The Herald of Free Enterprise Tragedy


  • Chris C Pope


8751, Case Study, Civil, Naval, Herald of Free Enterprise, Tragedy, Design Flaw, Recommendations, Investigation


The MS Herald of Free Enterprise was one of three vessels built by Schichan Uterwaser AG, Bremerhaven in 1980 for use on the English Channel for Townsend Thoresen, a company that still operates many marine services across Europe. She was registered at the port of Dover, England and operated as a roll on and roll off ferry. On March 6th, 1987 she left on a non-routine voyage between Zeebrugge, Belgium and Dover, England. The vessel was laden with 80 crewmembers, approximately 459 passengers, 81 passenger cars and 47 freight vehicles. The vessel was under command of captain David Lewry and started the voyage in fair conditions, leaving the mouth of the harbour at 6:24 pm, the vessel capsized four minutes later. As the vessel accelerated to cruising speed water flowed over the hull’s bow and through the open loading gates subsequently causing a free surface effect on the main vehicle deck. The rapid capsizing resulted in at least 193 passengers and 38 crewmembers to perish in the frigid water. However more lives would have been lost if the vessel did not happen to come to rest on a sand bank which prevented a complete capsizing and left it in a ninety degree heeled position. The wreckage was located less than a kilometre from the Belgian coastline enabling rescue crew to react quickly however many passengers who survived initial impact were trapped in the half submerged superstructure and succumbed to hypothermia. Initial reports determined that the catastrophe was a result of human error and a loss of stability suffered in part due to a design defect. Further investigation revealed superstructure design flaws and emergency equipment procedures hampered passenger’s evacuation abilities in the vessels half submerged state. The rest of the report will analyze this vessel and the accident, concluding with the recommendations for the future and specific actions from authorities based on factual information.


CJ. Parker, “Herald of Free Enterprise”, Maritime Technical Information Facility, pp 2-4, July 1987

Department of Transportation, “The Merchant Shipping Act 1894, mv Herald of Free Enterprise”, Report of Court No. 8074 Formal Investigation, Crown Copyright 1987

R.B. Zubaly, “Applied Naval Architecture”, Carnell Maritime Press, Maryland, pp 35- 47 1996

T. Jacques, “The Herald of Free Enterprise Accident: The Environmental Perspective”, Oil & Chemical Pollution, pp 55-68, 1990






Coastal and Ocean Engineering (ENGI.8751)