Last night's incident where 85 people were injured when a Macau-bound jetfoil apparently crashed into something - but oddly, sustained no damage - highlights the issue of ferry safety once again.
You would think that following the Lamma ferry collision on October 1 firework night last year, killing scores of people, that passenger safety on Hong Kong ferries would be taken bait more seriously now.
New World First Ferry staff turn blind eye
Not so on the New World First Ferries that run between Mui Wo on Lantau Island and Central Pier 6. These are divided into two types - fast two-deck air conditioned catamarans and old slow triple-deckers.
Lantau is a popular destination for school parties, especially now the weather is so good, and it’s not uncommon to find a gaggle of schoolkids being herded onto the ferry for a day out of the classroom on Lantau. All well and good. But there're problems. They are supposed to notify the ferry company that they are coming, since a load of kids will over-fill one of the smaller ferries. They also often come laden with camping gear and these boats are not designed to take stacks of bulky kit. The bags block the aisles and obstruct access to the emergency exits. No one seems to do anything about this and any appeal to the staff to do something is usually greeted by a shrug of the shoulders. If the ferry were to collide with another boat as has happened, or an island, which has happened too, there could easily be issues getting children off quickly. When boats sink they usually do it quickly and seconds matter when trying to escape. Exits blocked by tents and bedrolls? It would seem to be a no-brainer.
Enormous baby buggies
Another problem is baby buggies. These used to be small collapsible things, but these days their owners seem to treat them like SUVs and it's a case of keeping up with the Joneses. They get bulkier and bulkier. Tyler Brule in the Weekend FT has very much to say on this topic and I agree that these things are now ridiculously large. Something happens to some people when they become parents: they suffer an illusion that everyone else shares their joy and wants also to share the presence of their sprog. On the ferry this takes the form of giant bulky baby wagons that when I was small were classified big enough to be called prams. These get wheeled onto the ferry - most of which have a space for wheelchairs or bulky items - but these doting mothers don't want to disturb their infant. So instead of removing them from the buggy and parking it out of the way, they sit with it beside them, blocking the aisle. And I mean entirely blocking the narrow aisle, because these boats were not built with this in mind. Commonly there are three or more of them.
Aggressive and unpleasant
The other day I politely requested the owner of such a buggy to put the baby on her lap and park the buggy in the proper place, out of the way. The mother responded with a string of filthy language that would have done a trucker proud. Then the father joined in, with a few racist insults, adding that I could move if I objected to the child. When I said that I had no objection to the baby, it was the blockage of the aisle that was the problem, he became so angry I thought he was going to spring out of his seat and throttle me.
It states clearly that aisles must not be blocked, but when I asked the ferry staff to intervene, they looked, smiled, rolled their eyes, shrugged, looked again at the aggressive pair and did nothing. Now had that ferry capsized, who would have been blaming the ferry company for putting their kid at risk? No prizes for guessing.
This is not rocket science. But why can’t ferry staff grow a backbone and enforce their own rules? And why does this type of parent think that their child should over ride the safety of a ferry load of passengers?