Maritime inspectors listed an unprecedented 31 separate failings on a P&O Ferries vessel detained last month, ranging from problems with fire safety to lifeboat drills.
Inspectors for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) refused to allow the European Causeway to keep sailing from Larne, Northern Ireland, after discovering issues with labour conditions, navigation and documentation.
Emerging details of the inspections show the MCA has flung the book at the ferry operator, which provoked outcry when it sacked 800 crew to replace them with cheap agency staff in March.
Since then three of its vessels have been detained following inspections, with the Spirit of Britain and Pride of Kent still held in Dover after safety issues were uncovered.
On the first inspection, the MCA found that the “launching arrangements for survival craft” on European Causeway were “not as required”, while an evacuation slide was not properly maintained, fire prevention systems were inadequate, and the new crew hired from abroad were insufficiently familiar with the radio equipment.
According to an analysis by the PA news agency, more failures were found on the European Causeway than in 46,000 Port State Control inspections of ships in the last three years, listed under the Paris memorandum of understanding, an alliance of 27 national maritime authorities, including the UK.
The European Causeway has now been passed fit and sailings have resumed on the route between Larne and Cairnryan in Scotland, as well as between Hull and Rotterdam after the Pride of Hull passed an inspection.
However, P&O’s ferry services remain suspended on the main Dover-Calais crossing, contributing to huge queues of lorries trying to cross the Channel in recent weeks, and frustrating holidaymakers who had booked for Easter and were unable to book alternative operators.
The first of the two Dover-based vessels that the MCA inspected, the Pride of Kent, on 28 March, had 25 deficiencies, eight of which were serious enough to be grounds for detention.
The 30-year-old, Cyprus-flagged ferry had previously been inspected in August last year, when just eight deficiencies were found. In a possible sign of the increased scrutiny of P&O, one of the deficiencies found in both inspections was the fire detection and alarm system, judged “not as required”. Last year, however, it was not deemed a ground for detention.
Two failings were related to the new crew – a lack of familiarity with the machinery and a lack of training for the fire drills.
The Spirit of Britain, another Dover-based ship, has also since failed an inspection but details have not yet been released.
Eight P&O ferries in total will require reinspection and clearance by the MCA following the mass sackings, which the operator acknowledged breached employment law. Four remain to be inspected.
A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: “It is clear that inspections of our vessels have reached an unprecedented level of rigour. We welcome this additional scrutiny and would reiterate that the safety of our passengers and crew is our foremost priority.
“Any suggestion that it is being compromised in any way is categorically false and we look forward to all of our ships welcoming tourist passengers and freight customers again as soon as all mandatory safety tests have been passed.”
The safety inspections could add to the escalating costs for P&O Ferries, beyond the lost revenue from the suspension of sailings and the £36.5m compensation it has paid workers for the illegal sackings. The operator is likely to face vast increases in its insurance premiums after its ships were detained, according to sources quoted in the Daily Telegraph.
A Lloyd’s of London maritime broker told the newspaper: “The costs will be sky high. P&O Ferries has gone from a very safe risk to virtually junk.”