Some points to ponder


   I have recently had to attend Court as a witness to an accident on board a Ship carrying vehicles and their passengers across the North Sea.  This accident occurred during disembarkation at the Hull docks and involved a German registered BMW K100RT motorcycle ridden by a German Lady but in fact, owned jointly by herself and her Husband, although registered in his name. 

    On the day of embarkation in Zeebrugge, way back in the summer of 1998, as we entered the stern of the ship on our 1500cc Honda Gold Wing, following a small group of other riders, up that famous steep steel ramp, which puts fear in the hearts of all motorcyclists riding anything much bigger than a Honda 50, we encountered large amounts of a soapy looking mixture on the whole of the port decking, which I took to be from some previous cleaning operation.  I asked Christine (via our intercom) to be particularly still as this was not the kind of surface I welcome, knowing that I still had a 180 degree turn and another ramp to negotiate before any chance of relaxing into our cabin.  We managed safely to get to the top of the Mezzanine (Hoistable) deck, where we had as usual, to tie our machines to the rail, in true John Wayne style, but with greasy rather than dusty ropes.  Whilst walking up the staircase to the upper decks (before you reach the carpeted areas) I said to Christine, that my boots felt slippery from this residue and once in the cabin I rather cheekily washed the soles and the lower couple of inches in the cabin shower.  I only wish that I had kept the tissues for later analysis - this was definitely not water!

   The following morning, after a hearty breakfast, we loaded up and were ready for the off.  It was soon time to travel down the hoistable ramp following the BM who was in turn following her Husband on an R100RT, onto the flat deck section, and as always I paused at the top of the exit ramp to survey the situation.  Just as I started down, one of the crew, who I now know is described as a 'Lasher', rather briskly advanced towards the line of motorcyclists, and the German Lady, who was in front of me but thankfully, slightly to my left, gesticulating for us to stop.  She said herself in Court that she was descending under engine braking.  She appeared to try to stop, and the front wheel stepped out of line towards me by about 2 or 3 inches, which was enough to move the centre of gravity outside the base of support and the inevitable happened.  The bike then slid down the ramp on its side for some distance, but very fortunately the Lady parted company with it and was uninjured - although naturally very shocked.  The damage was quite extensive considering the very low speed at which it happened, most of it being inflicted by the lateral bars welded to the ramp surface - headlight, fairing shell, crash-bar, pannier - but worst of all the cam cover was smashed, allowing the engine to dump most of its oil onto the ramp.  This bike was going nowhere under it's own power today! 

    Now committed, I disregarded the stop instruction and already slightly to the right and behind the debris, we made our way off the ship and parked on the quayside, where I left Christine with the Wing and made my way back to the scene.  By this time the crew were helping to lift bike onto its wheels and off the ship.  The dull realisation of the situation quickly flashed through my mind - they are German, probably just about to start a holiday in England, they now have an un-useable motorcycle and probably have no idea where to get repairs carried out - and it's just started raining heavily!  If you add to this that they have to try to explain to lots of people who may not understand German, what happened and you will hopefully realise why I went to help.  I also speak a little German - from the schoolboy days! 

    I went with them to try to find someone in officialdom to get them to record the events and agreed to act as a witness, should it prove necessary.  As I was born in Hull (although I left more than 25 years ago)  I still have a few contacts, and called a friend, who has the identical bike to that involved in the accident, to ask for the address of the BMW dealers in Hull.  'Closed down a few years ago' says He '- Nearest one is in Grimsby'.  I then rang another friend who runs a Vehicle Dismantlers not far from the Ferry terminal and he agreed to send a Van to collect the bike, and take it with the Lady to Grimsby, with her husband following on his bike.  Christine and the Wing have now been waiting for almost 2 hours since the incident, although I kept her informed of the progress throughout, so it's now time for us to set off for home - another 130 odd miles away.

    A few weeks later I received a letter from a firm of Solicitors in Germany, asking me to give an account of what had happened.  Rather fortunately, I had done this on our computer at home as soon as we had arrived back.  It was then some considerable time (over a year, I think) before I received another letter about the incident, this time from a firm of Solicitors in London.  Needless to say there has been a great deal of correspondence about this matter in the intervening period - including a large number of e-mails.

    Eventually, and after many years of re-scheduling and adjournments, the case got to court.  I had no idea of the sum of money being claimed, nor any reason to ask, but suffice it to say that the costs were more than TWENTY times that amount.  Talk about sledge-hammers and walnuts!

    An Expert witness had been jointly engaged, and in his report he said that the coefficient of friction was similar on a ships ramp to that of fine textured tarmac - everyone agreed except me and claimants - this shows a slavish reliance on Physics and a lack of understanding of the reality of what is required in practice to move a heavy motorcycle around a ferry.  He also said that the most dangerous situation is going up the ramp when acceleration is required rather than when going down - Cobblers!! he neglected to mention the weight transfer onto the front (steerable) wheel, or the fact that the tyres are warmer when you arrive, than on the following morning.

    The Athens Convention was quoted at the last minute, which technically meant that the Limit of liability was capped at 3333 units (about 2800), but worse than that, there is a 2 year time ban.  This appeared to mean that the whole of this effort was for nothing and the case was a non-event.  Lots of frantic to-ing and fro-ing and phone calls and faxes proved eventually that an extension had been applied for, and granted - so we were hopeful once more.

    The Judge disregarded any contamination of the deck from oil or any other substance as being a contributory factor, because there was no visible spillage of oil, and although he was a very fair-minded man, it still showed to me a lack of understanding of the problems faced by motorcyclists in these situations and he ruled that the Ferry company had discharged their duty in ensuring that the decks and ramps were cleaned effectively.   He did however (isn't that a lovely word, when you are feeling that your whole world is about to collapse?), accept that the reason for the accident must lie with the fact that the Lady was signalled to stop by the crew member (Lasher), which was unreasonable in the circumstances.  He therefore found that the Ferry company were liable for the damage to the bike.  The temporary repairs to the bike were allowed without question but the defendants (Ferry Co.) said that as repairs were carried out by her Husband, that no payment should be allowed for the labour, the Judge strongly disagreed with this and quoted the relevant law case.  They had to pay the claimants for the labour!  As this happened over 3 years ago, the Judge insisted also that interest should be awarded.  The Ferry Co. Barrister said that it should be paid only on the emergency repairs -  the Judge directed otherwise and that it should be payable on the whole amount, basically from the time that the bike hit the deck (so to speak!) and was therefore devalued from that time.

This brings about a number of questions relevant to us car/bike/gizmo enthusiasts.

    That if, under the Athens Convention, although the burden of proof lies with the Carrier, this appears to be limited to about 2800 - so if your new Jag and Caravan are squashed flat by someone lowering the upper deck on to them, do you have to claim the difference from your own insurers - and what if you were only insured for third party risks?

    Also, in the past, many enthusiasts have been told by their insurers that a reduced figure (or non at all) for labour will be paid if you elect to do repairs yourself.

    Another point which I have frequently thought about, is that the Ferry companies normally make the motorcyclist tie down their own machines - do we realise what this would mean in the event of the bike being damaged in heavy seas?

    Is it time that a group of us met with some of these Carriers to see if it might be possible to improve the present situation?  Finally, are there any other motorcyclists who have difficulty getting their bikes on and off ship?

    I can honestly say that on the night before the trial, if I had seen someone being stabbed to death in the street, I would have said that I had seen nothing, but having gone through the whole thing I would now do exactly as have done in this case.  Even at the point when the Judge was appearing to favour the Ferry company, I still felt that he was being a very reasonable man and trying his hardest to listen in a very unbiased way to the evidence put before him.

    I, personally have never liked loading and unloading the bike from the Ferries and always feel relieved when the ordeal is over.  There are several factors which make me say this - first, that in spite of any cleaning which may have taken place beforehand, the deck and ramp surfaces do not afford the grip of a tarmac road.  The Expert witness report for this case indicated that there was little difference!!!  Secondly, that the securing of the bikes falls far short of being satisfactory.  We are expected to tie our bikes with less than clean ropes to a side rail using whatever attachment points we can find on the bike - you try finding suitable points on a fully faired machine like the Wing.  This token tying process serves to help prevent our bikes from toppling against the cars (and possibly causing the Carriers some grief), but in no way stops the bike itself from being damaged by toppling the other way into the rail.  On one rough crossings we returned to the bike to find that a huge rope had been passed over the seat and then dragged down with more force than Quasimodo pulling on Esmarelda - to leave a deep oily impression across the surface of the seat which lasted for the whole of our holiday and for some weeks after we returned.  I have never seen any of the lorry drivers fastening their own lorries down - perhaps they pay for that service in the price of their ticket? 

   I realise that any extra work done by the Ferry companies to make life a little easier for the motorcyclist would carry with it an increase in tarrif, but most people would gladly pay a small increase, if it meant some of the stress and worry was removed from this otherwise enjoyable method of entering and leaving Mainland Europe.

   Criticism is only of any value if it can be constructive, and after careful thought I feel that one or two areas could be given some serious thought.

   1, The provision of a 1.5 metre wide, textured non-slip pathway be provided, without the normal longitudinal and transverse ribs seen in the present system.

   2, That a rail be positioned at both sides of a row of motorcycles so that they may be more effectively secured in both lateral directions.  This rail could be quickly detachable from sockets in the decking, should other types of vehicle be travelling instead.

   3, That ratchet type straps with hooks be used in the securing of motorcycles to these attachment points spaced along the rails.

   4, In the same way that 'steam' must give way to 'sail', then two track vehicles should give way to single track (Four wheels give way to two) whilst embarking and disembarking. 

   5, There should be only one designated crew member allowed to signal to vehicles to stop or go. (that may already be the case).

   6, That more thorough training be given to ships personnel regarding the difficulties encountered by motorcyclists when travelling on Ferries.

I look forward to any feedback on this one - from whichever source!

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