The incident

It was dark and the 1½ mile crossing had been uneventful. As usual, when the ferry was about 100m from its berth, which was on the inner side of a pontoon attached to a pier, the skipper reduced the engine speed by operating a morse lever with his left hand while using a joystick controller with his right hand to steer.

The ferry was parallel to the pontoon, which was off its port bow, and was heading downwind and down tidal stream. As the ferry neared the end of the pontoon, the skipper moved the joystick to change the direction of the water jet drive to astern.

When the ferry did not slow as expected, the skipper increased the engine speed, but the ferry accelerated ahead towards the pier. The skipper had just enough time to shout a warning to the crew, who then told the passengers to “brace” just seconds before the top of the ferry’s wheelhouse struck the underside of the pier.

The force of the collision demolished the wheelhouse and covered the skipper in debris. None of the passengers were injured as they had remained seated as instructed during a safety brief given before departure. Following the collision with the pier, the passengers donned lifejackets and the skipper used a hand-held VHF radio to inform the local VTS that the ferry was wedged. Nearby vessels arrived quickly to evacuate the passengers and the crew ashore.

Lessons learned

  1. On short ferry crossings, some passengers are keen to disembark quickly. Controlling the movements of such passengers, while they are making for an exit before the vessel has been fully secured alongside, can be challenging. That in this case all the passengers followed the crews’ instructions and remained seated shows the value of safety briefs and periodic reminders in preventing passenger injuries.
  2. By their nature, ferry operations are routine and the procedures and practices for arrival, departure, berthing and unberthing may hardly vary. However, the approaches to some berths have few abort options and allow little time or sea room to recover from a mechanical malfunction, a lapse, or an error of judgment. The dangers associated with routine tasks are difficult to avoid, but no matter how familiar or competent a skipper might be, asking ‘what if ?’ before each berthing can prompt a greater consideration of the manoeuvre and the potential effects of the environmental conditions.