The 6th March 1987 was a normal chilly winters day as the Townsend Thoresen ship ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’
docked at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The four and a half hour crossing from Dover is one its made without incident
thousands of times. As the passengers and vehicles disembark, Assistant Bosun Mark Stanley cleans the car deck
before going on a one hour break. The time is around 4.30 in the afternoon, and he’s been on duty for 5 hours. As he
heads to his cabin, he knows he doesn’t need to be back on the car deck until the ship leaves again, at 6pm.
Half an hour later cars and lorries begin to roll onto the lower car deck. A cheap ticket promotion means the ship is
very busy, and the upper car deck will also be needed. Because of the short loading ramps at Zeebrugge, this means
Captain David Lewry will need to lower the ship by one metre, by filling the ballast tanks with water. This process,
combined with the high number of vehicles means the ship will not be ready to leave on schedule, adding to the
pressure to make up time later. At three minutes to six, the last car drives on board.
First Officer Leslie Sable was in charge of loading. He radio’s the captain to say its complete, before he heads up to
the bridge himself. Crew member Leigh Cornelius puts the safety chain across the bow doors, before heading to his
station for leaving port. The job of closing the bow doors should have fallen to Mark Stanley, but fatefully he was still
sleeping in his cabin.
At around 6.05pm Captain Lewry starts the three 9000 horsepower engines, and begins to leave port. The 459
passengers head for the ship’s bars and lounges. As the ship slips out of the harbour and into the North Sea, the
speed is immediately increased to the maximum 18 knots in an attempt to begin making up time. Almost immediately
the ship jolts violently. Most passengers, however, just ignore it.
A crew member on the lower car deck alerts a purser that there is a serious problem with water flooding in. The purser
tries to call the bridge, but gets no response.
Then, at 6.28pm, the ship lurches violently, and tilts harshly to the left. The Captain is thrown to the floor and knocked
unconscious, before he is able to issue a ‘mayday’ call. Passengers cling desperately to anything they can as the
8,000 ton ship begins to capsize. A terrible grinding sound is followed by water breaking through portholes and
windows. Thousands of tons if freezing water rush in under tremendous pressure, and people struggle to find air.
The ship comes to rest on its side on a sand bank, its left side completely submerged. Its been just 90 seconds from
the first indication that something was wrong.
At the harbour entrance, just 1000m away, the dredger Sanderos sees the ferry’s lights go out, and radio’s the Port
Authority, who issue a ‘mayday’. All nearby ships are directed to the scene to help.
Inside the doomed ship, more than 500 passengers and crew are struggling to survive. Those that withstood the initial
capsize now have to fight hypothermia. The sea temperature is just 3 degrees above freezing, and most people would
not be able to withstand more than 20 minutes.
The Captain of one of the first rescue ships – The Seahorse – was horrified with the sight before him. The tug boats
crew begin breaking windows to reach struggling passengers. Within half an hour helicopters and more ships arrive to
begin picking up survivors, and a team of local divers begin the dangerous task of searching inside the ship. It’s a
gruesome job as they have to swim between floating bodies to hunt for the living.
On the dockside, a fleet of 35 ambulances ferry the wounded to local hospitals, as news of the tragedy circles the
world. It’s the worst peacetime British maritime disaster since the Titanic in 1912. Stories begin to emerge of heroic
actions, and amazing rescues. But also of families torn apart, and a high death toll.
Shortly before 3am the tide begins to rise causing dangerous currents inside the stricken vessel. Diving has to be
suspended until the morning, leaving little hope of any more survivors being found.
Renowned naval architect Ian Dand is appointed to lead the investigation team. As soon as dawn breaks, attention is
immediately drawn to the open bow doors. When the investigators began to question the crew it discovered that not
only was the crew member assigned the task of closing the bow doors not on deck at the time, but that no failsafe
systems existed to ensure it was done. It also discovered that the First Officer Leslie Sable was supposed to
supervise the closing of these doors, but that he was also supposed to be on the bridge at the same time. Neither
captain nor First Officer can see the bow doors from the bridge.
But even with the bow doors open, it should not have resulted in the ship capsizing, since the doors are a good 2
metres above sea level, and it was a calm night with almost no waves. They then discovered that due to the loading
problems, the ballast tanks were still full, lowering the ship by 1 metre. The last part of the jigsaw was found when
they recreated the fateful voyage in May 1987, using the Herald’s sister ship. It was found that as it left harbour, the
shallow water created a suction effect which pulled the ship even lower in the water. When the Captain pushed the
ship to full speed, the resulting bow wave crashed onto the open car deck. With thousands of tons of water rushing
from side to side it acted like a pendulum, and made the ship unstable to a point from which it could never recover.
193 people died in the tragedy, and it led to a major review of British maritime safety. The new regulations included
modifications to all vessels, including water retaining bulkheads, and CCTV cameras and indicators to show that doors
are closed. In addition, all ships must now be able to survive at least 30 minutes without capsizing if they take on
As a result, the British maritime industry is now amongst the safest in the World.
Townsend Thoresen were ultimately found guilty of poor management, and fined £400,000. Captain David Lewry was
suspended for one year, and First Officer Leslie Sable for two years. Assistant Bosun Mark Stanley was found
seriously negligent, but faced no further punishment.