HC Deb 09 February 1998 vol 306 cc1-2W
Mr. Hancock

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will publish the Marine Safety Agency's report into the recent crossing to Spain of the Pride of Bilbao. [24057]

Ms Glenda Jackson

I have asked the Chief Executive of the Marine Safety Agency to write to the hon. Member.

Letter from Mr. R. M. Bradley to Mr. Mike Hancock, dated 9 February 1998: The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has asked me to reply to your Question about the vessel "Pride of Bilbao". The MSA's findings on this matter were not in the form of an official report but a Note has been prepared summarising the sequence of events, the actions taken and our conclusions. A copy of this Note is enclosed; in view of the public interest a copy has also been sent to the Editor of the Portsmouth News.

Note by the Marine Safety Agency Passenger Ferry Pride of Bilbao: Voyage in rough weather: Portsmouth-Bilbao 3–6 January 1998 1. The Marine Safety Agency has followed up complaints received about the voyage of the Pride of Bilbao from Portsmouth to Bilbao, departing from Portsmouth on 3 January 1998. Inquiries have included a visit by a Marine Safety Agency surveyor to the ship, an interview with the Master and telephone discussions with a number of passengers. This note summarises the main findings.

Pride of Bilbao 2. The Pride of Balbao is a UK registered ro-ro passenger ferry, managed and operated by P & O European Ferries. It has a passenger certificate issued by the Marine Safety Agency entitling it to carry up to a maximum of 2,335 passengers and up to 220 crew. It operates principally on the route from Portsmouth to Bilbao, and is also used on the Portsmouth to Cherbourg crossing. The usual crossing time from Portsmouth to Bilbao is about 36 hours. 3. In terms of weather and sea state, there are no operating restrictions placed on the vessel. It is fully capable of withstanding the most severe weather conditions. During the winter months, gale force winds and rough seas are a common occurrence on the Portsmouth to Bilbao crossing; the Bay of Biscay in particular is renowned for storms. The ship is fitted with stabilisers and normal precautions including lashing lorries and freight to ensure that they do not shift in heavy seas.

Voyage on 3 January 4. In advance of the sailing at 2000h on 3 January, the Master of the Pride of Bilbao, took account of the weather forecast information, in line with the usual practice. The forecast weather was for gale force winds for the proposed route; consequently, the crew were advised to take normal heavy weather precautions, including double lashing of lorries. At the beginning of the voyage the usual passenger sailing announcements were made; passengers were warned that the crossing would be rough and that they should proceed with care when moving around the vessel. There were some 800 passengers on board, together with cars, caravans and freight. 5. The Pride of Bilbao was due for drydocking immediately on its return from Spain. Since it was apparent that the voyage was likely to take longer than usual, the Master did discuss with P & O shore staff the question of whether the vessel should sail and agreed that it should continue as planned. However, this discussion related to scheduling the advice to passengers on the forecast conditions. No questions were raised as to whether it was safe to sail; that decision was left, as is proper, to the Master. 6. At mid-day on 4 January the weather became more severe and the Master informed the passengers that he would be slowing down and slightly altering course to ease sailing conditions. Passengers were also informed that the outside upper deck doors would be secured to avoid them causing injury or being damaged by the strong winds. At its peak the storm reached force 11 to 12, with waves of 30 metres. 7. At 0130 on 5 January passengers were informed that the ship would be resuming its usual course for Bilbao. It subsequently reached port at 0030 on 6 January; this was some 16.5 hours later than timetabled. 8. Accident reports concerning injuries to people sustained during the voyage were submitted, the most serious being a broken arm. These are being considered by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. 2 or 3 damage reports were filed for minor damage to cars. A foc's'le ladder came adrift; the piano was damaged and a plate glass window was crazed. Overall, damage to fittings was minor and no damage to the structure of the ship was sustained.

Conclusions 9. It is clear that the crossing on 3–6 January was very stormy and that many passengers found the rough seas exceptionally unpleasant. However, the Marine Safety Agency has concluded that the safety of the ship, its passengers and crew was not compromised by the decision to sail, which was taken in the knowledge that bad weather was forecast. Having interviewed the Master, the Agency is satisfied that he acted in a fully competent manner, in preparing for the voyage and during it, in accordance with the principles of good seamanship. There is no evidence that he was placed under any commercial pressure to sail against his judgment.