Norway coastal steamers have tragic past

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11:10 CEST+02:00
As many as 700 people have died serving or cruising on the ships of the cost-laden Hurtigruten company, owner of the MS Nordlys, on which tragedy struck on Thursday.

Two crew were killed and several were injured after an apparent engine room fire spread to other parts of the ship and filled decks with poisonous smoke. Hundreds were evacuated before smoke marked the towing of the listing Nordlys — loved by German, Dutch and Japanese tourists as well as Norwegians — through water shielded by islands to the emergency quay at Aalesund, central Norway.

Not since the 1970s has disaster struck on such a scale for Hurtigruten.

On January 19th, 1972, the MS Vesterålen collided with the cellulose-carrying Hystein and cut her in two. Two died and five were pulled out of the water by the Hurtigruten vessel.

In October 1940, 300 died when the company's coal-fired Princesse Ragnilad suffered a steam explosion and sank in just minutes. Miraculously, 150 survived, but the accident was the worst ever in Norwegian maritime history.

Most died during the last world war, when 13 coastal steamers were sunk by warships for the supplies they carried.

Norwegian chroniclers and film-makers have been thorough tallying the accidents and mishaps that have claimed so many lives since 1903, when eight crew died on the maiden voyage of the DS Orion from Tromsö to Vadsö.

The Hurtigruten vessels have otherwise been the lifeblood of coastal communities and businesses over the past century by freighting tonnes of cargo and mail while carrying travellers. Yet, Norway’s 3,000-kilometre long littoral — as long as the West Coast of the United States — is cursed with treacherous waters, and the route's critics say the ships lodge onto near-invisible rocks all too often.

Grounding brought fire and the deaths of 41 in 1962, when the Sanct Svithun went off course. Like her predecessors which survived to serve coastal communities and travellers, the Nordlys and her sister ships MS Kong Harald and MS Richard With are in near constant service, stopping only for planned maintenance.

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Not counting the Second World War attack of the British submarine HMS Tigris on the former Richard With, about 20 serious Hurtigruten accidents have occurred..

The Hurtigruten vessels have sailed since 1893 and are best known for the natural beauty and coastal life they visit on the Bergen-Kirkenes round trip. “The World’s Prettiest Journey” was captured in a 2011 TV series called Hurtigruten, Minute by Minute.

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