Ferry safety still lax despite calls for stricter rules

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Ferry safety still lax despite calls for stricter rules

Shortly after the ferry departed on Oct. 1, the captain of the Dongbaek 89, a 32-ton vessel that sails near Haeundae district, off eastern Busan, grabbed a microphone to make an announcement to the passengers onboard.

“This yachting course was built during the 2002 Busan Asian Games,” he told the passengers. “This is the largest course in the nation.”

With the microphone in one hand, the captain adjusted the sound system with the other, neglecting to keep his eyes forward and letting the helm of the ship sail free.

Since the Sewol ferry capsized on April 16 in waters off the southwestern coast, security issues on passenger ships have persisted amid heightened concern over public safety and increased calls for improved safety regulations.

The tragedy, Korea’s worst maritime disaster on record, left more than 300 people dead, mostly 11th-grade high school students on a class trip.

Another incident on Sept. 30, in which a 171-ton tourist ferry carrying 104 passengers and five crew members ran aground near Hongdo, off the southwestern coast of South Jeolla, also stoked national fears.

In Busan, there are 15 ferries that operate around Haeundae District, Eulsuk Island and Taejongdae, a natural park. And just like the captain of the Dongbaek 89, all the ships’ commanders were found to be less than attentive from time to time.

As the captain of the Dongbaek 89 made his announcement, the ferry came within 50 to 60 meters (55 to 65 yards) of a rock, causing some passengers to recoil.

“I was so worried because the captain kept missing the helm,” said Kim Jin-hwan, one of the boat’s passengers. “I have been aboard foreign ferries several times, but I have never seen a captain make an announcement and sail simultaneously.”

The ferry also did not appear to be well-equipped for an emergency.

A brief announcement was made prior to departure informing passengers where the life jackets were located and how to use them, but there was neither a demonstration nor a video.

On a 414-ton ferry that sails near Wolmido, an island near Incheon, the crew was similarly casual. As passengers boarded the ferry, a message was broadcast explaining that a tutorial on how to wear a life jacket would be given on the first floor. But less than half the passengers participated in the instruction; most took photographs or watched the passing scenery on the second and third decks.

“The announcement was so muted that I couldn’t hear it very well,” one passenger said. “I didn’t even know that there was an instruction going on. None of the crew members led us to the first floor.”

Because many ferry companies are small or independently owned, the ships’ captains are responsible for taking on multiple roles, said Kim Gil-soo, a professor in the division of maritime transportation science at Korea Maritime and Ocean University.

“Marine accidents can easily lead to tragedy,” Kim said. “A regulation that separates the crew in charge of making announcements and taking care of the passengers in their cabins is necessary so that the captain can focus on sailing.”

BY KIM SANG-JIN, CHOI MO-RAN [ypc3c@joongang.co.kr]

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