The cruel consequences of a container casualty

The plight of a watchkeeper aboard a large container ship off the Chinese coast.
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By Clive Reed

In my article a year ago, I discussed the case of the bulk carrier, Tolunay and its collision with TCSG-25 (August 2016), resulting in the death of four Turkish coastguard personnel and the incarceration of the Master, Chief Officer and Bosun (the latter two released later in 2017).

The judge, flying in the face of the evidence he obtained from local experts in Turkey, convicted the Master and sentenced him to more than six years in jail. At the time of writing, I believe the Master is still denied his freedom.

In this article I will discuss the plight of an Indian Third Officer on a large container ship who, at the end of his 20:00 to midnight watch heading north, north-east on the high seas a significant distance away from the Chinese coast, observed a small vessel that wasn’t fishing, crossing his bow from starboard to port.

He carefully observed the track of the other vessel and his equipment told him that it would cross ahead at about 1.3 miles.

From this information, he quite reasonably concluded that no risk of collision existed as, if everything continued as it was, the other vessel would pass clear on his port side and that would be that.

Unfortunately, just after the small vessel crossed on to the vessel’s port bow, for some unexplained reason (that went to Davy Jones’s locker with the skipper of the other vessel), the small vessel turned to port on a new track that within a couple of minutes led it to collide with the bulbous bow of the containership.

The Third Officer forlornly attempted to avoid the small vessel, however, with the time available and the lack of manoeuvrability of the large container ship he failed. The tragic result was that six lives were lost from the small vessel in the middle of a dark October night in 2017.

The officer, with the immediate assistance of the master, tried to establish what had happened to the small vessel, however, as there was no sign of distress and because of the size of the containership, it was impossible to exactly determine what had happened to the small vessel. It was in fact too late for such a large container ship to do anything constructively useful.

On arriving at the next port in China, an investigation took place and the ship was detained. The Master and Third Officer remained in China when the ship sailed pending completion of the investigation. The Master alone was released many months later.

The Third Officer is still in China 16 months after the event with no clarity about whether he will face any criminal charges. If he is eventually prosecuted, the trial is likely to last for yet another year, once it eventually starts. For the Third Officer there is currently no end in sight.

One of the difficulties faced in this particular case was that the local “expert” (for the containership), a professor, could not see that, prior to the small vessel bizarrely altering course to port, there was no risk of collision and therefore the steering and sailing rules of the Collregs could not apply – if there is no risk of collision there is no need for any vessel to make any changes to whatever they are doing.

Frustratingly, for the longest time “our” professor would not be moved from his position, which was that it was a crossing situation with the containership as the give way vessel. Eventually, after considerable time, effort, and expense (spent creating reconstructions, plots, what if scenarios, etc.) the professor finally agreed that the majority of the blame was not on the containership but on the small vessel.

So what conclusions can be drawn from both this case study and that of the Tolunay?

  1. It is difficult to avoid blame even when it is clearly an accident that is not your fault, or at least is more the fault of the other party.
  2. Justice is hard to find even when you are right.
  3. Don’t hesitate to get the best help in every necessary field that you can find – you can’t go back and try again later.
  4. Be aware that it is a cruel world – and not just for those lost at sea.

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