Yangtze River was raging on June 1st, 2015 under the impact of a major storm. Battling the river and weather conditions was a passenger ship, Oriental Star, with more than 450 passengers aboard. Other passenger and cargo ships in the same stretch of water pulled close to shore and dropped anchor to ride out the storm while the captain of the Oriental Star kept going. While all the details are not clear yet, it is fair to say that the ship lost headway upriver and was pushed into the center of the river where the currents were most rapid.
At the mercy of the river she became broadside to the wind and capsized. The Oriental Star is a flat bottom boat, so there is no tenancy to right itself when it starts to tilt. In the rain, wind, and hard current, she turned upside down trapping hundreds of passengers inside. The few survivors reported it took less than 30 seconds from the start of the roll until she was on her side. The death toll is estimated at more than 430.
For those of us who enjoy cruising, after the initial shock we may ask; “if it happened to the Oriental Star can it happen to my next cruise?” If you are taking an international cruise, whether oceanic or a river cruise, the answer is that the vessels are totally different. If you are talking about taking a domestic vessel in a developing nation, you might have some valid concerns.
To help understand how this disaster happened you might want to read the excellent report found in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, titled Oriental Star: A tragedy that could have been avoided. The article not only points out some failing of the vessel itself, but compares them to a river cruiser sailing on American rivers and meeting American standards.
As you look at peacetime maritime disasters over the last thirty years, we see incidents like the sinking of the Sewol, a South Korean passenger ferry that sank killing over 300 in 2014. Looking further back, we see the December 20, 1987 collision of the Doña Paz with an oil tanker MT Vector. The Doña Paz, a passenger ferry, was rated for 1,518 passengers. Being the heavily traveled holiday season, the ship was overloaded. The ships manifest showed more than 2,000 passengers. However, missing person reports and other claims show she was carrying an estimated 4,375 passengers and crew. Only 24 passengers survived.
Ships engaged in international travel following the standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are way down on the list of disasters. There are a few, but even in those the injury and death toll are much smaller. Compared to the standards of the IMO, domestic standards are lax or nonexistent in many parts of the world.
In 2006, the IMO set in motion a technical program to help address the issue of non-international standards. The program focuses on the East Asia sub-region and the Pacific Island Countries and Territories. Bangladesh, a country known for its high number of ferry accidents, was selected for a pilot program. In April 2015, a conference was held in Manila attended by representatives from Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea.
The subject was enhancement of safety of ships carrying passengers on non-international voyages. After ten years of studying the problems, the countries in attendance announced what was called the Manila Statement. The statement was each governments pledge to apply the IMO standards to domestic vessels. While a step in the right direction- it will be years, maybe another decade, before IMO standards apply to domestic vessels in participating countries. It should be noted that many countries such as the EU, Australia, Canada, and the United States already have programs in place that parallels the international standards.
The sinking of the Oriental Star will bring a cloud over the cruising industry for a long while. The Chinese government has promised a complete and open investigation into the disaster. They have selected more than 60 experts in different fields to fully examine the issues. For the cruising traveler, the accident will cause many to re-look at their plans. Overall, the tragic event has no relationship to the way North American international cruises operate or reach maintenance standards. Still, in some people’s minds, questions and even fear may arise.
Over the next weeks, we will look at some of the concerns that are being raised because of the Oriental Star sinking and what it means for the cruise industry.