Passenger and vessel ferries play a vital role in connecting communities and maritime areas. From tourism to worker commutes, ferries have become an appealing method of public and private transport globally. However, with hundreds of individuals on board, a ferry accident can result in a huge loss of life and, for search-and-rescue organisations, difficult mass rescue operations.

The 21st Century has seen its fair share of maritime disasters involving ferries. In 2002 an overloaded ferry in Senegal capsized in rough seas, resulting in the loss of more than 1,800 people, while in 2006 a passenger ferry sank in the Red Sea en route to Egypt, with more than 1,000 lives lost.

These incidents can happen anywhere in the world; many occur in Africa and Southeast Asia. Dr Roberta Weisbrod, Executive Director of the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association (WFSA), a not-for-profit action-oriented organisation based in New York, says it is vital that effective qualification programmes for ferry crew members become more widely available.

“None of the causes of ferry accidents are insoluble issues. We can reduce the chance of human error by providing rigorous, affordable and effective training programmes to crews worldwide. We can also improve weather information systems to help ships avoid storms or poor sea conditions, and we can implement new technology to enforce passenger numbers and prevent overcrowding.

“All of these will empower passengers to make safe and informed decisions about their choice of travel and make both the vessels and their crews safer in the long run,” Dr Weisbrod said.

Founded in 2008, the WFSA provides a training programme, developed in conjunction with the Bangladesh Department of Shipping, to ferry organisations and operators worldwide, particularly for crew members who are untrained or illiterate. “Our goal is simple: to reduce ferry fatalities and expand the safe use of ferries worldwide,” she said.

“The WFSA works more in the realm of safety technology and engineering but we also heavily support the regulatory side of the international maritime industry.” This includes SAFEMODE: a European project that is also looking to better understand how humans interact with operating systems in the maritime and aviation industries.

An eye on the sky

While human errors is the major reason for ferry incidents, inclement and unfavourable weather conditions have been found to be the next leading cause. According to data collated by the WFSA, upwards of 50% of fatal ferry accidents have a weather causation.

“A key issue is being able to accurately predict the short-term weather, known as nowcasting. Being able to effectively and accurately nowcast relies heavily on local knowledge and we are always looking to improve the understanding and prediction of local weather patterns.”

To further this research, the WFSA was awarded a grant from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation in June 2021 for a project to improve detection of sudden hazardous weather in Indonesia, which included analysing historical weather information in connection with deadly maritime events.

“As part of this project, we partnered with a number of industry experts, both in the United States and Indonesia, as well as an Indonesian meteorologist, academic data analysts and student interns. I hope this collective effort will further improve our understanding of at-sea weather patterns in Indonesia and that we can use this research to improve ferry safety across Southeast Asia,” Dr Weisbrod said.

With climate change, weather events are becoming more severe, frequent and rapid. For Dr Weisbrod, this means that effective weather monitoring technology on the sea and improved communication methods has become more important than ever.

“For the cost of a cellphone, ship operators could get a heads up on impending weather and make the industry more ‘weather-ready’.” This happens when an automated weather station is connected by microprocessor to the vessel’s AIS so it texts out the weather information in addition to location and bearing.

Dr Weisbrod also noted the importance of the Voluntary Observing Ships (VOS) programme from the World Meteorological Organization. The programme, in which ships voluntarily report weather observations to meteorological offices that then distribute that information to vessels, is currently starved for participants. With about 70,000 vessels eligible to be a part of the VOS programme, only 4,000 have signed up and of that only 2,500 are actively engaging.

“This is not enough. There is not enough sea surface weather information out there to improve vessel safety and save lives at sea. A new method to take more frequent observations and broadcast them to nearby vessels would be much more valuable,” she added.

Design competition

Another noticeable achievement of the WFSA is its annual international student design competition, which provides student engineers and designers with the opportunity to design safe and affordable ferries that can boost safety conditions.

Last year’s winners from Team Nawasena ITS from Surabaya Indonesia designed an innovative ferry that was designed to handle the complex Brahmaputra River, which runs through India and Bangladesh. The competition, which is now in its tenth year, has also looked to create new ferry designs for Papua New Guinea, Thailand, the Singapore Straits, the Philippines, Lake Victoria and the Amazon River.

“The 2023 design competition is specifically focusing on designing an electric ferry for the Pasig River in Manila in the Philippines. The city already provides a public waterbus service. We hope to provide an environmentally friendly option to Manila, a city committed to environmental improvement, to improve the usage of this vital waterway as a safe and public transport system,” Roberta added.

You can find out more about the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association by visiting their official website here: