RIVERDANCE 10 YEARS ON: Still concerns over how hauliers secure their cargo

Sophie Gorner was 14 when she took this Riverdance photo
Sophie Gorner was 14 when she took this Riverdance photo
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Almost a decade after calling for changes in the way truckers ship their cargo, it remains a ‘concern’, the boss of Riverdance’s owner said.


Seatruck ferries boss Alistair Eagles

Seatruck ferries boss Alistair Eagles

Alistair Eagles said that, while work has been done to educate hauliers about the need to secure cargo so it won’t shift on board ships, more could still be done.

Seatruck Ferries, which owned the Riverdance, from which 23 people were winched to safety after she got into trouble during stormy weather before crashing ashore at Cleveleys, has long claimed the ship was doomed the minute a wave sent it violently tilting - setting off a devastating chain of events.

And while investigators from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) concluded several factors may have led to the ship’s ultimate demise, Mr Eagles, Seatruck’s chief executive officer, said: “Ultimately the incident was caused by poor securing of cargo inside trailers.

“This is still a concern but the relevant bodies such as the RHA (Road Haulage Association) and FTA (Freight Transport Association) have worked very hard over the years to educate customers in this regard.

Riverdance RAF camera

Riverdance RAF camera

“The ferry companies have also been doing lots of work also.

“The road haulage industry is a far more professional place than it was 10 years ago.”

The initial calls made to the Coastguard on the evening on Wednesday, January 31, 2008, suggested the ship had been hit by a freak wave, the department’s report said.

But the ship had set off expecting a storm, and the area it was broadsided - Lune Deep - was ‘notorious for its large, steep-faced swells’, it said.

Winds of up to 80mph and waves of up to seven metres tall had met the 6,000-tonne ship, captained by the experienced Jim Smith, who was confident of navigating the storm.

“In the weather conditions experienced at the time of the accident, large and unpredictable swells could have been reasonably foreseen,” the report said.

“Waves experienced by Riverdance might well have been excessive,” it conceded.

“They would also have been intensified, and been made steeper, as a result of the ebb tide from Morecambe Bay.

“However, this could not be considered to be ‘freak’, especially within this area.”

In a statement released following the report’s release, in September 2009, Seatruck said it supported the view that ‘industry, governments, and Flag States should act with urgency’ to bring in new measures designed to improve safety during stormy weather.

It said there was clear evidence to suggest ‘extensive cargo spillage’ from trailers on board the Riverdance, and said it was calling on regulator to ‘develop new rules to ensure vehicular cargo shipped … is secure enough to withstand the full range of dynamic forces experienced at sea’, and that shippers are held accountable for the securing of cargo on, or in trailers’.

Donald Armour, an international affairs consultant from the FTA, said: “We’re not aware of any new legislation in this area because it is quite clear there can never be enough ways to secure a mixed variety of goods in vehicles, or the vehicles themselves, to a ship’s deck to absolutely guarantee nothing is going to move anywhere, despite what nature throws at the ship.

“In other words, it’s an art not a science.

“Having said that, there are safe loading and securing guidelines from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), UNECE and other bodies trying to address problems around load security and make best practice recommendations, even down to the detail of, for example, how many straps or chains should be used for freight transiting different sea areas.”


There wasn’t one cause, but several factors may have contributed to the ship’s ultimate demise, investigators from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) found.

The exact weight of the cargo wasn’t known, and the ship’s stability wasn’t calculated before setting sail. “It was a requirement of the company SMS (safety management system) for the vessel’s stability to be calculated before every departure,” their report said.

“But this procedure was not routinely followed on board Riverdance. The officers regarded the vessel as sturdy and stable in all possible loading conditions, and this had been verified, to the satisfaction of all managers, by the production on board of a ‘worst case scenario’ stability condition.”

The ballast - compartments that hold water to aid stability - was never adjusted regardless of cargo or the weather, and some openings on the main deck were not closed.

The Riverdance was moving at a speed slightly slower than that of the following wave train, which can affect stability and leading to more pronounced rolling, the report added.

“Travelling at close to wave speed can cause some dangerous situations which can develop very quickly and without warning,” it added.

“Travelling close to the speed of the waves can commonly lead to undesirable dynamic stability behaviours including parametric rolling, surfriding, loss of stability on a wave crest and broaching incidents.”

As the ship approached more shallow waters, the seas became steeper and rolling increased further, resulting in a cargo shift as a storm raged.

Following a series of large rolls to port, which caused more trailers and their contents to shift, captain Jim Smith made a ‘broad’ turn to starboard to turn the vessel’s head into the wind.

The report said: “This exacerbated the port heel, causing the deck edge to immerse, possibly allowing water to enter the vessel through openings on her weather deck.

“Ingress of water would have further reduced the vessel’s residual stability.”

The port main engine cut out because of the excessive lean and, with only one engine, the Riverdance didn’t have enough power to turn into the wind.

“The vessel lay beam on to the wind and seas, rolling heavily with a large list to port as she drifted towards shallow water,” the report said.

“The weather deck on the port side continued to be intermittently immersed.”


After the report was released, Seatruck said the findings of its own accident investigation conflicted with what the MAIB had discovered.

Spokesman Tony Redding said at the time: “The MAIB is suggesting there may have been other factors involved, but our position is that shifting cargo alone produced a list severe enough to set in chain the sequence of events which led to the grounding.

“The vessel sailed fully compliant with all stability legislation.

“The MAIB conclusions conflict with the findings of our own technical investigations.”

And current chief executive Alistair Eagles told The Gazette recently that ‘in simple terms we did not fully agree with the MAIB report’.

“We are widely regarded as an industry leader with an excellent record on safety,” he said.

The company operates 78 sailings per week and has invested €400m in eight vessels that carry three times as much as the Riverdance could.

He added: “In 2007 we shipped 95,000 freight units on a single route from Heysham to Warrenpoint.

“In contrast, in 2017 we moved in excess of 360 freight units on three routes.”


“I have been in worse seas in my time. Going across the north Pacific in winter is just one long force eight, from start to finish. I have been on several ships going across there.

You are rolling 50 degrees on way and coming up and doing 50 degrees the other way, and you are doing that for four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 days at a time.

“It’s a way of life. People at sea understand it and you adapt around it.

“Heading into it is different from it being behind you. Heading into it, you just put the bow into the sea and slow your engines down and ride through the waves and keep the motion as comfortable as possible.

“Instead of taking nine hours, it might take 15, but at least you get across safely.

“But being a perfect storm? Nah. It was just average for winter. I remember one October, it was force eight every single day.

“It was nothing unusual.

“What caused it was the cargo moving within the ship. The fact the ship got rolled is nothing unusual but that second wave came in and just bowled her over a few more degrees, and the cargo moved in the trailers.

“Not every trailer may have been inspected, to see if it was lashed internally, because it’s not compulsory on the road. So when it gets to the yard, the guys in the yard can’t check every single trailer because some are sealed.

“There was a lot of steel in there shifted and snapped the chain rachets holding it down.

“I don’t want to complain about the MAIB but the two guys they sent down were tanker men.

“They had never seen a ferry in their life. They had to make a report about a ship they had never been on, didn’t know how it ran, the service.”


Both Riverdance and her sister ship Moondance had both experienced previous incidents involving severe listing and cargo shifts, the report said.

During the 11 years the Riverdance sailed between Heysham and Warrenpoint, she reported a total of 111 incidents, of which 11 involved cargo shifts and/or large lists, it added, including an almost identical even in April 1998.

During the same period, the Moondance reported a total of 66 incidents, three of which involved cargo shift.

“The difference in this level of reports indicates that either Riverdance was experiencing a much higher level of cargo incidents, or that there was a difference in the two vessels’ reporting culture,” the report said.

“The company analysis of the cargo related incidents consistently blamed cargo shift as the root cause. No further consideration was given to the possibility that the different incident rate might have been because the two vessels were operating in different ways.

“Consequently, no measures were considered to reduce the frequency of such incidents on Riverdance. In particular, the 1998 incident might have been a key indicator to a serious problem.”

That event, in north-easterly winds of up to 55mph, saw the Riverdance experience two successive waves on the right side, causing her to roll heavily back and forth.

“This caused cargo shift on both the main and weather decks,” the report said.

“Although the ship’s lashings all held, there was cargo shifting within trailers.”

Mr Eagles declined to comment.


The MAIB made a number of recommendations to Seatruck following its investigation, which included taking action to make sure its fleet was safe, and ‘operate at all times with adequate reserves of stability’.

It was also urged to carry out an urgent review of its safety management system.

Seatruck accepted and complied with them both, documents showed.

Dave Eccles, who was on one of Fleetwood’s RNLI lifeboats helping with the rescue effort, was also master of the P&O ferries which ran out of Fleetwood.

He said it’s impossible to say whether a similar accident could happen again.

“It’s just one of those things,” he said.

“The ships are different now. Everything is different now. But there are still accidents at sea.”

He said he believes the accident was ‘an accumulation of circumstances’.

He said: “The main reason was down to the horrific weather at the time.

“Lune Deep, where it happened, is a notoriously rough piece of sea.”


The International Maritime Organisation released a report in 2014 called Safe Loading of Containers – also known as the CTU Code – which gives advice on the safe packing of cargo transport units (CTU) to those responsible for loading them.

The Dutch Maritime Research Institute published a report, called Lashing@Sea, in September 2009, just months after the Riverdance disaster.

It said ‘recently reported container losses and stow collapses indicate a lack of understanding in the loading and response of present day lashing equipment’, and added: “It is clear that this jeopardises the safety of people, navigation, and environment.”

But it conceded: “The project did not actually solve or improve anything directly. We did improve understanding of before mentioned physics and recommended where improvements in lashing technology and operational procedures should be searched for.”

And the World Shipping Council, along with others, published ‘Safe Transport of Containers by Sea: Guidelines on best practice’ in December 2008.

It said the guidelines were ‘well received’, and included a number of safety tips designed to keep shipping containers, their contents, and their host ships, safe.