The Channel time bomb
Three collisions in three weeks have highlighted the dangers of navigating the Strait of Dover, the most overcrowded shipping lane in the world. Emmanuel Defouloy reports.
Forming a bottleneck in the English Channel between Calais in France and Dover in England, the strait saw more than 10 collisions in 2002.
Among the most spectacular was the sinking on 14 December of the Norwegian cargo ship Tricolor, a car transporter loaded with BMW, Volvo and Saab cars worth EUR 30 million.
Just two days later, the Dutch Antilles-registered cargo ship Nicola struck the wreck, lying on its side in shallow waters off the northern French port of Dunkirk.
Despite safety measures stepped up in the wake of the first collision — illuminated buoys, surveillance vessels and half-hourly radio alerts — the Turkish-registered tanker Vicky completed the unfortunate hat-trick on 1 January, ploughing into the partly submerged car transporter despite warnings from a French patrol boat in the area.
These latest Channel mishaps could have been much worse — the Vicky's cargo was 70,000 tonnes of diesel, most of which remained safely contained on board — but they have nonetheless focused the minds of coastguard and transport ministry officials in France, Belgium and Britain.
Following the latest collision, France's junior transport minister Dominique Bussereau attended a meeting at the CROSS maritime surveillance and rescue centre to discuss the dangers of navigating the strait - 35 kilometres (23 miles) wide at its narrowest point - and how they might be reduced.
Up to 600 vessels pass through the Strait of Dover every day, ranking it above even the Strait of Singapore, separating Indonesia and the city state, as the world's busiest maritime route.
Cargo ships, tankers and fishing boats moving between the North Sea and Atlantic regularly cross paths with smaller passenger ferries shuttling between British, French and Belgian ports.
This is every bit as dangerous as it sounds — as the statistics show.
The Strait of Dover suffered 26 major tanker accidents between 1951 and 1998, compared with 21 for the Singapore Strait, 16 for the Strait of Malacca, nine for Turkey's Bosphorus and eight each for the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.
This despite the introduction of a regimented lane system in the Channel during the 1970s, which led to its being dubbed the "maritime motorway".
"These measures reduced the number of accidents by around 90 percent," said Philippe Michaud of the CROSS centre.
But traffic has almost doubled in the last 20 years, leading to fears that a serious collision between a cargo ship and a passenger ferry is bound to happen sooner or later, with scope for major loss of life.
Officials investigating the latest collision with the sunken Tricolor suggest the evidence so far points to human error — the car transporter's starboard side remains visible above the shallow waters at low tide.
Many are wondering how players in the shipping industry can be made more accountable for accidents and safety breaches.
But in an industry where the nationality of the ship owner, operator and crew is often deliberately chosen to put it beyond the reach of laws and conventions on safety and working conditions, such a task is not going to be easy.