at a port in Incheon
on March 2014, after modifications had been made
At the time of her purchase by Chonghaejin Marine in 2012, the ship that would come to be known as the Motor Vessel (MV) Sewol was 18 years old and dilapidated. She was originally named Ferry Naminoue and was operated from 1994 to 2012 as a transport ship for cargo and passengers by the Japanese company A-Line Ferry.:9 According to A-Line Ferry, she did not experience any problems while being operated by the company in Japan. After she was purchased on 8 October 2012, she was registered by Chonghaejin on 22 October 2012 and underwent modifications from 12 October 2012 to 12 February 2013.:9 The modifications were later found to have been based on an illegal redesign of the ship.
After the modifications, which included the addition of two floors of passenger space and the expansion of the cargo space, Sewol had her gross tonnage increase by 239 tons to 6,825 tons and her persons capacity increase by 116 people for a total of 956 people including the crew.:11 The modifications also resulted in her center of gravity being moved upward by 0.51 m (1 ft 8 in):11 as well as a left-right imbalance. After the modifications were completed, she underwent investigations by the Korean Register of Shipping including an inclining test, and received the ship inspection certification and the certification for the prevention of sea pollution on 12 February 2013.:15 During the process of approving the modifications, the Register reduced the maximum amount of cargo that could be carried by 1,450 tons to 987 tons, and increased the amount of ballast needed by 1,333 tons, to 1,703 tons. The cargo limits were not known by the Korea Shipping Association, who has the responsibility to manage ferries, or the Korea Coast Guard, who were responsible for overseeing the Shipping Association. The South Korea government's Audit and Inspection Board later revealed that the Register's licensing was based on falsified documents. After the inspections, 37 tons of marble were further added to the gallery room at the bridge deck located on the back of the ship.:17
Sewol began operations on 15 March 2013. She made three rounds trips per week from Incheon to Jeju, each one-way voyage of 425 kilometres (264 mi) taking 13.5 hours to complete. On 19 February 2014, she received an interim inspection and a periodic inspection from the Register.:17 She had made the round trip a total of 241 times until the day of the incident.
Route of Sewol
during the last voyage from Incheon to Jeju, the capsizing location marked by the rectangular speech bubble
On 15 April 2014, Sewol was scheduled to leave the port at Incheon at 6:30 p.m., Korea Standard Time. A fog which restricted the visible distance to less than 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) led the Incheon Vessel traffic service (VTS) to issue a low visibility warning around 5:30 p.m., leading the Shipping Association to hold Sewol's departure. The VTS retracted the warning around 8:35 p.m., and the Shipping Association removed the restriction on Sewol's departure after checking the weather conditions with the operator of the Palmido lighthouse and consulting with the Korean Coast Guard.:30 She departed around 9 p.m., and was the only ship to leave port that evening.
When she departed, she was carrying 443 passengers, 33 crew members, and a total of 2,142.7 tons of cargo including 185 cars.:31 325 of the passengers were students on a field trip from Danwon High School and five passengers were of non-Korean nationality. The ship was commanded by 69-year-old Captain Lee Joon-seok, who had been brought in as a replacement for the regular captain. He had over 40 years of experience at sea, and had traveled the route before. He was hired on a one-year contract, with a monthly salary of ₩2.7 million (roughly 2,500 USD). Lee worked with 33 crew members for the journey, of which 19 were irregular, part-time workers.
Later investigations discovered problems concerning the state of Sewol at the time of departure. The Safety Investigation Report made by the Korea Maritime Safety Tribunal noted that Sewol at the time of departure was carrying 2,142.7 tons of cargo when its maximum allowance was 987 tons.:34 TIME magazine further noted that the cargo had been improperly secured. The Report also noted that only 761.2 tons of ballast were taken on board, that some ballast tanks had not been properly maintained, and that the last voyage was made without making further adjustments to the ballast during the journey.:36-37 Kukmin Ilbo reported that Captain Shin, the regular captain of Sewol, had warned the company about the decrease in stability and passenger satisfaction and attributed it to the removal of the side ramp. Captain Shin claimed that the company responded with threats to fire him if he continued his objections. Captain Shin's warnings were also relayed through an official working for the Incheon Port Authority on 9 April 2014, which an official from the company responded to by stating that he would deal with anyone making the claims. The Korea Herald also reported that the captain had requested a repair for the malfunctioning steering gear on 1 April 2014, which was not done. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Korean Register of Shipping had noted in a stability test report dated 24 January 2014 that Sewol had become 'too heavy and less stable after modifications were made.' The New York Times reported that the company budget for the safety training of the crew was $2 USD, which was used to buy a paper certificate.