Irresponsible actions of operating firm caused sightseeing boat to sink

A series of incredibly irresponsible actions led to the disastrous sinking of a sightseeing boat. To prevent a similar situation from happening again, the relevant agencies must make every possible effort to devise countermeasures.

The government’s Transport Safety Board has released an investigation report on the fatal accident, in which a sightseeing boat with 26 people on board, including the crew, sank in waters off the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido in April. The report concluded that a large amount of seawater flowed through a hatch in the bow that provided access to the ship’s holds, leading to the sinking.

It is an ironclad rule in sailing to keep the hatch closed, but it is highly likely that it was not closed properly because of deteriorated parts and it came off its hinges as the boat was being tossed about by waves, according to the report.

The safety board believes it is likely that the skipper of the ship had been aware of a defect in the hatch before the accident. If so, it must be said that this is serious negligence.

Three bulkheads that separated the holding areas and an engine room below the deck had holes in them. Seawater had flowed through the hatch and spread through the bottom of the ship. If the hatch had been tightly closed it would have prevented the worst possible outcome — a sinking.

The safety board called on the transport minister to direct operators of small passenger ships nationwide to conduct emergency inspections of their hatches. Measures should be considered, such as installing light and sound notification devices that activate when the hatch is ajar, like the warning systems on car doors.

The discovery of the cause of the sinking is significant. The more fundamental problem, however, is that the operating firm of the sightseeing boat made a series of irresponsible blunders.

Strong wind and high surf advisories were issued on the day of the accident. The operating firm had set a guideline that it would suspend operations if waves reached a height of more than 1 meter. According to the report, the actual wave height reached 2 meters on the day of the accident, but the trip went ahead.

The skipper and the deckhand were inexperienced, and the mobile phones they had were out of the signal area for most of the ship’s route. The president of the operating firm, who was the operation manager, was regularly away from his office, and he also neglected to communicate with the ship at fixed points along the route.

The operator significantly lacked the awareness that the firm was supposed to be in charge of passengers’ lives. It is impossible to imagine the grief of the bereaved families.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry also cannot evade criticism for having missed during a preliminary audit that the office and the sightseeing boat were unable to communicate with each other via mobile phones.

A panel of experts from the ministry set up after the accident is looking at strict measures for the safe operation of ships. Another issue is how to save the lives of passengers in the event of exposure to cold water.

Twenty people lost their lives in the accident and six others are still missing. The Japan Coast Guard is continuing an investigation into the president of the operating firm and others on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death. It is essential to rigorously pursue the responsibility for causing the tragic accident.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 16, 2022)