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Stena Hibernia

© Justin Merrigan
Following Sealink's acquisition by Stena Line in 1990 a massive fleetwide investment programme was announced. This provided for significant extra capacity on the Irish Sea routes and included the introduction in June 1991 of a second multi-purpose ferry on the Holyhead run - Stena Cambria, formerly Dover's St Anselm.

As part of the investment programme the St Columba underwent an £8mn refit, designed to transform her into a floating leisure centre in line with Stena's "Travel Service Concept" which held that given top class ships, a wide range of facilities, quality entertainment and good value prices, then people would be encouraged to travel all year round, simply for the fun of the onboard experience.

The St Columba was the first ship in the fleet to be so treated and returned to service with a new name and a very new look. As the Stena Hibernia she provided a huge range of facilities including an a la carte restaurant and self service restaurant, a Pizza Factory, a Show Bar with resident band and visiting cabaret, an Irish Bar with traditional Irish music, Business Club and Conference Centre, Casino, Children's Play Area and, of course, well-stocked Duty Free and Gift shops.

While the adoption of the name "Hibernia" evoked a venerable past on the Holyhead route the refit did not always meet with total approval from the travelling public. The renaming was an attempt to honour a long tradition going back almost a century and a half when the first Hibernia arrived at Holyhead. However, since 1977 the St Columba had become almost as well known to an Irishman as a pint of Guinness. For weeks after her return to service Ireland's national newspapers contained letters of regret that her once comfortable and pleasing lounges had been sacrificed for the glitzy Stena look. One writer commented "I'm glad they've renamed the ship as I have happy memories of the St Columba."

However, overtime the new look began to grow on the travelling public and as the Stena Hibernia, or the "Hibs" as she affectionately became known as, the ship soon had a whole new following.


Stena Hibernia - night of the big roll


There was barely a breath of wind as the Stena Hibernia lay alongside at Dun Laoghaire on 16th January 1993 loading for the 20.45 sailing to Holyhead. Of course, the great landmass above Dun Laoghaire sheltered the town from the SSW'ly gale that was blowing in the Irish Sea.


The Master had instructed the loading officer to 'storm load' and this involved stowing all the freight vehicles 'block-stowed', three lanes either side of the centre casing secured with our rachet/strap lashings. The cars were loaded at both the for'd and after ends of the main vehicle deck. No mezzanine decks were in use.


We sailed 'right time' out of Dun Laoghaire, the engine room and onboard services having been advised of the weather conditions outside. Approaching the Kish Light we started to feel the wind although sea conditions were good as we were still in the lee of the Codling Bank. But it wasn't too long before the passage became uncomfortable.


I know it was somewhere around that time that I decided to go up to the bridge to 'have a look at the sea' and that is indeed what I saw! I'd only been on the bridge for a few minutes when the ship dropped into a trough in the quartering sea. A large foam-capped swell appeared on the startboard quarter which seemed to tower over the ship as she lay heeling to starboard in the trough. Like a 'kelly doll' she was thrown over to port to an angle that was in excess of the parameters of the bridge inclinometer (it jammed full over).


With the same violence the ship rolled back to starboard  and to a similar angle. And there we were, frozen in a moment of time, staring at our destiny in the form of another very large swell approaching like an express train. In that moment I hoped that this wall of water would not have the same effect again. But it did.


Over we went again to port and back to starboard. It felt as tough we were on our beam ends. The bridge was wrecked. If it could move, it did and if it couldn't move, it soon found a way of doing so. How we managed to keep our feet I don't know! 


Even through all of this, the Captain and helmsman managed to steer the ship out of this synchronous rolling pattern.


And so she settled down. I was despatched to the car deck to check on the cargo. I was met at the bottom of the stairs by the car deck watchman, who was in a state of fright having lost his footing and slid under a lorry; thankfully he was okay. My rapid assessment indicated that the lorries had shifted to port but the block stow had restricted that movement. However some of the cars, particularly at the for'd end, were badly damaged. In fact the cars had re-stowed themselves and resembled the order of a scrapyard. They had not fared well.


In the passenger accommodation there was absolute mayhem. The 'hotel' accommodation had reverted back to true; a ship. Potted plants, fixtures and fittings, decorations, cabinets, tables and chairs had all become mobile. Even the corner of a heavy gaming table had tried to make exit through a window. And amongst all of this were the passengers, who were very frightened. Many people had suffered injury but thankfully the majority were of a minor nature. The bureau staff had assumed control of the situation and took charge of the catering crew in organising First Aid.


The engine room fared well. All equipment had been well secured and had survived the roll.


The remainder of the voyage was far less eventful although rough. Eventually we made the lee of the North Stack and entered the calm waters of Holyhead with a 3.5 degree port list. Waiting for us on the quay were 13 ambulances for the injured, the press and a whole team of Sealink Stena Line staff to assist the passengers. When the passengers were called to the car deck I was amazed. There was silence. Nothing was said as though the piled-up cars were a normal feature. The rest of the day was spent with the fire brigade with hydraulic equipment trying to separate the lorries.


Dáil Éireann - Volume 432 - 24 June, 1993

Written Answers. - Sealink Ferry Stena Hibernia Incident.

Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for the Marine the investigation, if any, which has been held into an incident on the Sealink ferry, Stena Hibernia, on the night of 16/17 January 1993, which resulted in 20 people being injured; if he intends to undertake any review of safety procedures in the light of this accident; and if he will make a statement on the matter.​

Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. G. O'Sullivan): On the day of the incident in question, I dispatched the Department's Deputy Chief Surveyor to Holyhead to make a firsthand assessment of the situation. His report to me concluded that the incident resulted from the vessel rolling suddenly and then righting itself in rough sea conditions. The fast and heavy motion caused many passengers to lose their balance and some sustained injury through collision with moving or fixed objects. Freight vehicles were securely lashed and stowed and did not shift appreciably. Some cars moved on the car-deck resulting in damage of same. I am satisfied, on foot of his comprehensive report to me, that no further investigation of this incident by the Department is necessary. The UK Department of Transport have recently completed their own investigation and have undertaken to make a summary account of that investigation available to this Department as soon as possible. The Stena Hibernia is a UK registered vessel. Stena Sealink Line, who operate the Hibernia, carried out their own internal inquiry into the incident.


I will be keeping the safety of sea passenger transport under close review. We have in this country, uniquely may I say, a special mechanism for the regular review of ferry safety. This is the National Ferry Safety Committee which meets regularly to review safety procedures and standards and to make recommendations as necessary. The Committee is chaired [2217] by the Department's chief surveyor and includes senior technical representatives from all the ferry companies operating into Irish ports. The committee has made an assessment of the accident, and did not on the basis of that review recommend any new measures. They did however review the guidelines on carriage and securement of vehicles on ferries.​

As part of the ongoing review of ferry safety, the Department has recently reiterated guidelines on the carriage and securement of vehicles and cargo units by way of a marine notice for shipowners, shippers and ship personnel.


I would like to stress that notwithstanding recent incidents the safety record of such vessels operating into Irish ports has been a good one over the years. I am very conscious, however, of public concern in the matter and I am currently considering the possibility of commissioning an independent, comprehensive review which would look at all aspects of ferry safety.​

Captain Bill Moss

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