Maritime safety in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay and the loss of merchant ships


L’Atlas Bleu / Preventing

Maritime safety in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay

The Channel and its approaches were described by Viagrié (1979) as “the world’s most important maritime intersection”. The increased risk of accidents in this maritime area has led the coastal States to draw up a maritime safety plan to reduce the frequency of accidents and thus limit consequences such as pollution and loss of human life.

The existing plan includes prevention measures (traffic separation schemes: TSS, vessel traffic services: VTS, mandatory ship reporting systems: MSRS) and damage mitigation tools (offshore search and rescue helicopters: SARH, salvage and emergency tow vessels, pollution response vessels and places of refuge [not mapped] that operate according to the different vessel traffic monitoring and coastguard centres.

Loss of merchant ships

TSSs, which appeared mainly during the 1970s and 1980s, regulate the circulation of vessels to reduce the risk of collision and running aground. Additionally, VTSs transmit information to vessels to help them navigate, and also monitor the TSSs and port approaches to detect any dangerous situations in order to coordinate any necessary safety and rescue operations. Lastly, MSRSs became mandatory at the end of the 1990s, with the aim of gathering more information on the dangers posed by maritime traffic. The data collected is now centralised in a Community maritime information exchange system (Directive 2002/59/EC).

The longest-standing air search and rescue tool is the offshore SARH, which airlifts crews from ships in distress. These helicopters are now assisted by salvage and emergency tow vessels, brought into service in France by the Marine Nationalin 1978, which tow vessels in difficulty (engine problems, leaks, etc.) to places of refuge currently designated by the maritime authorities (Directive 2002/59/EC). Lastly, pollution response vessels, which have multiplied in number since the 1990s and 2000s, are mainly used for cleaning up pollutants discharged into the sea before this pollution can reach the coast.

The gradual implementation of the maritime safety plan has led to a significant decrease in the loss of vessels. The plan therefore seems to be well adapted, even though the relative efficiency of each individual measure or tool may not be self-evident. If we look at previous studies, implementing TSSs and VTSs has greatly reduced the number of collisions and groundings (Cockcroft, 1983; Park and Redfenf, 1995), MSRSs have prevented major pollution incidents (Quivillic, 2004) and offshore SARHs make salvage missions more effective as they can reach crews on vessels in distress quickly (Quon and Laube, 1991). Lastly, accidents have also been reduced thanks to numerous technological advances (seafloor mapping, vessel positioning systems, etc.) and the measures taken since the end of the 1970s to combat the use of sub-standard vessels (Boisson, 1999).

BOISSON P., 1999. Safety at sea. Policies, Regulations and International law, Ed. Bureau Veritas, Paris, 536 p.

COCKCROFT A. N., 1983. The Effectiveness of Ship Routing off North West Europe, Journal of Navigation 36(3), p. 462-467.

PARK J.-S., REDFENF A., 1995. Quantification of the VTS effectiveness, Transactions on the Built Environment 11, p. 671-678.

QUIVILLIC, C., 2004. Les Abeilles international. JST 2004, Journées scientifiques et techniques du CETMEF, 7-9 décembre 2004. p. 103-106.

QUON T. K., LAUBE J. A., 1991. Do Faster Rescues Save More Lives ?, Risk Analysis 9(2). p. 291-301.

VIGARIÉ A., 1979. La géographie du trafic maritime aux approches de la Manche, Actes de colloque international, La pollution marine par les hydrocarbures, Brest, 28-30 mars 1979. p. 12-19.

Éric LE GENTIL, géographe, est Chargé de Recherche à l’Institut Universitaire Européen de la Mer à Brest

Éric LE GENTIL, « Sécurité maritime en Manche et golfe de Gascogne et perte de navires marchands», L’atlas Bleu, Revue cartographique des mers et des littoraux. Mis en ligne le 10 janvier 2020,

(version digitale de l’article paru dans L’Atlas Permanent de la Mer et du Littoral n°7 « Risques littoraux et maritimes ». Ed. LETG-Nantes, 2015. pp.34-35)


DOI : 10.35109/atlasbleu-eng.10016