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Vessel type Ferry
Year launched 1972
Cargo type Freight and passenger
Country of build Scotland

The 1977 loss of the UK-flagged ferry Hero in the North Sea sparked Union concerns over the safety of ro-ro ships a decade before the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster.

The build

The 4,493grt vessel was built at the Rob Caledon yard in Leith, Scotland in 1972. Hero was powered by two Crossley-Pielstick diesel engines and had a designated service speed of 17 knots.

Originally of 3,468grt, Hero had its gross tonnage increased by just over 1,000 tonnes during structural alterations at the Amsterdam Dry Dock Company in 1976, which also lengthened the vessel by 24.5m and lifted the container deck.


Managed by Ellerman Wilson Line of Hull, Hero operated what the inquiry into the loss described as 'the hard running trade of a continuous ferry service,' making a round trip every four days between Esbjerg and Grimsby, or occasionally Harwich or North Shields.


Hero was jointly owned by DFDS and Domino Container Ships.

Hero Fact File

A close call

One year before the ship sank, it was involved in a serious incident when water flooded into the lower trailed deck through non-return valves after an 18-degree list developed following a shift of cargo in heavy weather.

Disaster was averted by a change in the weather and allowing the water to flow into the engineroom, from where it was pumped overboard.

Sinking of the Hero

The same technique used during the first incident was used on the night of 13 November 1977, when the Hero was on its regular run between Esbjerg and Grimsby. Water flooded the same deck as a result of what the inquiry later determined to be heavy weather damage to the forecastle deck and the stern doors in Force 10 to 12 conditions.

However, this time the technique was less successful, and the incident led to the death of a seafarer. The rest of the 26 crewmembers and three passengers were rescued by two other merchant vessels and a Canadian warship after they abandoned the listing ferry.

Union concerns

Hero's master Captain Frederick Firth and chief officer Guy Snowden were exonerated from any blame by the subsequent Department of Trade investigation. It ruled that the shop had been in breach of its loadline assignment and was unseaworthy because of shortcomings in the condition of the stern doors and superstructure.

However, the Nautilus predecessor Union MNAOA described the inquiry report as disappointing because it made no attempt to question the inherent seaworthiness of ro-ro ships.

The Union expressed particular concern about their ability to cope with a sudden ingress of water into enclosed spaces and its national ferries committee set up a working group to consider the wider issues of ro-ro safety.

The MNAOA working group concluded that it was wrong that the Department of Transport requirements for ro-ro ships were based on conventional vessels, and it said the rules should be altered to reflect their high decks, low freeboards and large open spaces.

The Union took part in subsequent discussion on the issues with owners, naval architects and regulators, but sadly it was to take the sinking of the Herald of the Free Enterprise and the deaths of 193 passengers and crew in 1987 before any significant changes were made to ro-ro design in an attempt to mitigate the threats posed by the 'free surface effect' of water flooding vehicle decks.


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