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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK


Keeping Channel traffic in check

Ferries at Dover contribute to the high traffic on the Channel

The English Channel is often cited as the world's busiest waterway, yet collisions remain remarkably rare.

At almost any time of the day, the small stretch of water linking Britain to mainland Europe is teeming with vessels of all sizes.

While it is best known for ferries between England and the coast of France, much of the traffic using the Channel is passing north-south.

A traffic separation scheme, similar to a dual-carriage roadway, operates in an effort to keep on-coming vessels from colliding.

[ image: The
The "central reservation" widens where there is a sandbank
In the "carriageway" nearest the Kent coastline, ships proceed in a north-east to south-west direction. In the channel closest to the continent, vessels run in the opposite direction.

The channels are marked out with buoys and light vessels - small, metal vessels anchored to the sea floor, which emit a glowing light.

Passing traffic must maintain a "safe distance", while Dover-Calais ferries and other cross-Channel traffic,cut through the two lanes at right angles.

"They would monitor nearby vessels in the manner of normal seamanship, using radar and keeping an open view of the water," said a spokesman for Trinity Lighthouse Service.

In addition, from 1 July this year it has been mandatory for vessels passing through the Dover Straits to report their name, position and destination to coastal authorities.

[ image:  ]
"There is no doubt that Channel safety has improved since the separations scheme was brought in," said a spokesman for the London-based International Maritime Organisation.

"There used to be about 20 incidents a year in the Channel and this figure has now much reduced. The reporting instruction means that ships can be much more accurately tracked on radar."

Deaths at sea

Last year a consignment of ortho-xylene - a solvent - spilled into the Channel when two tankers collided where vessels pass in and out of the traffic separation zone.

One of the worst Channel tragedies of recent years happened in June 1993, when a BP oil tanker, the British Trent, was rammed by a South Korean-crewed bulk carrier in thick fog off Ostend.

Nine people died in the accident, including four British seamen.

At the inquest, the coroner said the collision would not have happened if the bulk carrier had observed fundamental rules.

A string of accidents in 1991 included the death of six fishermen who were killed in April when their trawler, the Wilhelmina J, was hit by a tanker in the channel.

In August five fishermen died when the trawler Ocean Hound was hit by a larger vessel.

The following month, two crewmen were killed when their boat was struck by a Dutch tanker in the western approaches to the Channel.

  • The English Channel occupies a significant place in British history, both as a route for, and barrier to, invaders of Britain from the Continent.

  • In the 20th Century, the Channel's traditional fishing industry has declined with the development of deep-sea fishing, exhaustion of fish supplies and pollution.

  • Southampton and Le Havre have lost trans-oceanic passenger business, but gained container ship and oil-refining capacities.

  • Ferry traffic, for both freight and passengers, has been hit with the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.

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