When the party boat Marchioness was sunk on 20 August 1989, 51 people lost their lives in what was one of the worst disasters the Thames has ever seen. The accident showed just how dangerous the river can be, and highlighted the serious lack of safety provisions for river disasters. Since that night, the campaign to improve river safety, led by Marchioness survivors and the families of the victims, has seen the successful implementation of new marine laws and regulations that will help to ensure that using the Thames is as safe as it possibly can be.
The Legacy of the Marchioness– five reasons why the Thames is safer than ever...
1. Passenger numbers
Before 1989, there were no regulations governing passenger manifests or passenger numbers, meaning that for the hundreds of chartered trips sailing the Thames each week, there were no records of how many people were actually on board. In the immediate aftermath of the Marchioness disaster, it became mandatory for ships to keep accurate records of passenger numbers.
2. Safety Instructions
Prior to that night in 1989, it was not necessary for ship’s staff to explain to passengers what should be done in the event of an emergency, or to demonstrate the proper use of safety equipment. Since then, marine laws have been changed to ensure that all charter passengers know what to do if the worst should happen.
3. Marine Drink/Drug Laws
It sounds almost unbelievable now, but before the Marchioness went down, there were no mandatory limits for drink or drug levels while operating a ship. Guidelines existed – put in place by the companies that have ships on the river – but no laws. After it was discovered that the captain of the ship that ran into the Marchioness had been drinking earlier in the day, marine laws were brought into line with motoring alcohol and drug laws, with the same limits – and penalties - for drunk captains as for drunk drivers.
4. River Bank Safety Equipment
The Thames is a tidal river, with incredibly strong currents, poor visibility and a high volume of traffic. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, the Thames is a dangerous challenge. For those Marchioness passengers who found themselves in the water that night, having something to anchor themselves to could have been a lifesaver. Sadly, before the sinking of the Marchioness, there were no provisions for anyone being swept along in the river’s currents; now however, the inner banks of the Thames are lined with chains should anyone need to anchor themselves while they wait for help.
5. Lifeboat Stations
Despite the obvious dangers of the Thames, it took until 2002 to persuade the government that the vital search and rescue service provided by the RNLI was an essential part of increasing river safety. Prior to that night, there were no co-ordinated rescue plans, and the Metropolitan Police had no contingency for river disasters. When the government finally agreed, five Lifeboat stations were opened along the length of the river. Since then, the RNLI has reported that the Thames stations are the busiest in the entire United Kingdom, and they’ve saved countless lives.