Lifeboat cable breaks on new P&O 'superferry'

The new P&O Pioneer travelling to Dunkirk without one of it's lifeboats. Credit: Twitter/@steve149c

A new £100m 'superferry' owned by P&O is undergoing repairs in Northern France after an accident during a safety drill at sea.

P&O Pioneer, which is not yet in service, has been sailing to the UK from the shipyard in China where it was built.

On Sunday afternoon, while the vessel was moored off the coast of the Isle of Wight, a steel cable (known as a “fall”) attached to one of Pioneer’s lifeboats snapped when it was launched during a training and equipment testing exercise.

Footage of a P&O Pioneer lifeboat in Gosport marina after the accident

The thick cable is supposed to be capable of bearing the weight of a lifeboat when fully loaded with passengers and crew.

According to several sources familiar with the situation, the lifeboat was empty and was left dangling above the water for around twenty minutes when the cable broke.

Tracking data from marinetraffic.com show that a local rescue vessel, the Sandown & Shanklin Independent lifeboat, attended the incident for two hours at 1pm on Sunday.

The lifeboat - one of four fitted onboard Pioneer - was eventually lowered into the water and towed to Gosport Marina where it is now berthed among the private yachts.

A crude attempt was made to disguise the identity of the lifeboat at Gosport Marina yesterday.

A crude attempt has been made to disguise the identity of the lifeboat but the name P&O Pioneer is clearly visible beneath the paint.

The new ferry was due to arrive in Dover yesterday (Monday 3rd April) where it was scheduled to be inspected by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as part of a process of rigorous safety checks before being cleared to carry passengers.

P&O hoped the ship would begin sailing the Dover - Calais route in May. As it stands, it is at anchor in Dunkirk. An investigation is being carried out and cables and lifting gears for all four lifeboats are being replaced.

“It’s not clear why the cable parted,” one source told me. “It’s incredible that this has happened on a brand new ship. Thank goodness the lifeboat was empty. Had there been anyone on board there almost certainly would have been casualties”.

Footage of the P&O Pioneer coming into Dunkirk with one of it's lifeboats missing

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has confirmed it was contacted by P&O and is in the process of trying to establish what happened and whether to conduct its own investigation.

In a statement it said: “The MAIB is aware of the incident with the P&O Pioneer and is in communication with the company and the flag administration [in Cyprus] regarding the event”.

P&O Pioneer is one of two new “hybrid” ferries the company ordered from Guangzhou Shipyard International Limited in September 2019 at a cost of 260 million Euros (£230 million).

 Clips of a P&O marketing video for the Pioneer, showcasing how the ship was envisioned

The company says P&O Pioneer and P&O Liberte will be “the most sustainable ships ever to sail on the English Channel”. 

But last month, the Telegraph revealed that the ships’ batteries will have to be charged by the diesel engines for the time being because the electricity grid at Port of Dover and Port of Calais doesn’t have the necessary capacity.

Port of Dover say it plans to install charging facilities for all ferry operators “by 2030”.

In March last year, P&O was widely condemned when it sacked almost eight hundred seafarers and replaced them with foreign agency workers paid less than the minimum wage.

The CEO Peter Hebblethwaite later admitted the decision had broken employment law.

P&O declined our request for an interview.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said the crew of P&O Pioneer “identified an issue with one lifeboat” on Sunday during “routine training and equipment testing.”

The spokesperson added: “P&O Ferries is conducting a full investigation with the manufacturer to identify the source of the issue.

Workers pose in front of the 'Pioneer' superferry. Credit: GSI

The vessel will also undergo further testing in Dunkirk as part of this investigation, ahead of upcoming planned safety inspections by the UK and French authorities in the coming weeks.

“The safety of all our crew, passengers and ships is our top priority, and these checks are part of our due diligence and full commitment to safety. The ship will enter service once it has passed all relevant safety inspections to the satisfaction of P&O Ferries and all relevant authorities, as is the case for all our vessels.”

ITV News has approached the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the “Affaires Maritime” (the French equivalent of the MCA which also carries out safety inspections) for comment.

A spokesperson for the Sandown & Shanklin Independent lifeboat confirmed it attended the incident on Sunday but declined to comment further.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know.