The French-operated vessel, Quiberon, with 1,124 passengers, 94 crew and 243 cars aboard was expected to reach Roscoff early this morning after two French tugs were sent to bring back the disabled ship from the point where it had broken down, 60 miles away. Weather conditions during the day were described as bright and sunny with a force 5 wind.
The incident happened at the start of the busiest weekend of the year for ferry operators, with some 250,000 passengers expected to travel over the next few days with the start of school holidays. The knock-on effect was already being felt, with half the scheduled ferries between Plymouth and Roscoff being cancelled 'until further notice'. The fire, which lasted an hour, began yesterday morning just after 11.15 BST when the 8,441-tonne ship was about midway between Plymouth, which it had left at 8am, and Roscoff. The French sailor, Etienne Alain, died when he was asphyxiated by fumes while trying to put out the fire.
The captain, Pierre Michele, sent out a Mayday message and three Royal Navy search and rescue helicopters were scrambled from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose in Cornwall. The minehunter HMS Brecon was also sent to assist and an RAF Nimrod aircraft took off for the scene. In the event none was needed.
The passengers were requested to go to muster stations but a spokesman said there was no question of evacuation. He said: 'The Mayday call is routine in these circumstances.' Experts say that fires on roll-on, roll-off ferries can be particularly hazardous because using water sprinklers to put them out causes fresh problems. Water pouring into car decks - which are not fitted with interior bulkheads to divide them into smaller sections - can swill about, causing potentially disastrous instability, as with the Herald of Free Enterprise operated by P & O, which capsized at Zeebrugge in March 1987 with the loss of 193 lives. However, in yesterday's case the fire was put out relatively quickly.
This is the latest in a series of incidents involving French-owned Britanny Ferries. In March, the MV Havelet, which was operating between Cork and Roscoff, was forced to return to Cork when it was struck by a freak wave during a force 7 gale and began listing because its load was displaced.
In April 1990, a passenger died of a heart attack after a fire broke out in the engine room of the Reine Mathilde travelling between Caen and Portsmouth. The ship had to be towed into port.
Brittany Ferries said last night that passengers could transfer to sailings from Portsmouth to St Malo or Caen or obtain refunds, and should telephone either 0752 221321 or 0705 827701 for details.