The Sinking of MV Le Joola

The sinking of MV Le Joola is one of the worst ship disasters of all time. When Le Joola sank, at least 1,863 people died, making it the second deadliest ship disaster to occur during a time of peace. (The deadliest such disaster is the sinking of MV Doña Paz.) Le Joola sank in 2002, later than many of the ship disasters we have written about as of late. Alas, extremely deadly ship disasters are not a thing of the past. Below you will find some basic information about the sinking of Le Joola.

[NOTE: Why is this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]

Le Joola was a Senegalese ferry owned by the government of Senegal. The ship takes its name from the Joola people of Senegal. Although the ship was Senegalese (i.e., its port of registry is in Senegal), it was actually built in Germany. The ship started operating in 1990 and generally sailed twice a week, loaded with passengers who were traveling between southern Senegal and Dakar, the capital and largest city in Senegal. It often carried passengers who were carrying wares that they hoped to sell on the market in Dakar. By modern cruise-ship standards, the ship was actually rather small. It was 79 meters (259 feet) long and 12 meters (39 feet) side, and it had a gross tonnage of 2,100. With these dimensions, the ship had a carrying capacity of 580 passengers.

On the day the ship left for its last voyage (September 26, 2002), however, it was carrying nearly 2,000 people, well over three times as many people as the ship was designed to carry. Of the passengers on board, 1,034 were carrying tickets. The rest of the passengers were either not required to carry a ticket (because, e.g., they were children under the age of five) or simply didn’t have a ticket, which was common on board Le Joola. Late on the night of the 26th, the ship sailed into a storm off the coast of Gambia, a country in West Africa. Confronted with fierce winds and a rough sea, the ferry quickly capsized. According to reports, this occurred in only five minutes.

When the ship capsized, passengers and cargo were flung into the sea. This immediately killed many people, and virtually all who managed to survive the capsizing were condemned to drown anyway, as only 64 passengers survived the disaster. Local fishermen were able to pick up some survivors (and a few bodies) relatively soon after the disaster, several hours before government rescue teams arrived to the scene of the accident on the morning of the 27th. Although the shipped had capsized, it remained afloat until 3:00 PM the day after the wreck. Passengers were still trapped in the ship at this time, and when the ship sank, it took these passengers with it to the bottom of the sea. The ship remains lost.

Like so many other ship disasters, more people died as a result of the sinking of Le Joola because there were so many passengers above maximum capacity on board the ship. What’s more, overcrowding not only increased the death toll of the disaster, but also contributed to the capsizing of the ship to begin with. This is worth remembering, especially since some components of the global shipping industry remain too loosely regulated.

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