NORTHERN isles ferry operator Serco NorthLink has admitted a ship’s master lost control of a vessel for a few seconds, during which the ferry rolled so much that some of its 500 passengers thought the vessel was going to capsize.
The ferry Hjaltland was on its way from Lerwick to Kirkwall on Wednesday night when the incident happened shortly after 9.30pm.
Frightened passengers reported glass smashing in the bar and plates in the restaurant as the Hjaltland listed to port side, yet no one explained what happened during or after the boat journey.
When approached by the media on Thursday, Serco NorthLink’s marine manager Captain Stuart McCallum said that there had been a “technical issue with the auto pilot” behind the event that lasted 14 seconds.
\As a result the vessel was immediately switched to hand steering in what was described as “a professional response”.
McCallum said that the ferry had been rolling at an average of nine degrees in moderate seas with the wind blowing at force 6 from the south.
“A heavier than average roll was experienced at 21:38:42 recorded at 16 degrees, the cause of this additional roll was identified as a technical issue with the auto pilot control,” he said.
“During the roll and subsequent course recovery hand steering was engaged and control established immediately, normal passage resuming at 21:38:56.
“The vessel was under the bridge watch keeping authority of the chief officer at the time who maintained and provided, as we would expect, a professional response to the technical issue experienced.”
Donna Simpson, from Tingwall, was on the ferry that night with her two children aged five and two.
She said: “I was getting out of my seat to gather stuff when the boat just started tipping over, and kept on going over and over on to its side and I just grabbed my peerie boy.
“It just came completely out of the blue. You could see the sea coming nearer the window, while on the other side people said that they could see nothing but sky, they couldn’t see the horizon at all.
“Quite a lot of folk felt that the boat was going to capsize because it kept going over and over, further than you thought it could go over.”
Simpson said that people were alarmed and one young woman was crying after the experience. People appeared from their cabins and some people went on deck to find out what had happened. She said she was upset that there had been no explanation from the crew.
“One of the bridge members came down to see if everyone was alright, but they didn’t say what happened and there was no explanation when we got off the boat.
“We just wanted to ken what had happened because it was so out of the blue. It was obvious something had caused it and folk would just have liked an explanation why.”
Meanwhile Shetland MSP Tavish Scott has written to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency urging them to investigate an incident on 3 July when the Serco NorthLink ferry Hrossey had to swerve to avoid hitting the emergency towing vessel Herakles in Kirkwall harbour in thick mist.
Scott has asked the MCA if the Herakles was in the main shipping lane that night and, if so, why.
His move follows the refusal of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to investigate what they described as the “hazardous incident” due to the organisation’s limited resources.
A letter to Scott from Orkney Islands Council harbour master Brian Archibald states that the Hrossey was no closer than 251 metres to the Herakles on the night in question.
Passengers on board that night reported the vessel suddenly lurching sideways, causing bottles and glasses to smash in the bar and people on deck being pushed against the wall.