My son was just heading off on a school skiing holiday and he was taking a coach from the West Country to Dover, where he would be getting a ferry to France before the long drive to the Alps. I had just returned from a Red Sea liveaboard trip where we dived four different roll-on roll-off ferries - should I be concerned?
Ro-ro ferries have had some bad press over the years, and they have been associated with some epic tragedies. The Herald of Free Enterprise springs to mind; she capsized just outside the Port of Zeebrugge on 6 March 1987 with the loss of 193 passengers and crew. It is common knowledge now that the failure to close the bow doors of the ferry led to overwhelming flooding of the car deck, which in turn led to catastrophic instability leading to the capsize.
Other notable recent disasters include the Estonia, which sank in foul weather on 28 September 1994 in the Baltic with the loss of 852 passengers and crew; again it was the failure of the bow door locking mechanism, caused this time by bad weather, that was responsible.
More recently, the MS al-Salam Boccaccio was lost in the Red Sea on 3 February 2006. She was en-route from Duba in Saudi Arabia to Safaga and was 50 miles from port carrying Egyptian workers and pilgrims returning from the Haji, over 1,000 were lost. It was thought she developed an engine room fire; this was fought using sea water, but the hull pumps were not working correctly so the added water in the hull caused instability and led to the tragic sinking.
Ferries have a good safety record interrupted by these tragic incidents, and each incident leads to a review of design and procedures primarily by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). I would not wish anyone reading this to feel that they have to change travel arrangements because of the history of this type of shipping.
Roll-on roll-off ferries can be traced back to the 1850s with the Firth of Forth ferry, at that time the ferry was carrying trains across the Forth before the rail bridge was constructed. It was World War Two where the modern style of ship was developed, a type of ro-ro ferry was used as a tank landing ship on D-Day.
The wrecks that I dived met their end in a variety of ways, some with great loss of life and others with none. The first and deepest was the Al Qamar al Saudia al Misri. This was a 7,000-ton ferry 125 metres long with a beam of almost 20 metres that was launched in 1970. Originally Scandinavian based and called the Trekroner, she moved to Egypt in 1983. She suffered a boiler explosion and fire when returning to Suez from Jeddah on 18 May 1994, carrying 527 passengers and 63 crew. The destroyer USS Briscoe was one of the ships closest to her and set about co-ordinating the rescue - 15 crewmen from the Briscoe earned galantry and heroism medals for their efforts during the rescue. The ship finally sank on 19 May, with eight confirmed dead and 13 missing.
The ship today lies on a flat seabed in 85m, with the shallowest part at 63m. She is not far from the Abu Nuhas reef and the liveaboard (Whirlwind) I was staying on spent the night close to there. Whirlwind moved on-site early in the morning expecting to have to put our own shot into the wreck, but we were pleased to see that the wreck already had a fixed line in place. Ten of us would be diving her, all using 10/50 trimix diluent in our Inspiration rebreathers and taking bailout or deciding upon a more alpine approach individually. The two guides joined us on the wreck using open circuit.
I descended the shotline and at about 30m the shape of the wreck came into view, square portholes in the side of the ship giving it some definition - it was immense. Once settled on the side of the ship, I checked all was okay with buddy Dan Stevenson and then we moved forwards towards the bow. We went past the bridge over the anchor capstan to the very point of the bow before coming once again over the side of the ship to look at the anchor safely retained in position. Returning to midships we came across a spare propeller. This intrigued me, why should a modern ship with two working props carry a spare? Was it a spare at all, it may have been cargo for delivery elsewhere. With this causing me some consternation, I felt I really wanted to check out the props, despite the 125 metre length of the ship and its depth. I headed off to the stern and passed a life raft, hanging forlornly from the block and tackle holding it to one of the davits. I took a passing picture of this and was pleased to see the partial name of the ship visible on the raft once I viewed the image on a screen.
A little further on I finally reached the stern and was able to view the props, impotent in their stillness but looking magnificent, a true testament to heavy engineering. Modern ship propellers are often modular, with each blade bolted onto the hub which is linked to a control system to alter the pitch, the images taken clearly show that the actual and spare props are both single piece construction, which adds to the idea that the prop on the deck was a true spare carried for emergency use.
I made my way back to the shotline and as everybody ascended it was clear all had enjoyed the wreck, we had nearly two hours of decompression to while away, the clear water making it easy to stay in contact with the whole team, some of whom relished the time to use their underwater MP3 players and make the point to those of us who did not have them that they were an indispensible part of a technical diver’s equipment!
Once everybody was back on the liveaboard, the captain headed south towards Safaga - our next ferry would be the Salem Express. This wreck really needs no introduction, but a bit of background surrounding the sinking follows: Captain Hassan Moro was one of the most able and experienced of Egyptian captains with many years service. He liked to take a shortcut around the Hyndman reefs, which took two hours off the journey time from Jeddah to Safaga. No other captains were prepared to take the same risk. On 15 December 1991 the ship was returning to Safaga in very poor conditions with gale force winds. Moro still chose to take the shortcut through the reef complex and close to midnight the ship struck a southern part of the reef, a blow that was enough to break the bow door seal. Water overwhelmed the car deck, the ship became unstable, rolled onto her side and settled on the seabed in 30m of water. It all happened so quickly, she was on the sea bed in 20 minutes. Captain Moro was lost with his ship, along with 470 officially confirmed dead.
Not long after the sinking Egyptian authorities allowed diving on the wreck but requested no penetration. The highest point of her is just 10m below the surface, the deepest 32m.
My dive on this wreck was fascinating, but I swam around her with uncomfortable thoughts remembering those who had perished in 1991. I wish to just display a series of images with captions taken on my dive which I hope justly show a fantastic wreck dive and a sombre memorial to the lost. For more detail on the dive itself, I would direct you to other texts.
There was a certain reflection post dive, I believe the history, loss of life and hype surrounding the Salem Express had left its mark. Divers are not ones to linger though, we were moving on to our next site, the Al Kahfain.
They say a changing a ship’s name is bad luck. This ship started life as the Ulster Queen, and was built in Birkenhead by Cammel Laird in 1967. She was used on the Belfast to Liverpool route owned initially by the Belfast Steamship Company but later running as a P&O ship. The service ended in 1971. She moved to the Mediterranean and her name was changed several times in quick succession, first Al Kahera followed by Ala-Eddin. In 1988 she was aquired by Hellenic Mediterranean Lines and changed to Poseidonia, and the final change to Al Kahfain came in 2005, the year of her loss.
On 22 November 2005 she was bound for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a crew of 58 but no passengers. Fire broke out in the engine room and spread to the upper decks. The crew abandoned ship and she was left to drift. She was eventually taken under tow but capsized and came to rest beside Sha'ab Sheer reef near Safaga in 24m of water. This ferry only had stern doors for vehicle access and she now lies almost completely upside down. Access to her car deck can be easily had from the stern, but care needs to be taken inside her. Outside, her twin propellers and rudders lie only 10m below the surface, they are covered in early coral growth. She is showing signs of breaking up with cracks in her hull, but apart from some superstructure close to the sea bed on her starboard side (as she lies), this dive is on the upturned hull, her port side lying close to the reef. While I was diving her deep grinding sounds of fractured and moving metal were apparent, she has not finished settling yet. The reef around the ship is quite vibrant and is certainly worth looking at when you feel you have seen enough of the wreck.
What was interesting on this dive was evidence of her many names. I found a piece of fibreglass lifeboat stencilled Al Kahera. At the bow the name Poseidonia is clearly seen, as is rust marking where the original name plate letters have been removed - the outline of Ulster Queen is plain to see. What should she be known as now? She was Al Kahfain for less than a year. I favour either Poseidonia or Ulster Queen, as they were the names she held longest.
Following this dive, Whirlwind moved closer to Safaga, and a rusting hulk seen close to our next dive site was an indication of what can happen in these waters. The final wreck in the series was the El Arish el Tor.
This ship has an intriguing story. Her last voyage was in 2001 as she was returning to Safaga from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She suffered an engine room fire which was dealt with but left the ship needing extensive repairs. She was moored between Safaga Island and Safaga port, presumably awaiting a place in the docks or funding or both. She was like that for a couple of years, then one day in 2003 she was gone. At first the local community assumed she had sailed for another port, but outspoken Red Sea wreck expert Peter Collings thought otherwise. He was eventually able to locate and dive her in 2005.
Today she lies on her port side in about 37m with the shallowest part less than 20m, as she sank at mooring and most probably in a rather quiet and unassuming way (if ever a ship sinking can be called that). She is one of the most complete and undamaged wrecks you will ever encounter. Lying close to the port the visibility is not as good as you would normally expect in the Red Sea, in addition she lies on a rather silty seabed. For this reason she is not dived as often as some, however she is showing excellent soft coral growth and marine life on her upper structures, although I found that the silt covering deeper parts had prevented colonisation of those areas.
On the lower parts of the wreck vis was no better than a poor UK dive, on this occasion I did not undertake any wreck penetration and my advice would be that this would be a serious but interesting undertaking, as the extent of silt outside the wreck means that it should not be contemplated lightly.
And so I came to the end of my series of ferry wrecks. In all cases human error, be it poor navigation decisions or lack of a maintenance schedule on board, were at the heart of these maritime disasters. As divers all the wrecks make interesting dives, but I believe that knowing more about their history turns a good dive into a fascinating one.
Sport Diver verdict
A northern Red Sea safari takes in some excellent wrecks, and these can range from relatively shallow to full-on technical depths.