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Gard News 207, August/October 2012

The incidents described in the following article are examples of some of the risks posed by watertight doors to the safety of ships.

Ship accidents leading to new regulations
In 1982 the Ro-Ro passenger ferry EUROPEAN GATEWAY collided with a vessel at the entrance to the port of Harwich, UK. The hull of the EUROPEAN GATEWAY was badly breached and the ship capsized and sank in shallow water with the loss of six lives. In the investigation that followed it was revealed that watertight doors giving access to machinery spaces were open at the time of the collision. The doors complied with the regulations in force at the time, but could only be closed manually. Attempts had been made to close two of the doors without success. Following formal investigations and court proceedings, a number of recommendations were made, one of them being that power operation of watertight doors should become mandatory. UK national regulations were amended accordingly, so all sliding watertight doors which could be open at sea were to be power-operated and capable of remote control.

In 1987 the Ro-Ro passenger ferry HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE capsized and sank with the loss of 193 lives, having left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge with an open bow door. As a result of the accidents with the EUROPEAN GATEWAY and the HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE, the UK approached the IMO with suggestions for new regulations, resulting, among other things, in 1988 amendments to SOLAS requiring indicators on the bridge for all doors that could lead to major flooding if left open. Further amendments were adopted in 1989, all entering in force on 1st February 1992, the most important being the changes in regulations for openings in watertight bulkheads in passenger ships.

Power-operated sliding doors, capable of being closed from the bridge, have undoubtedly made ships safer in case of flooding, but unfortunately they have increased the dangers to individual crew members using such doors.

Other sinkings and capsizings
In 1985 Transport Canada issued a bulletin concerning the sinking of a large cargo vessel  attributed to the fact that a watertight door had been left open in the forward engine room bulkhead. When the vessel struck an object, the engine room was holed and water entered the ship and flooded the cargo holds by way of the open door.

In 1994 the Ro-Ro passenger ferry ESTONIA sank in the Baltic Sea with the loss of 852 lives. In addition to the official report, there have been different views concerning the sequence of events that led to the sinking. At a Lloyd's List Event Conference in London in 2003, Anders Bjørkman of Heiwa Co stated that the vessel had 22 doors in watertight bulkheads below the superstructure, and that those doors could be opened and kept open from the bridge. There may have been confusion about the colour of signalling lights on the bridge panel for doors open or doors closed. It was international practice to use green lights for doors closed and red lights for doors open, but there were indications that it was the opposite on board the ESTONIA. Bjørkman was of the opinion that the vessel must have had a severe leakage of the hull below the waterline and that water must have spread to several compartments through open watertight doors. The vessel had 10 watertight doors on the tanktop level of the ship. Bjørkman criticised the investigating commission as its final report did not establish whether doors were closed or not. That would definitely be a thing to examine in case of such a vessel sinking. The document "Research study on the sinking sequence of MV ESTONIA", issued in 2008 by the SSPA Consortium, which had been awarded a grant to investigate the sinking sequence and explain the underlying causes of the loss, concluded that it was unclear whether watertight doors were closed - whether all of them were closed, or whether any were closed at all - but did not see the possible failure to close the doors to be a potential cause of the incident.

Regardless of what was learned following the ESTONIA disaster, there are still Ro-Ro ferries sailing with open doors and with control consoles allowing an opening of the watertight doors from the bridge. At condition surveys held in 2011, Gard surveyors noted open watertight doors in engine rooms of Ro-Ro passenger ferries while on voyage in the Baltic Sea and the Irish Sea. In one case a water hose passed through the door frame. Indicator panels had buttons for opening the doors from the bridge, and there was no definition of the function of the red and green  lamps.

In 2000 the Greek Ro-Ro passenger ferry EXPRESS SAMINA hit a rocky island with 534 people on board and sank in 45 minutes. The vessel was 34 years old and more than one thing went wrong. The rocks tore a six-metre- long, one-metre-wide hole in the hull, but well above the waterline. After the impact, the rocks also bent the starboard stabiliser fin backwards, resulting in another hole, this time below the waterline and next to the engine room. The water ingress caused the electrical supply to fail. The ship had 11 watertight doors in subdivision bulkheads, nine of which were open and could not be closed due to the power failure. At the time an expert expressed the opinion that the vessel had sunk as a result of the doors being open. 82 people died, in what is considered to be the worst Greek ferry disaster ever.

In 2007 the cruise vessel SEA DIAMOND ran aground on a volcanic reef near the Greek island of Santorini, with 1,195 passengers on board. Water entered the vessel, which took a list of 12 degrees before watertight doors were reportedly closed. Following massive ingress of water, the vessel sank.  Two passengers, father and daughter, died in the incident. There was a dispute later as to whether the watertight doors had been closed, and if so, at what time.

In 2011 a passenger vessel entered with Gard took water into one of its two cargo holds, following a fire and a subsequent grounding at quay. The vessel was punctured at the location of the extracted stabiliser fin and took a dramatic list to 21-22 degrees, which was unexplained until it was discovered that the water had leaked to the second cargo hold through a closed - but leaking - watertight door in a watertight bulkhead between the vessels cargo holds. The vessel nearly capsized.


The COSTA CONCORDIA: an example of how vulnerable cruise vessels are if the underwater hull is breached. Investigations currently under way should clarify whether the watertight doors in subdivision bulkheads were closed when the vessel struck the rocks and took in water.


On 13th January 2012 the cruise vessel COSTA CONCORDIA touched rocks in the vicinity of the Italian island of Giglio, resulting in a 60-metre-long breach of the underwater hull plates on port side, a subsequent power failure and a capsizing to starboard side while resting on the bottom. A total of 4,229 persons were on board, of which 32 passengers died. According to a preliminary report by the Italian maritime investigative body on marine accidents, water immediately flooded compartments No. 5 (propulsion electric motor) and No. 6 (aft generators) and soon spread to No. 7 (forward generators) and No. 4 (galley compressors). Investigations are not yet completed, but there are strong indications that the water may have spread through watertight doors, which may have been left open to facilitate movements of the crew.

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