MS Estonia

Estonia ferry.jpg
One of Estonia's first days in Tallinn 1993.
Name: 1980–1990: MS Viking Sally
1990–1991: MS Silja Star
1991–1993: MS Wasa King
1993–1994: MS Estonia
Owner: 1980–1988: Rederi Ab Sally
1988–1992: Effoa
1992–1993: Effdo 3 Oy
1993–1994: Estline Marine Co Ltd
Operator: 1980–1987: Rederi Ab Sally (Viking Line traffic)
1987–1990: Rederi AB Slite (Viking Line traffic)
1990–1991: Silja Line
1991–1993: Wasa Line
1993–1994: EstLine
Port of registry: 1980–1991: Mariehamn,  Finland
1991–1993: Vaasa,  Finland
1993–1994: Tallinn,  Estonia
Ordered: 1979-09-11
Builder: Meyer Werft, Papenburg, West Germany
Yard number: 590
Laid down: 18 October 1979
Launched: 26 April 1980
Acquired: 29 June 1980
In service: 5 July 1980
Identification: IMO number: 7921033
Fate: Capsized and sunk on 28 September 1994
General characteristics
Type: Cruiseferry
Tonnage: 15,566 GRT
2,800 DWT
Length: 155.43 m (509 ft 11 in) (as built)
157.02 m (515.16 ft) (1984 onwards)
Beam: 24.21 m (79 ft 5 in)
Draught: 5.55 m (18 ft 3 in)
Decks: 9
Ice class: 1A
Installed power: 4 × MAN 8L40/45, 17,625 kW (23,636 hp)
Speed: 21 kn (39 km/h; 24 mph)
Capacity: 2000 passengers
1190 passenger berths
460 cars

MS Estonia, previously MS Viking Sally (1980–1990), MS Silja Star (–1991), and MS Wasa King (–1993), was a cruise ferry built in 1979/80 at the German shipyard Meyer Werft in Papenburg. The ship sank in the Baltic Sea in one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.[1][2] It is the deadliest shipwreck disaster to have occurred in the Baltic Sea in peacetime.



The ship was originally ordered from Meyer Werft by a Norwegian shipping company led by Parley Augustsen with intended traffic between Norway and Germany. At the last moment, the company withdrew their order and the contract went to Rederi Ab Sally, one of the partners in the Viking Line consortium (SF Line, another partner in Viking Line, had also been interested in the ship).[3] Originally the ship was conceived as a sister ship to MS Diana II, built in 1979 by the same shipyard for Rederi AB Slite, the third partner in Viking Line. However, when Sally took over the construction contract, the ship was lengthened from the original length of approximately 137 meters to approx. 155 meters and the superstructure of the ship was largely redesigned.[3] Meyer Werft had constructed a large number of ships for various Viking Line partner companies during the 1970s. Worth noting is the new ship's bow construction, which consisted of an upwards-opening visor and a car ramp that was placed inside the visor when it was closed. An identical bow construction had also been used in MS Diana II.[JAIC 1]

Service history

Viking Line

On 29 June 1980 Viking Sally was delivered to Rederi Ab Sally, Finland and was put into service on the route between Turku, Mariehamn and Stockholm[3][4] (during summer 1982 on the Naantali–Mariehamn–Kapellskär route).[5] She was the largest ship to serve on that route at the time. As with many ships, Viking Sally suffered some mishaps during her Viking Line service, being grounded in the Åland Archipelago in May 1984 and suffering some propeller problems in April of the following year. In 1985 she was also rebuilt with a "duck tail".[3][4] In 1986, Reijo Hammar, an infamous Finnish criminal, strangled and stabbed a businessman on the ship.[citation needed]

Rederi Ab Sally had been experiencing financial difficulties for most of the 1980s. In late 1987, Effoa and Johnson Line, the owners of Viking Line's main rivals Silja Line, bought Sally.[6] As a result of this, SF Line and Rederi AB Slite forced Sally to withdraw from Viking Line.[3][4][6] Viking Sally was chartered to Rederi AB Slite to continue on her current traffic for the next three years.[3][4][6]


When her charter ended in April 1990, Viking Sally had an unusual change of service. She was painted in Silja Line's colours, renamed Silja Star and placed on the same route that she had plied for Viking Line: Turku–Mariehamn–Stockholm.[3][4] The reason for this was that Silja's new ship for Helsinki–Stockholm service was built behind schedule and one of the Turku–Stockholm ships, MS Wellamo, was transferred to that route until the new ship was complete in November 1990.[7] Also in 1990 Effoa, Johnson Line and Rederi Ab Sally merged into EffJohn.

The following spring Silja Star began her service with Wasa Line, another company owned by EffJohn. Her name was changed to Wasa King and she served on routes connecting Vaasa, Finland to Umeå and Sundsvall in Sweden.[3][4] It has been reported that the Wasa King was widely considered to be the best behaving ship in rough weather to have sailed from Vaasa.[citation needed]


In January 1993, at the same time when EffJohn decided to merge Wasa Line's operations into Silja Line, Wasa King was sold to Nordström & Thulin for use on EstLine's Tallinn–Stockholm traffic under the name Estonia. The actual ownership of the ship was rather complex, in order for Nordstöm & Thulin to get a loan to buy the ship. Although Nordström & Thulin were the company who bought the ship, her registered owners were Estline Marine Co Ltd, Nicosia, Cyprus, who chartered the ship to E.Liini A/S, Tallinn, Estonia (daughter company of Nordström & Thulin and ESCO) who in turn chartered the ship to EstLine Ab. As a result the ship was actually registered in both Cyprus and Estonia.[3][4]

As the largest Estonian-owned ship of the time, the Estonia symbolized the independence that Estonia gained after the collapse of the Soviet Union.[8]


One of Estonia's inflatable life rafts, filled with water.

The Estonia disaster occurred on Wednesday, 28 September 1994, between about 00:55 to 01:50 (UTC+2) as the ship was crossing the Baltic Sea, en route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm. The Estonia was on a scheduled crossing with departure at 19:00 in the evening on 27 September. It had been expected in Stockholm the next morning at about 09:30. She was carrying 989 people: 803 passengers and 186 crew.[9][JAIC 2] Most of the passengers were Scandinavian, while most of the crew members were Estonian. Avo Piht, a sea captain on the vessel as a passenger, was first said to have survived but his name was later struck from the list of survivors.[8] The ship was fully loaded, and was listing slightly to port because of poor cargo distribution.[10]

According to the final disaster report the weather was rough, with a wind of 15 to 20 metres per second (29 to 39 kn; 34 to 45 mph), force 7–8 on the Beaufort scale and a significant wave height of 3 to 4 metres (9.8 to 13 ft)[JAIC 3] compared with the highest measured significant wave height in the Baltic Sea of 7.7 metres (25.3 ft).[11] Esa Mäkelä, the captain of MS Silja Europa who was appointed on scene commander for the subsequent rescue effort, described the weather as "normally bad," or like a typical autumn storm in the Baltic Sea. All scheduled passenger ferries were at sea. The official report says that while the exact speed at the time of the accident is not known, Estonia had very regular voyage times, averaging 16 to 17 knots (30 to 31 km/h; 18 to 20 mph), perhaps implying she did not slow down for adverse conditions. The chief mate of the Viking Line cruiseferry MS Mariella tracked Estonia's speed by radar at approximately 14.2 knots (26.3 km/h; 16.3 mph) before the first signs of distress, while the Silja Europa's officers estimated her speed at 14 to 15 knots (26 to 28 km/h; 16 to 17 mph) at midnight.

The first sign of trouble onboard the Estonia was a metallic bang caused by a heavy wave hitting the bow doors around 01:00, when the ship was on the outskirts of the Turku archipelago, but an inspection—limited to checking the indicator lights for the ramp and visor—showed no problems.[10] Over the next 10 minutes, similar noises were reported by passengers and other crew.[10] At about 01:15, the visor separated and the ship took on a heavy starboard list (initial 30 to 40 degrees, but by 01:30, the ship had rolled 90 degrees) as water flooded into the vehicle deck.[10] Estonia was turned to port and slowed before her four engines cut out completely.[10]

At about 01:20 a weak female voice called "Häire, häire, laeval on häire", Estonian for "Alarm, alarm, there is alarm on the ship", over the public address system, which was followed immediately by an internal alarm for the crew, then shortly later by the general lifeboat alarm. The vessel's list and the flooding prevented people in the cabins from ascending to the deck; only those on the upper decks were able to escape.[10] A Mayday was communicated by the ship's crew at 01:22, but did not follow international formats. Estonia directed a call to Silja Europa and only after making contact with her the radio operator uttered the word "Mayday". In English, the radio operator on Silja Europa replied: "Estonia, are you calling mayday?" After that, another voice took over on Estonia and the conversation shifted to Finnish. The Estonia crew member was able to provide some details about their situation but due to loss of power, he could not give their position, which delayed rescue operations somewhat. The ship disappeared from the radar screens of other ships at around 01:50,[10] and sank at 59°23′N 21°42′E / 59.383°N 21.7°E / 59.383; 21.7, about 22 nautical miles (41 km; 25 mi) on bearing 157° from Utö island, Finland, in 74 to 85 metres (243 to 279 ft) of water.

Rescue effort

Search and Rescue followed arrangements set up under the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) and the nearest Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre MRCC Turku coordinated the effort in accordance with Finland's plans. The Baltic is one of the world's busiest shipping areas with 2,000 vessels at sea at any time and these plans assumed the ship's own boats and nearby ferries would provide immediate help and helicopters could be airborne after an hour. This scheme had worked for the relatively small number of accidents involving sinkings (3 in 2006), particularly as most ships have few people on board.[12]

Mariella, the first of five ferries to reach the scene of the accident, arrived at 02:12.[1] MRCC Turku failed to acknowledge the Mayday immediately and Mariella's report was relayed by Helsinki Radio as the less urgent pan-pan message. A full scale emergency was only declared at 02:30. Mariella winched open liferafts into the sea onto which 13 people on Estonia's rafts successfully transferred, and reported the location of other rafts to Swedish and Finnish rescue helicopters, the first of which arrived at 03:05. The former took survivors to shore, while the latter—Super Puma OH-HVG and Agusta Bell 412 OH-HVD—chose the riskier option of landing on the ferries. The pilot of OH-HVG stated that landing on the ferries was the most difficult part of the whole rescue operation, however this single helicopter rescued 44 people, more than all the ferries. Isabella saved 16 survivors with her rescue slide.

MS Estonia memorial in Tallinn

Of the 989 on board, 138 were rescued alive, but one died later in the hospital.[1] Ships rescued 34 and helicopters 104; the ferries played a much smaller part than the planners had intended because it was too dangerous to launch their man-over-board (MOB) boats or lifeboats. The accident claimed 852 lives[quantify] (501 Swedes, 285 Estonians, 17 Latvians, 10 Finns and 44 people of other nationalities: 1 from Belarus, 1 from Canada, 1 from France, 1 from the Netherlands, 1 from Nigeria, 1 from Ukraine, 1 from the United Kingdom, 2 from Morocco, 3 from Lithuania, 5 from Denmark, 6 from Norway, 10 from Germany, 11 from Russia), by drowning and hypothermia (the water temperature was 10–11 °C/50–52 °F). One prominent victim of the sinking was the popular Estonian singer Urmas Alender. 93 bodies were recovered within 33 days of the accident. Victim number 94 was found 18 months later.[1] By the time the rescue helicopters arrived, around a third of the people who escaped from the Estonia had died of hypothermia.[1] The survivors of the shipwreck were mostly young, of strong physical composition, and male. Seven people over 55 years of age survived. There were no survivors under age 12. About 750 people were inside the ship when it sank.[JAIC 2] The commission estimate up to 310 passengers reached the outer decks and 160 climbed into the liferafts or lifeboats essential for survival. Most of the 757 missing persons are believed to be inside the ship. "The longer a ship is able to stay afloat in the event of an accident the more successful evacuation and rescue operations will be".[13]

Causes of the disaster

The casualties "had an immense impact on the world concept of ferry safety" and led to changes in safety regulations and liferaft design[14] much as the Titanic disaster did in 1912.

Official investigation and report

The wreck was examined and videotaped by remotely operated underwater vehicles and by divers from a Norwegian company, Rockwater A/S, contracted for the investigation work.[JAIC 4] The official report indicated that the locks on the bow door had failed from the strain of the waves and the door had separated from the rest of the vessel, pulling ajar the ramp behind it.[JAIC 5] The bow visor and ramp had been torn off at points that would not trigger an "open" or "unlatched" warning on the bridge, as is the case in normal operation or failure of the latches. The bridge was also situated too far back on the ferry for the visor to be seen from there.[JAIC 6] While there was video monitoring of the inner ramp, the monitor on the bridge was not visible from the conning station.[JAIC 7] The bow visor was under-designed for the conditions Estonia was operating in (the ferry was designed for coastal waters, not open regions like the Baltic Sea), and the visor's overhang focused the impact on a small area.[15] The first metallic bang was believed to be the sound of the visor's lower locking mechanism failing, and subsequent noises were the visor 'flapping' against the hull as the other locks failed, before tearing free and exposing the bow ramp.[16] The subsequent failure of the bow ramp allowed water into the vehicle deck, which was listed as the main cause of the capsizing and sinking:[15] RORO ferries are particularly vulnerable to capsizing due to the free surface effect if the car deck is even slightly flooded.

The report was critical of the crew's actions, particularly for failing to reduce speed before investigating the noises emanating from the bow, and for being unaware that the list was being caused by water entering the vehicle deck.[17] There were also general criticisms of the delays in sounding the alarm, the passivity of the crew and the lack of guidance from the bridge.

Recommendations for modifications to be applied to similar ships included separation of the condition sensors from the latch and hinge mechanisms.[JAIC 8]

Changes stemming from the disaster

In 1999, special training requirements in crowd and crisis management and human behaviour were extended to crew on all passenger ships as well as amendments to watch keeping standards.[18] Estonia's distress beacons or EPIRBs required manual activation which did not happen. Had they activated automatically, it would have been immediately obvious that the ship had sunk and the location would have been clear. All EPIRBs were subsequently required to deploy automatically and the accident was "instrumental in the move to legislate Voyage Data Recorders".[19] New IMO SOLAS liferaft regulations for rescue from listing ships in rough water were introduced though launching such craft, even in training exercises, remains dangerous for the crew.[20]

However "If you are out to sea, the best lifeboat is the ship itself." New designs, the "citadel concept" once again influenced by Estonia aim to ensure damaged ships have sufficient buoyancy to remain afloat though costly will determine if any are built. SOLAS 90 which came into effect in 2010 specifies existing passenger ships stability requirements and those in North West Europe must also be able to survive 50 centimetres (20 in) of water on the car deck.[21]

Alternative theories

There are a few alternative theories, involving secret transportation of military equipment, that try to explain the disaster.

In the autumn of 2004, a former Swedish customs officer claimed on the Swedish television program Uppdrag granskning that Estonia had been used to transport military equipment in September 1994.[22] The Swedish and Estonian governments subsequently launched separate investigations, headed by Court of Appeal President Johan Hirschfeldt and Republic Prosecutor Margus Kurm, respectively. Both investigations confirmed that military equipment was aboard the ship on 14 and 20 September 1994, though it remained unclear if any such equipment was aboard the ship on the night of the disaster.[23][24]

In 1999, the Joint Accident Investigation Commission responded to rumours in the media of bombs having caused the accident. In the original report, they had already ruled out traces of explosion in the visor,[JAIC 9] but after analysis of the videos where suspected bomb-like objects had been seen, an explosion as a possible cause or contributing factor in the accident was totally ruled out.[JAIC 10] In 2000, American adventurer Gregg Bemis and his crew dived to the wreck and filmed the damages. They also recovered pieces of metal, which were given to various laboratories for analysis. Stephen Davis, writing in the New Statesman in May 2005, claimed that laboratory tests had confirmed evidence of explosion in the metal. Davis further claimed the ship was carrying a secret cargo of military equipment smuggled from the Russians by the British MI6 on behalf of the CIA, as part of ongoing efforts to monitor the development of Russia's weapons, and that this would explain Britain's signing of the Estonia Agreement.[25] The Finnish members of the Joint Accident Investigation Commission again rejected the possibility of explosion, claiming that the traces found in the metal were caused by the heavy blows of the visor coming off, citing inconclusive results from another laboratory.[26]

The German journalist Jutta Rabe also carried out her own investigations, resulting in a book. The book was turned into the fictional 2003 film Baltic Storm, which portrays the Russian secret service as being responsible for the sinking, and the Swedish government's attempts to cover up the causes for the disaster.[27] Rabe also claimed that she was scheduled to have an interview with Odd Engström, a former member of the Parliament of Sweden, about the real background of the disaster a day before he died.[28]

Protection of the wreck

MS Estonia memorial in Stockholm

In the aftermath of the disaster, many relatives of the deceased demanded that their loved ones be raised from international waters and given a land burial. Demands were also made that the entire ship be raised so that the cause of the disaster could be discovered by detailed inspection.[29][30]

Citing the practical difficulties and the moral implications of raising decaying bodies from the sea floor (the majority of the bodies were never recovered), but also fearing the financial burden for the costs of lifting the entire hull to the surface and the salvage operation the Swedish government suggested burying the whole ship in situ with a shell of concrete.[31][32] As a preliminary step, thousands of tons of pebbles were dropped on the site.[30] The Estonia Agreement 1995, a treaty between Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom, declared sanctity over the site, prohibiting its citizens from even approaching the wreck.[33] The treaty is, however, only binding for citizens of the countries that are signatories. At least twice, the Swedish Navy has discovered illegal diving operations at the wreck. The wreck is monitored by radar by the Finnish Navy.[34]

On 8 May 2006, the organizations of Estonian and Swedish relatives requested suspension of the diving ban by sending a letter to the governments who ratified the treaty: Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The joint letter entreats all who read it to use their influence to amend, modify, repeal, revoke, or suspend all practical or administrative measures prohibiting inspection of the wreck in order to secure new evidence. The letter also calls for an independent group of experts, working in a transparent manner, to conduct a new investigation of the sinking of MS Estonia.[35]

Decks and facilities

As Viking Sally

9 Bridge, sundeck[36]
8 Sundeck[36]
7 Crew cabins & facilities, sundeck[37]
6 Restaurant deckBuffet dining room, a la carte restaurant, bar, outside and inside cabins[38]
5 Entrance & cafeteria deck – Tax-free shops, cafeteria, snack bar, discotheque, air seats, children's playroom, outside and inside cabins[36][39]
4 Conference deck – Conference rooms, nightclub, cinema, inside and outside cabins[39]
3 Car platform[40]
2 Car deck[40]
1 Inside cabins,[38] engine room[37]
0 Sauna, swimming pool, conference rooms[38]


The sinking of the Estonia has been the subject of a number of documentaries in addition to the feature film Baltic Storm, including:

  • History Channel: Sinking of the Estonia
  • Zero Hour: The Sinking of the Estonia

See also

Portal icon Estonia portal
Portal icon Nautical portal


  1. ^ a b c d e Soomer, H.; Ranta, H.; Penttilä, A. (2001). "Identification of victims from the M/S Estonia". International Journal of Legal Medicine 114 (4–5): 259–262. doi:10.1007/s004140000180. PMID 11355406. 
  2. ^ Boesten, E. (2006): The M/S Estonia Disaster and the Treatment of Human Remains. In: Bierens, J.J.L.M. (ed.): Handbook on Drowning: 650–652. ISBN 978-3-540-43973-8.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Wasa King" (in Swedish). Vasabå Retrieved 29 October 2007. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "M/S Viking Sally" (in Swedish). Fakta om Fartyg. Retrieved 29 October 2007. 
  5. ^ "Viking Sally schedules 1980–1990" (in Finnish). FCBS Forum. Retrieved 29 October 2007. 
  6. ^ a b c Simplon Postcards: Viking Sally – Wasa King – Silja Star – Estonia, retrieved 29 October 2007
  7. ^ "MS Wellamo (1986)" (in Swedish). Fakta om Fartyg. Retrieved 29 October 2007. 
  8. ^ Whittingham, The Blame Machine, p. 137
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Whittingham, The Blame Machine, p. 138
  10. ^ "Wave height records in the Baltic Sea". Finnish Meteorological Institute. 
  11. ^ HELCOM reports a noticeable drop in shipping accidents in the Baltic, retrieved 21 October 2007
  12. ^ "Improving passenger ship safety". Directorate-General for Transport and Energy (European Commission). Retrieved 30 September 2007. 
  13. ^ Joughin, R.W.. "The Revised SOLAS Regulations for Ro-Ro Ferries". Warsah Maritime Centre. Archived from the original on 3 April 2008. Retrieved 3 April 2008. 
  14. ^ a b Whittingham, The Blame Machine, p. 139
  15. ^ Whittingham, The Blame Machine, pp. 139–40
  16. ^ Whittingham, The Blame Machine, p. 142
  17. ^ "Passenger information required on all passenger ships from 1 January 1999". International Maritime Organization. Retrieved 21 October 2007. 
  18. ^ Simplified Voyage Data Recorders -Why choose float free, retrieved 22 October 2007
  19. ^ Liferaft Systems Australia: Maib Interim Safety Recommendation on The Use of Vertical Chute Type Marine Evacuation Systems, retrieved 21 October 2007
  20. ^ Sturcke, James (6 March 2007). "Herald of sea changes". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 November 2007. 
  21. ^ Borgnäs, Lars (Fall 2004). "War materials smuggled on Estonia". Uppdrag granskning (Sveriges Television). Retrieved 29 September 2009. 
  22. ^ "Utredningen om transport av försvarsmateriel på M/S Estonia" (in Swedish). Ministry of Defence (Sweden). 21 January 2005. 
  23. ^ "Riigikogu Committee of Investigation to Ascertain the Circumstances Related to the Export of Military Equipment from the Territory of the Republic of Estonia on the Ferry Estonia in 1994 – Final Report". Riigikogu. 19 December 2006. 
  24. ^ Davis, Stephen (23 May 2005). "Death in the Baltic: the MI6 connection". New Statesman. Retrieved 24 March 2009. 
  25. ^ Tukkimäki, Paavo (20 February 2001). "Finnish Estonia Commission members still reject explosion theories". Helsingin Sanomat. 
  26. ^ Lundberg, Pia (21 October 2003). "Baltic Storm stirs up Swedish press". Screen International. 
  27. ^ WDR5 interview with Jutta Rabe, 26 September 2002 –
  28. ^ Wallius, Anniina (29 September 2004). "Estonian tuho lietsoi salaliittoteorioita" (in Finnish). YLE. 
  29. ^ a b Whittingham, The Blame Machine, p. 140
  30. ^ "Justitieutskottets betänkande 1994/95: JuU23 Gravfrid över m/s Estonia" (in Swedish). Parliament of Sweden. 18 May 1995. 
  31. ^ "Chapter 50: Övertäckningen stoppas" (in Swedish). En granskning av Estoniakatastrofen och dess följder. Swedish Government Official Reports. SOU 1998:132. Swedish Ministry of Transport and Communications. 
  32. ^ "Agreement between the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Finland and the Kingdom of Sweden regarding the M/S Estonia". Ministry for Foreign Affairs (Sweden). 23 February 1995. 
  33. ^ Danné, Ulla; Nilsson, Birgitta /TT (18 May 1998). "Sjöfartsverket höll tyst om stoppade Estonia-dykare" (in Swedish). Aftonbladet. 
  34. ^ Joint letter from M/S Estonia organizations in Estonia and Sweden, 8 May 2006
  35. ^ a b c "Viking Sally deck plan" (in Finnish/Swedish/English). Viking Line brochure. Vasabå Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  36. ^ a b "Viking Sally General Arrangement plan". Vasabå Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  37. ^ a b c "Viking Sally Restaurant deck 6 plan" (in Swedish/Finnish). Viking Line brochure. Vasabå Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  38. ^ a b "Viking Sally Conference deck 4 plan" (in Swedish/Finnish). Viking Line brochure. Vasabå Retrieved 20 December 2008. 
  39. ^ a b "Viking Sally cutaway" (in Swedish/Finnish/English). Viking Line brochure. Vasabå Retrieved 20 December 2008. 

Further reading

External links

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