Korea Ferry Routinely— and Severely—Overloaded

Disaster exposes huge chasms in maritime regulation
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 4, 2014 5:44 AM CDT
Korea Ferry Routinely— and Severely—Overloaded
In this April 16, 2014 file photo, South Korean coast guard officers try to rescue passengers from the Sewol ferry as it sinks off the southern coast near Jindo, south of Seoul, South Korea.   (Uncredited)

The doomed ferry Sewol exceeded its cargo limit on 246 trips—nearly every voyage it made in which it reported cargo—in the 13 months before it sank, according to documents that reveal vast regulatory failures. And it may have been more overloaded than ever on its final journey. One private, industry-connected entity recorded the weights. Another set the weight limit. Neither appears to have had any idea what the other was doing. And they are but two parts of a maritime system that failed April 16 when the ferry sank, leaving more than 300 people missing or dead. Some findings, as per the AP:

  • Collectively, the country's regulators held enough information to conclude that the Sewol was routinely overloaded, but because they did not share that data and were not required to do so, it was useless.
  • The Korean Register of Shipping examined the Sewol early last year as it was being redesigned to handle more passengers. The register slashed the ship's cargo capacity by more than half, to 987 tons, and said it needed to carry more than 2,000 tons of water to stay balanced.
  • Owner Chonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd. reported much greater cargo capacity: 3,963 tons, according to a coast guard official.
  • Since the redesigned ferry began operating in March 2013, it made nearly 200 round trips—394 individual voyages—from Incheon to the southern island of Jeju. On 246 of those voyages, the Sewol exceeded the 987-ton limit.
  • More than 2,000 tons of cargo was reported on 136 of the Sewol's trips, and it topped 3,000 tons 12 times. But it was carrying an estimated and unprecedented 3,608 tons on its final voyage.
  • In paperwork filed before the Sewol's last voyage, Capt. Lee Joon-seok reported a much smaller final load of 150 cars and 657 tons of cargo. That would fall within the 987-ton limit, but it's clearly inaccurate: The coast guard has found 180 cars in the water.
The cause of the sinking remains under investigation, but experts have said that if the ship were severely overloaded, even a small turn could cause it to lose its balance. (More South Korea stories.)

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