John Guy, author and maritime advisor, gives his opinion on Sewol and the problem with liferafts:
Why didn’t the captain of the Korean ferry Sewol order the lifeboats to be launched? That’s easy. The Sewol has no lifeboats.
That’s right, the ferry which sank claiming the lives of around 300 school children did not have any lifeboats. International rules require passenger ships to have lifeboats, but the Sewol was licensed only for the Korean coastal trade, so had to comply only with local rules. That appears to mean it need only inflatable liferafts. Which are very much harder to deploy and get into than lifeboats.
A lot of the kids who died were around 16 years old. I can still remember when I was that age, trying to board a liferaft in the freezing waters of the Solent. That was a drill from a sail training ship, under more or less controlled conditions. It convinced me never to use a liferaft in an emergency unless I had to.
The reason why coastal ferries don’t have lifeboats is because they are supposed only to trade close to the coast, meaning that rescue craft can get to them quickly. The captain of the Sewol is recorded as saying he did not want to order the evacuation of the ship until there were enough rescue craft close to the ship.
When you know there were no lifeboats you begin to see his reasons. He could have ordered the children to begin abandoning ship into the rafts, knowing that he was sending a fair few of them to a certain death in freezing cold water and strong currents, because they would certainly not have been able to board the rafts safely. He chose not to do that. He thought he had enough time to wait for rescue craft to evacuate safely.
We know now he made the wrong choice. But before you rush to condemn him, think what choice you might have made under the same circumstances. An international passenger ferry would have had other options. The coastal safety standards were wrong, and many of those kids died because they were too close to home.
Leaving aside all the other questions as to why the incident happened, the enquiry into the Sewol has to ask one big question: Is it safe to have a ship which relies only on liferafts? Anyone who has ever tried to board one knows the easy answer. No.
John Guy served on merchant ships and warships for sixteen years before becoming a ship inspector and then a journalist. He advises companies and organizations working in the global shipping industry on media and crisis management. His latest novel is The Golden Tide.