JAKARTA — In a country of 17,000 islands, everyone and everything travels by ferry.
Indonesians will wait for hours to board notoriously unreliable ferries, which won’t leave until they are at capacity, or often far above capactiy. Ferry operators, skilled at packing, allow aboard as many people, cars, motorbikes, buses and trucks as they can fit before finally departing.
On the busy ferry that runs between the islands of Java and Sumatra, the people too late to find an empty spot on the floor of the cabin must stay in their cars, which are lined up so tightly that they are often unable to open their doors. At the rear of the ship it is the motorbikes, which by themselves are often carrying several people, or an entire family, that are the last to board.
It is in such circumstances, which authorities here admit are all too common, that accidents happen. Indonesia, two-thirds of which is water, is a seafaring nation and long ferry trips are as normal as taking the bus across town. As such, harbormasters and boat companies are all too comfortable leaving port in dangerous weather.
This was the case Saturday evening when a boat full of 270 passengers and crew, together with their cars, motorbikes and cargo, left the island of Sulawesi for an overnight trip to the city of Samrinda in East Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of the island of Borneo.
The ferry, called the Teratai Prima, capsized amid a tropical cyclone early Sunday morning that had been swirling through the Makassar Strait for more than a day, causing floods and landslides across Sulawesi. Navy and Air Force rescue teams are now battling high seas in search of the nearly 250 passengers who have been missing for more than 24 hours.
An official in the port town of Majene, the closest city to where the boat is thought to have sunk, said it was increasingly unlikely that any more survivors would be found.
“Rescue efforts were initially delayed because of the storm,” said Jesaja Sarita, head of the port, adding that any survivors would have had to spend the night fighting for their lives in the turbulent waters.
About 20 people, including the captain, managed to board several of the boat’s life rafts and were picked up by a local fisherman hours after that accident. One of the survivors told local media that the ship was knocked on its side by a seven meter wave and was unable to right itself.
Another survivor said the weather was already severe when the boat first departed from Parepare in Sulawesi, leading hundreds of family members, who were lining up at the port of Majene checking survivor lists, to question why the boat was allowed to sail at all.
Indonesia’s location between the Pacific and Indian oceans causes complicated tides, currents and weather patterns that frequently present challenges for sea and air traffic.
The accident has brought renewed attention to the poor safety standards facing Indonesia’s transportation sector and legislators are already raising concerns that the boat wasn’t docked due to the bad weather.
“It is of supreme importance that the harbormaster and the companies running these ferries follow the nation’s strict safety precautions,” said Josef Nae Soi, a member of the transportation safety commission in parliament, on Monday.
After a string of bad accidents in 2006 and 2007, Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono increased the transportation budget by almost 65 percent and publicly demanded that transportation companies adhere to safety standards.
Most of that money, however, has been focused on the airline industry, which has been beset by a series of high-profile crashes in recent years. The European Union, in fact, banned all Indonesian aircraft from entering its airspace in 2007 and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has assigned the country its lowest safety rating.
The United States, Australia and Great Britain all have warnings advising tourists to avoid travel within Indonesia whenever possible.
As a result, cash-strapped ferry operators have continued packing on the passengers and sailing in dangerous weather in a bid to maintain profits.
In May, a ferry caught fire with 800 passengers on board. The crew, lacking any firefighting equipment, was unable to control the flames and had to call in the Navy to evacuate all the passengers.
The most recent fatal ferry disaster came in July 2007 and killed 70 people. In December 2006, more than 300 people were killed in a ferry accident that led to a public outcry over lax safety standards and the trial of the boat’s captain, who was accused of recklessly maneuvering the boat through a storm.
Though Indonesians are fully aware of the dangers of traveling by ferry here, few have any other options. Domestic flights are available between most of the major islands, but are often too expensive for most Indonesians and don’t fly to smaller, more remote destinations. Public ferries can cost as little as a few dollars, even for long journeys, and are more convenient for businessmen transporting goods from one place to another.
An increased budget and more oversight led to fewer accidents in 2008, but officials said this weekend’s disaster, coupled with other recent problems, is yet another example of how much more needs to be done.
“The safety of the passengers has to be the number on priority,” Nae Soi said. “There can be no compromises.”