Owner of 'Estonia' orders sister ship's bow doors welded

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The Independent Online
THE FUTURE of the roll-on roll- off ferry industry, which depends on speedy loading and unloading to stay competitive, is under a cloud after confirmation that the Estonia's bow door was ripped off - something shipowners previously said was impossible.

If public confidence in roll-on roll-off ferries is further undermined it could have grave implications for the future viability of the industry, which suffered another blow with yesterday's decision by the Estonia's owner, Estline, to weld shut the bow doors of a sister ship, the Vironia. By welding the vulnerable doors, there will be no risk of heavy seas ripping them off.

This should result in an immediate improvement to the ship's safety, according to marine safety experts. However, the Vironia will lose one of the main features of the roll-on roll-off ferry - the ability to load vehicles through the bow and unload through the stern, or vice versa. If other ferry companies are forced to follow suit, it will completely change the concept of car ferries.

Concerns about the intrinsic safety of roll-on roll-off ferries could force such dramatic changes to their basic design that they will have to be completely revamped at enormous cost to the industry. The decision could add up to three hours to the whole process, according to Karl Gustaf Akerhielm of Estline.

'We decided to remove the possibility of safety risks in the future,' he said, 'but the decision will make other ferry companies extremely angry.'

Estline announced its bombshell decision to permanently weld the bow doors of the Vironia, (formerly called the Diana II) yesterday, sending shock waves through the industry by referring not just to the Estonia, but to 'incidents with bow-visors on Swedish and Finnish flagged ferries operating in the Baltic Sea.'

Nearly two years ago, the then Diana II, suffered severe weather damage to its bow visor and had to limp home to port for repairs. A tragedy on the scale of the Estonia was avoided by a quick-thinking captain turning the vessel astern to keep the bow out of the oncoming waves.

The decision to weld the bow doors amounts to public recognition by a ferry company that the very concept of opening bow doors may be flawed - a first for the industry which until the Estonia disaster was claiming that nothing could smash open the bow doors.

Walter Welch, of the Chamber of British Shipping, dismissed suggestions that the concept of bow 'visor doors' on ferries is in any way flawed. He suggested that Estline took its decision because the firm was worried that the problems of the Estonia might be replicated in a 'design fault' on the Vironia. He did not think that British ferry operators should follow, by sealing their bow doors.

'I don't think so, we've been operating these kinds of vessels for many years and have an awful lot of experience, I don't think there is any need to do this since the concept of a bow door is quite sound,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)