Marko Polo – an extraordinary tale of how this car ferry crashed into an island just after we got off

Marko Polo at Rijeka
Marko Polo at Rijeka 19 Oct 09

Last month we took the elegant 1970’s car ferry, Marko Polo, down the Croatian Coast from Rijeka, via Split, Hvar and Korcula to Dubrovnic, and I was just looking through my photographs thinking what a marvellous trip this was.  Michael Palin used the exact same ship when making his “New Europe” series but it was never shown on TV – perhaps it wasn’t exciting enough – but he does comment “We leave Rijeka on the night ferry to Split. It’s called the ‘Marko Polo’, which sounds like a good omen at the start of a very long journey”.

There was something most satisfying about travelling this well trodden route which stopped at three intermediate ports on the 20 hour journey and I was filled with admiration as Captain Radic made the most perfect manoeuvre to reverse the ferry stern-on to the tiny quayside at postcard perfect Korcula Town without even the slightest bump.  I would never have believed it possible to reverse a 128m ship towards a quay in this way, and to watch how it was done with anchors and ropes was one of the highlights of the holiday.

Captain Radic on the bridge of Marko Polo
Captain Radic on the bridge of Marko Polo

After this we sat on the next table to Captain Radic and his wife in the ship’s restaurant at lunch, he looked quite captain-like as he unfolded his swan sculpture napkin (we got paper ones) and only the restaurant manager was allowed to attend to the table.  I felt quite honoured to be so close to such an important person and even remarked that he must be one of the most experienced mariners to be operating in the Adriatic, in command of one of the largest vessels in the Jadrolinija fleet.

How wrong I was.  We didn’t know at the time but under his command, this was to be possibly one of the last trips Marko Polo would ever make.

Newspaper cutting - thanks to
Newspaper cutting - thanks to

On the very next trip of 24th October 2009, four days after we travelled, Marko Polo crashed into  rocky Sit island near Sibenik Port, and Captain Radic is in extremely serious trouble, likely to lose his command and facing a hefty fine and total disgrace in my eyes.

The Sibenik Port Authority, has reported:
Commander Zdenko Radic is responsible for the boat when passing through Rivanj Channel before Nasukavanja and not personally managing the ship, which was his obligation in accordance with the Maritime Code. Another pilot Zeljko Cheung is responsible because he was not on the bridge, although he was in office and therefore obliged to observe the proper course of navigation, and on reports of officers on duty.”

It seems from all accounts I can find online that the accident happened due to human error. Somehow nobody on the bridge realised that the autopilot course had not been changed from the previous day and quite simply they drove it into the land at 25 knots.  I haven’t even heard of this happening before, apart from the fictional “Speed 2-Cruise Control” .  I simply cannot believe that in 21st Century Europe none of the crew noticed that the ship was pointing straight at an island with sufficient speed to drive it 15 metres up the rocky shore after first bouncing off another island.   Fortunately and amazingly none of the passengers or crew was injured otherwise I hate to think what the charges against the Captain would have been. 

Does the navigation system on a ship not scream warnings at the crew, the same as an aircraft which goes off course?  Aparently not.

It turns out that Zdenko Radic wasn’t even the regular captain, but a relief covering while the permanent master was receiving an award for his contribution to Croatian tourism.   Very sadly the damage to the ship has been enormous, sufficient to hole her underwater, severely damage the bow, part of which had to be removed before refloating, and even knocking the propellors off.  The impact must have been terrifying. 

I only noticed this story after seeing it in the news today, as after 28 days aground she has finally been refloated (on 20th November, according to the Croatian Times and Croatia’s website).

Initial reports say the refloating has cost 1.15 million USD so far, and there is a still a chance the lovely Marko Polo will be scrapped, although the latest news is she may be repairable and could be back in service next year.  I very much hope this is the case. 

Thanks to Cargo Law, the Croatian Times,,  Google’s Croatian to English translator for the various pieces of this ongoing story.

And no thanks to Captain Radic; I am no longer one of your fans.

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