by the Chief Officer he had gone aft to his station. The Chief Officer who had formal instructions to be on the bridge 15 minutes before departure said that he had seen someone approaching the door and thought it was the man assigned to the task, and so had left to carry out his next job.

The Boatswain had also been on the vehicle deck and was aware when he left that the Assistant Boatswain was not at his station, but had not thought to do anything about it.

In an effort to find out why the ship was likely to sail before fully prepared the investigators uncovered a number of memoranda one of which encouraged the ships to sail early if they could, and another from a master suggested that there was actually not quite enough time given for all activities in Dover. But however it had come about, it was common for the ship to be preparing for departure before the loading was actually complete. And in fact on the day the Herald had left the berth five minutes late.

Also on the day when the Chief Officer had arrived on the bridge, the Captain had assumed that, since he said nothing, everything was ready for sailing, which was more or less how the company instructions were framed. And this was the generally accepted situation on the vessel, from the senior master downwards.

The company was aware that on several occasions its  ships had sailed with bow doors open but had failed to inform the masters of the fact, and the master of the Herald said in his statements that had he known this he would have initiated a positive reporting process.

The investigators uncovered many communications between the masters and the management pointing out problems with the operation of the vessels, and these are used mainly to provide examples of the lack of attention, or ability of the management to deal with the operation of their vessels.

The senior master of Free Enterprise VIII wrote in August 1982 that it was impractical for the Chief Officers/OOWs to be in two places at once.   The senior master of the Herald had  communicated with the management in November 1986 that the ship had suffered from constant changes in the manning and that 30 different deck officers had been involved in its operations in quite a brief period of time. And in January 1987 he had once more communicated with the management about the unsatisfactory status of the manning of the ship. Essentially he was saying that without a permanent officer complement how could the ship be run properly.

In 1986  an M notice was issued about the management of shipping companies, but it did not spark any level of interest amongst the management of the company. They had chosen not to have any “Marine Superintendents” instead relying on engineers and naval architects, and meetings with the senior masters. The investigators felt that an essential level of management was missing. Nor did anyone at any level have precise descriptions of their roles available to them. In fact the report states that “From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness”.  And the investigators determined that the lack of a marine superintendent had hampered communications and identified four specific areas where the company had failed in its duty to address problems identified by the masters:

They were:

  1. The carriage of passengers in excess of the permitted number. (And the investigation contains pages of memos from the masters to the management about overloading all of which were effectively ignored).
  2. The wish to have lights fitted on the bridge to indicate whether the bow and stern doors were open or closed. (One of the masters sent a memo to the management asking for such lights to be fitted only to be ridiculed by the management who seemed to be vying with each other for the extent of their putdowns)
  3. The requirement for a means of reading the draughts, which was currently not possible. (Variously it was suggested that some form of remote draught reading capability should be installed on all the vessels, particularly since it had been a recommendation from the 1982 loss of the European Gateway, but the suggestions had always be rejected by the management who claimed lack of accuracy.)
  4. The requirement for a high capacity ballast pump for dealing with the Zeebrugge ballasting problem (Rejected by the company on the basis of prohibitive cost).

Without going into the technicalities of the Stability Book, the court had questioned a representative from the Department of Transport about it  and were disturbed by a number of responses. One was that the Stability Book did not show examples of the status of the ship’s stability if it was trimmed either by the head or even by the stern, and therefore since the ferries were almost always trimmed one way or the other the book was of little use to the masters. The man from the DoT was questioned at length about the legality of the situation, and answered that there was no requirement for such information to be provided either by UK or IMO regulations. And of course since we have by now found out that it was not possible to read the draught and that the assumed weights of the vehicles carried were always underestimated, the availability or not of stability information seems almost irrelevant.

The regulations regarding the damage stability of ro-ro ferries are complex and at the time were based on the requirements for passenger ships, something that the court found to be inappropriate, particularly in any sort of adverse weather which did not seem to be taken into consideration, and there was a lot of discussion about how loss of buoyancy might be prevented, with most ideas being discarded due to their lack of compatibility with the commercial requirements for car ferries. The court was presented with a research programme which was intended ensure an improvement in survival capability if water reached the vehicle deck, to determine the required level of stability for vessels the event of damage, and the changes necessary to ro-ro ferry design in the light of proposed legislative changes. The court suggested an additional task “Improvement in the prevention of water reaching the vehicle deck in the event of damage occurring in realistic seagoing conditions”.


This is the second time I have written about this disaster, and in both cases I have found that I have done little more than skim the surface. The level of complexity in relation to the regulations for damage stability is such that really only experts can address the situation, and we have to rely on them, but as usual regulations are only good as the people writing them and the investigators found that some of them were contradictory and required the UK regulators and the IMO to have a  look at what they had written. One of the points raised was that the passenger ship regulations suggested that a seriously damaged vessel would remain upright for 30 minutes allowing the passengers and crew to evacuate, but this was obviously – obviously – not the case for ro-ros, and today we can see differences in design. Ferries have a central fore and aft housing which reduces the possibilities of free surface sinking the ship. And some changes were made at the time to UK linkspans to allow ships to shut their bow doors before departure. Almost immediately all Townsend Thoresen ferries were fitted with indicator lights on the bridge to show the status of the bow and stern doors and the company employed a new director with special responsibility for safety.  It is said that the Marine Accident Investigation Branch was set up as a result of this disaster and both the Captain and the Chief Officer were to lose their certificates of competency. In addition in October 1987 a coroner’s inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing and a number of employees of the company were charged with manslaughter and P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd were charged with corporate manslaughter, although in the event all were acquitted.

In the end, we former shipmasters (or even current ones) have to ask ourselves, would we have done something different if we had been in command of the Herald, one of five masters following the guidance or lack of it from the company and the instructions or lack of them from the senior master? We would like to think that we would.

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