2017 marks more than Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation. It is an occasion to take stock of a century and a half of progress in global marine safety, founded on the regulatory reforms pursued by Samuel Plimsoll in the 1860s. The carriage of people and goods by sea has enjoyed impressive strides in efficiency and ever reduced costs. The challenges in most areas of commercial shipping now seem incremental, with improvements ever more marginal, identifiable and easily achieved. Surveying the empirical landscape of ferry safety, this also seems to be true. Serious losses of life, ships and trade are apparently becoming rare.
What delivered us to a point of secured safety of life at sea in all types of ferries? What can be done to consolidate and improve on such gains? Asking these two questions — to be answered shortly — is a relative or comparative task. For one thing, the safety of life at sea (and the avoidance of ship-source marine pollution) in the passenger and vehicle (i.e., ro-ro) sectors of the ferry trade has been clearly much more successful in developed countries — those of the so called Global North — over those in the developing world, the Global South. The ongoing losses of life in passenger ferry vessels in the latter countries remind us that gains in safety are hard won, fragile and that the industry as a whole is dependent on national enforcement. Two easy answers in our stock-taking exercise come from this varied landscape, namely, that complacency remains a risk and a comparison across national ferry sectors can offer lessons for local improvement. We are not far removed from the Herald of Free Enterprise (1987), Estonia (1994) and Sewol (2014) disasters in industrial countries with heavily regulated, well financed and capably crewed vessels. The recent experience of tragedies (and more quotidian losses) in the Global South demands study.
Photo above: Al-Salam Boccacio 98 (2006) (Carlo Martinelli - Shipspotting)
The historical progress of what might be called regulated safety of life at sea offers more lessons. It can be approached in three half-century periods since the start of mechanized shipping (and so the carriage of passengers in large numbers in routinely scheduled sailings) around 1850. The first era was a time of remedially directed national legislation concerned with the basics of watertight integrity and stability in commercially trading vessels. The Plimsoll mark (or load line) in use today is a visible legacy of it. A second phase began with the first attempts at international co-ordination among shipping states with the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) conference in 1913 in the wake of the Titanic disaster. It was this 50-year span that saw the design of purpose-built passenger and ro-ro ferries and continuing technical advances including the widespread adoption of petroleum fuels. The third phase of safety, since the International Maritime Organization (then the IMCO) began operating in 1958, is a time of coordinated, universal standards that continues today. During it, the global treaties necessary for safety of life at sea have been negotiated: For the environment in 1973 (MARPOL), for a now continuously amended SOLAS Convention (1974) and for mariner competency and certification (STCW 1978/1995). The essential legal framework is now in place, amplified in subsidiary standards — such as for the operation of high speed vessels — and is mandatory for nearly every country involved in shipping.