General Question

syz's avatar

What is it about ferries that makes them so unsafe?

Asked by syz (32922 points ) April 16th, 2014

With today’s news of the ferry disaster in S. Korea, I am reminded of just how many ferry sinkings that seem to make it into the news. Do I have a skewed perception, or are they intrinsically unsafe?

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43 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

I think of ferries as extremely safe overall. I don’t know the actual stats. Thousands of ferries cross waters daily all over the world and I hear about an accident once in a blue moon.

cazzie's avatar

@syz You have a very skewed perception. But take heart, almost no body understands risk assessment and statistics.

Tropical_Willie's avatar

The ferries in some countries are not regulated also; too many cars, too many people and they tend to be less than sea worthy ( good for river crossings ).

ARE_you_kidding_me's avatar

They have a more dire need to observe weight limits and mechanical maintenance. When they fail hundreds or even thousands of people can die so you will hear about them more often.

JLeslie's avatar

I found this saying there were 4,000 ferry accidents worldwide in 4 years, which is much higher than I ever would have guessed. I’m sure it is counting all ferries, which sometimes are little boats or practically rafts that carry just a few cars or people. The article says some countries are much worse thannothers for ferry safety.

jerv's avatar

I am trying to think how many issues we’ve had with all the ferries around Seattle… and drawing a blank.

Maybe it’s because we have regulations about how many people/cars they are allowed to carry, maybe we are more stringent about things like safety equipment and maintenance, maybe it’s just that we use ferries designed for the routes they are supposed to run as opposed to just running anything that floats.

I’ve noticed that most of these issues occur in areas that are either poor and/or overpopulated. I guess cramming 400 people onto a rusty hulk that was only designed for 150 before half the hull rotted can cause accidents. Who knew?

SQUEEKY2's avatar

We have a lot of ferries here in B.C Canada and have have had only one disaster in an extreme long time and that was very much human error.

The ferries you hear about are usually in countries with few to no regulations very poor maintenance and over loading of people and vehicles.

elbanditoroso's avatar

My understanding is that they are inherently unstable for two reasons:

1. Very small keel – that is, they don’t go very deep under water, because ferries tend to pull into shallow areas to disgorge passengers. While that’s OK, the lack of depth means that there is inherent instability in the motion of the ferry boat, because one of the roles of the below-water portion is to keep the rest of the boat stable.

2. Ferries – particularly car ferries – tend to be very wide and not terrible tall. The problem with that is, once again, stability. A flat boat is somewhat more unstable than one that is more vertical. Consider the stability of a raft versus the stability of a rowboat, for example.

And finally, as someone said above, in Asia, ferries are often overfilled with people

JLeslie's avatar

@elbanditoroso I would assume most large car ferries or even very large passenger ferries are constructed in a way that under the water they create very good stability. Is that not the case?

SecondHandStoke's avatar

In the case of the Staten Island ferries (though I wonder why anyone would want to go there) is substandard maintenance and grossly outdated components.

JLeslie's avatar

@SecondHandStoke LOL. I remember being a little girl and my mom taking me on the Staten Island ferry for a “ride.” She probably was more interested than me, she loves being out on a boat. Back then the fare was 25¢ I believe per passenger each way. Maybe children were cheaper?

janbb's avatar

@SecondHandStoke Yes, there were two nasty ferry accidents in NYC in recent years.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@elbanditoroso Balast is the key here. That is why large trucks and heavy equipment are always on bottom decks and serve in lieu of a deep keel. Overweight, poor placement, and overcrowding is the bane. Poor regulation and spotty inspections give birth to poor training and poor maintenance and are the causes of most ferry disasters.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

Ballast. Damn it!

Seek's avatar

I used to ride the SI Ferry on an almost daily basis. I survived. ^_^

BeenThereSaidThat's avatar

overloading. In this country (U.S.) we have ferry laws and inspections.

bolwerk's avatar

The news is the stuff that shocks people. You can make any transportation mode unsafe with poor management/regulation, but the least safe mode is always going to be the private automobile.

Really, how many plane crashes do you hear about? Probably lots, because millions of people fly every year and they are tragic and spectacular. In the grand scheme of things, they aren’t very likely to kill you. The car accidents are buried in the local news.

Exitor98's avatar


In the case of the Staten Island ferries (though I wonder why anyone would want to go there) is substandard maintenance and grossly outdated components.
SecondHandStoke (2686 )“Great Answer” (2 ) Flag as…

I’ve ridden those a few times for the fun of. Sure as hell won’t again especially not with my little girl on that damned thing.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^In the case of the Staten Island ferries it’s a shame as it’s the easiest way to view the wonders of New York Harbor.

The wind in your face, a can of low rent beer and a decent cup of spicy ramen…

janbb's avatar

But as I remember it the Staten Island ferry tragedy was pilot error not maintenance.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^Yes there were allegations that the pilot was incapacitated when the craft rammed the dock.

For all I know that was the case. Not good obviously.

The fact remains that there are those in the know that would dock the fleet if they could. They can’t, they can only voice their observations.

All these vessels have been signed off by the US Coast Guard.

This does not guarantee seaworthiness.

JLeslie's avatar

I would ride the Staten Island ferry without reservation. @SecondHandStoke Where is your information coming from that the maintenance is substandard? I would think NYC takes their public transportation very seriously.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

Here’s one:

http://nypost.com/2014/04/07/ferry-riders-shocked-over-boats-alleged-unseaworthiness/

You say: “I would think NYC takes their public transportation very seriously.”

Why then do New York’s streets resemble those of bombed out Beirut?

JLeslie's avatar

@SecondHandStoke That article doesn’t really tell me anything. It sounds like the boats are approved by the coast guard.

NYC streets are not the cleanest compared to other major cities, but overall the transportation is good for such an old and busy city. The busses are usually on time and now they have a website that lets you know where your bus is. The subways run well. The subway system that is over 100 years old. I rarely have trouble on NYC transportation.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^The state of NYC’s roadway infrastructure is so stunningly pathetic that a pothole once struck my wheel so badly as to crack the rim, not the tire, that pressure was lost through the wheel itself.

Air leaking from the FUCKING wheel. Not to mention that the wheel was warped beyond repair.

What year does it have to be.

How much money does a municipality have to possess before this ceases to be an issue?

JLeslie's avatar

Oh, potholes. I didn’t realize you were talking about potholes. Yeah, NYC could use some roadwork, that’s for sure. Like most northern cities.

dabbler's avatar

I think @elbandoriso’s points of shallow keel combined with the criticality of balanced loading a good explanation of the vulnerabilities of ferries. Because they are often in shallow waters and because nobody wants to ride below the waterline on a ferry, they are built this way. But when the seas get rough that design makes them prone to sudden capsizing.

Ref potholes in NYC:
In a city that never sleeps, the traffic never sleeps either. The roads in NYC take a beating around the clock every day, few roads get rougher treatment.
Keeping up with the potholes is a daunting task. Most roads in NYC have little or no extra capacity so if you are repairing one it means jamming traffic and it’s dangerous. It certainly is far from perfect but personally I’m impressed they keep up with potholes as much as they do.

elbanditoroso's avatar

@JLeslie – if you want to talk about horribly paved cities – particularly on major arterials and highways – you need look no further than Boston.

Pothole Nirvana. If there were a religion devoted to Pothole worship, Boston would be the place of pilgrimage.

bolwerk's avatar

NYC doesn’t take public transportation that seriously. Mostly through some historical accidents, it just managed to keep more of it than most other cities. Driving buses/trains and maintaining vehicles/ROWs is just an incidental part of the MTA’s duty. Other than some dubious subway mega-projects (mega in terms of cost, not value or scale), there is virtually no investment in public transportation. Even other American cities manage to build fairly robust surface transit systems; New York politicians pat themselves on the back for buying more buses and occasionally partly dedicating a lane to them. Sure, politicians aren’t going to continue dismantling the surviving transit system the way they did from the 1930s to the 1980s, but the most they want to do is maintain the status quo. New York is seriously the most conservative city in the country, at least politically.

As for roadways, yeah, asphalt simply doesn’t hold up particularly well in the winter. But then, cars aren’t exactly a cheap or efficient way to move people in the urban environment anyway. Yet conservative New York politicians imagine the only people who count are the ones like them: the people who drive. Washington, D.C., decided the solution anyway: take big cities’ money and spend it on highway dependency in distant suburbs.

JLeslie's avatar

@bolwerk I really don’t know how you can be so critical of NYC’s public transit. It was the first (maybe it is the only I don’t know) subway system to have express lines, which significantly can cut travel time if you are traveling north south on the east side through Manhattan. There are now express buses also. You can get almost everywhere in the city by public transportation. During Guilani’s reign as mayor they cleaned up the subways significantly and it has held on pretty well. It isn’t as fabulous as the DC metro, or even the London tube was nicer when I was there many years ago, but it is sufficient. The system is simple in that the price is a flat fee, unlike other systems around the world.

I don’t know the politics surrounding transportation in NY, all I know is when I am there I get everywhere with public transportation.

dabbler's avatar

“no investment in public transportation”??
Second Avenue Subway Line

bolwerk's avatar

@JLeslie: I wasn’t criticizing the transit system. I was criticizing the people who make decisions concerning it. But in terms of best practice, much of NYC’s transit operation is more than half a century out of date, and that’s before you consider the capital program’s inadequacies. That goes for the Staten Island Ferry too. It’s a dinosaur, and nobody (in power) wants to modernize it.

The politics are: New York politicians have the same attitude toward transit that suburban politicians have toward urban infill.

@dabbler: did you not read that whole sentence? It wasn’t a hard sentence, especially considering the clarifying parentheses. The Second Avenue Subway doesn’t contradict my point; it supports it. Only a small portion of the SAS is guaranteed to be built at this point anyway. And consider that the SAS replaces an elevated train that was demolished in the 1950s. It took that long to replace the lost service.

JLeslie's avatar

Much of America’s infrastructure was a leader when built and now we have fallen behind compared to other cities, or look old and outdated on the exterior. Their technology and systems are newer, because they were built years later. We need to do some updating, but I still think the organized chaos of NY is something to be fairly proud of, not the opposite. Especially the long history of moving people around the city.

Maybe the ferries need to be updated and maintained better, I don’t know, but ferries themselves certainly are not out style. Nothing wrong with having a ferry system in cities surrounded by water. I wish we had some ferries here in the Tampa bay area.

bolwerk's avatar

@JLeslie: well, the rest of the USA is probably in worse shape in some ways. At least NYC has a public transit system to build on. But the goal of New York politicians is to keep the boat from sinking long enough to allow the union and political classes to migrate to Florida.

dabbler's avatar

@bolwerk I guess we’ll disagree about the value and scale of that project.
It will be very valuable to anyone who would otherwise be taking the Lex line which experiences the worst crowding of all the lines in NYC.
Ten miles of subway may seem puny in scale but consider that this is being built under and around a century of city development.

dabbler's avatar

NYC also is just completing a multi-decade project to build a new water tunnel into the city. This will allow the two older tunnels to be shut down for the first time in a hundred years for needed repairs (one of them is known to leak substantially, probably into the Hudson).

I won’t suggest city planning or capital investment in NYC is perfect, but it’s a lot more than nothing.

bolwerk's avatar

@dabbler: “anyone who would otherwise be taking the Lex line” affects a few 1%er neighborhoods. The SAS is a very worthy project in theory, but it costs 5x what it should.

The water tunnel actually seems well-managed, but the discussion was about transportation. The major transit projects that even add capacity are all overbuilt boondoggles: SAS, 7 extension, and East Side Access. And at least two others went into the 10 figures that won’t add new capacity: Fulton Street and the new WTC PATH station. And now they want to spend another 10+ figures on Penn Station, also for no added capacity.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

“1%ers…”

People think when you put a name to concept it’s suddenly legitimate.

Sigh.

dabbler's avatar

The 1-percenters are not on the subway, except for publicity stunts (lookin’ at you former mayor). They are in cabs and limos and helicopters.

bolwerk's avatar

@dabbler: As limos are still as prone to getting stuck in traffic as any other vehicle, pretty wealthy people in Manhattan don’t have a lot of compunction about using the subway. I’m going to go with @SecondHandStoke never learned what a percentile ranking is from talk radio propaganda, or he wouldn’t be making his insipid sigh, but the 99th percentile bound is in the lower-middle six figures. Some of the wealthiest zip codes in the USA are in that part of Manhattan, where median incomes are in or near the six figures.

Much of the impetus for it is enhancing real estate value. And even if you honestly believe no households making about ~$300k/year take the Subway, who do you think owns the buildings? Even Bloomberg probably had practical reasons for using transit, even if it made a good publicity stunt. There isn’t exactly a great helicopter route between his neighborhood and City Hall and the traffic can be horrid.

janbb's avatar

General question. Ferries anyone??

JLeslie's avatar

No one is stopping anyone from making a comment about ferries. My last answer I still included ferries. Flag it if you want the tangents deleted.

bolwerk's avatar

As capital financing problems with transportation in general are relevant to ferries, they aren’t that tangential.

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