Monday, January 12, 2009
Is the Indonesian ferry disaster a warning for Hawaii’s interisland ferry?
by Larry Geller
I love watching ocean waves, whether calm or stormy—from a safe spot on land. That’s my preference.
One day we found ourselves on the car ferry from Tokyo to Hokkaido, with waves both outside the ship and in the swimming pool, which of course was closed (I think it must always be closed). Outside was rough, but anyone in the pool would have been dashed to death immediately. We returned to Tokyo by plane, and picked up our car from the ferry terminal the next day. They were quite used to that and helped us with our reservations.
I was thinking of that trip when I read the news of the Indonesian ferry sinking. How horrible it must have been. Apparently, no one knew the ship would meet conditions it could not deal with:
A 700 ton ferry capsized in Indonesia after it was smashed by waves at the weekend, leaving about 250 people still missing and rescue efforts hampered because of bad weather. The meteorology agency had warned of bad weather in the area but Djamal said that port authorities had given the ferry the go-ahead to leave and conditions were clear when it left.
The ferry, which had 250 passengers and 17 crew, was travelling about 487 km (302 miles) from Pare-Pare on the west coast of Sulawesi to Samarinda city on Indonesia's side of Borneo island when it ran into bad weather on Sunday.
An official on Sulawesi quoted survivors as saying the ferry rolled over and sank after being hit by waves of more than 5 metres (16 feet) in the early hours of Sunday. [Die Welt (English), Indonesian ferry accident leaves some 250 missing, 1/12/2009]
From other reports, it appears that the ferry was not overloaded. Its capacity was 300 passengers. It just should not have been out there under those conditions.
Unfortunately, ocean waves are not orderly and mathematical, like this:
In fact, waves can look like this
In the worst (and fortunately very rare) case there can be so-called “rogue waves” which I understand have not yet been completely explained. I found an abstract of one paper here, and of course Google will give you as much information as you want. It is possible that the Indonesian ferry met up with some of these rogue waves.
Ok, back to Hawaii. I looked at the Superferry website and didn’t see anything about a cancellation today. Brad Parsons, originator of the Barf-O-Meter and the person I depend on because I don’t understand which waves are in which channel and if the Superferry goes there or not, directed me to KGMB’s report of a high surf advisory:
Surf is forcasted as the follows:
- 15 to 20 feet along north and west facing shores of Niihau and Kauai
- 14 to 18 feet along north facing shores of Oahu, Molokai and Maui
- 10 to 14 feet along west facing shores of Oahu
Brad kindly translated that into the Barf-O-Meter index:
It seems that the Coast Guard will allow the Superferry to run in seas up to 19 feet. So what’s it like out there, is it safe, and what kind of an experience will passengers have if the seas are at about that level?
You’ve probably seen the YouTube video Hawaii Superferry Wild Ride. The note attached is “taken by George Peabody from www.MolokaiAdvertiserNews.com filmed this the day before cracks were discovered in the rudder housing.” If not, here it is, only 21 seconds. And note that from the camera position anyway, the waves don’t look that bad. Maybe the frequency of the wave arrivals has something to do with it too.
What’s my point? I guess it is that I wonder if a ship that shouldn’t be out in seas over 19 feet should be where the forecast calls for a possible 20. Wouldn’t it be better, even if there is no danger, to stay in port for the sake of the passengers? I’m assuming that these days they are tying down all the cars on the vehicle deck.
Just asking. Somebody should, maybe.
My feeling is, hey, if you want to put yourself through a trip on HSF in 19 foot seas, be my guest! I can't imagine that anyone taking the trip in conditions like that would ever want to set foot on the ferry again!
One point I'd like to make also is that I think we're conditioned to think "well our fancy US-made ferries can't sink like the shoddy ones from Indonesia can"...but this is irrational. As you pointed out, the ferry was not overloaded, and generally these boats are piloted by well-trained crew, captains, who make their entire life living on the sea. Also I doubt that this ferry was made from aluminum, it was made with a much stronger steel hull I'm sure. Considering that the hull cracked last year from contact with the tug and drydock, I can't help but think it is under tremendous stress when the HSF plows through a 19 foot wave and slams back down again.
Cheers from Kauai - Uncle Aina