The recent Egyptian ferry disaster is terribly sad news. If the projected death toll of 1,000 people is accurate, it’s one of the great maritime disasters in recent history.
I’ll confess to a bit of extra interest in this rather depressing story. Several years ago, I was on one of these ferries, traveling not between Egypt and Saudi Arabia but between Egypt and Jordan. I was in Jordan for a few months on an archaeology dig, and after the dig finished, I decided along with a friend to travel to Cairo. Boarding an Egypt-bound ferry at the Gulf of Aqaba was the cheapest such option (and had the advantage of not passing through Israel; several of the enlightened nations of the Middle East won’t let you in with an Israeli stamp on your passport).
And so it was that we ended up on one of these ferries, very similar (as far as I can tell from photos) to the one that just sank. As far as unpleasant experiences go, it was pretty high up on the list. The ferry was obviously antiquated and was ridiculously overcrowded–we spent the several-hour journey sitting squashed on the floor of the main deck along with hundreds of other people, mostly (from what we could gather) Egyptian workers traveling to and from jobs in Jordan. We made many, many morbid jokes during the journey about the ratio of lifeboats to passengers.
It was a hellish trip, but we arrived safely enough, and the experience was quickly blotted out by the even more hellish overnight bus trip from the port to Cairo. The return journey to Jordan was just as tedious, overcrowded, and generally unpleasant.
Of course, my one brief experience riding the Jordan-Egypt ferry does not qualify me to offer an opinion about the ferry disaster. Reports claim that the doomed ferry was well-maintained and operating in accordance with safety regulations. But I hope somebody is paying attention to this guy, quoted in the aforementioned CNN story:
However, one man in the crowd told CNN he had taken the same ship on the same route a month ago and that the ship appeared overloaded on that trip, packed with passengers and laden with eight large trucks filled with freight, the man said.
He also said the clasps that secured lifeboats to the ship were rusted.
Other former passengers also reported that the ferry was antiquated.
“It’s a roll-on, roll-off ferry, and there is big question mark over the stability of this kind of ship,” David Osler, of the London shipping paper Lloyds List, told AP.