Any Port in a Storm?

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Vessels aground near New Orleans after Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Photo Via USCG

By Captain George Livingstone

One of the great ‘maritime’ authors of the 20th century is Jan de Hartog, born in Holland, his seagoing career spanned the glory years of Dutch ocean towing.  Thankfully for those of us who love a good sea story, he turned to writing.  One of my favorite quotes from him – “The call of the sea ceases only when it is finally obeyed.”  In his books, one gets a visceral sense of “peril at sea”. Even in the 21st Century peril is real, especially when the sea is raging.  As long as the public demands commerce and humans venture onto the great ocean trades, it will remain so.

Erika”, Prestige”, Flaminia”, not household names but names that send shivers down the spine of some.  On December 8, 1999, the tank ship Erika with a load of heavy fuel, sailed out of Dunkerque, France into the history books. As she entered the Bay of Biscay, Erika ran smack into one of those terrible storms the Bay is legend for. Just a few days out from port, on December 12th the ship boke in two and sank.  Thousands of tons of oil were released into the sea, killing marine life and polluting the shores of Brittany, France.  This accident triggered new EU (European Union) legislation regarding transport by sea.

In 2002 facing another winter storm, the tanker Prestige carrying 77,000 tons of heavy fuel also broke in two and went down off the coast of Spain.  The initial crisis occurred when one of its 12 tanks cracked during the storm immediately leaking heavy fuel oil into the sea.  Fearing the worst (that the ship would sink if not taken into port), the master called for help from Spanish rescue crews.  Help was not to be, pressure from local civil authorities forced the captain to steer the embattled ship away from the coast to the northwest. 

As soon as it became known that Prestige was heading north into French waters, the French Government ordered the vessel away, back to the south into Portuguese waters.  The ship’s master, Capt. Apostolos Mangouras and crew were, of course, dealing with an appalling, increasing risk of the ship breaking up at extreme personal risk.  The Portuguese authorities also ordered the ship away from its territorial waters. The master initially refused prompting Portugal to send naval ships to intercept Prestige.  With all three countries refusing entry (France, Spain & Portugal) it was just a matter of time before the initial crack in one tank expanded to the point of breaking the ship in two.  As a result, the ship released approximately 20 million gallons of oil into the sea, mostly on the northwest coast of Spain.

On July 14th, 2012, an explosion and fire (likely from a container) abroad the container ship MSC Flaminia while en route from Charleston (USA) to Antwerp (Belgium) forced the crew to abandon ship in Mid-Atlantic! (1,200 nm from nearest land).  The fire raged for days before a salvage tug arriving on-scene to take her in tow. An epic struggle then commenced to extinguish the fire and find a port that would take the ship.  After an incredible 5 weeks of monumental international haggling, re-routing and delay, she found berth in Wilhelmshaven, Germany.  Flaminia was not a big ship, nor a tank ship and although risk of sinking was high, the consequence of sinking was not going to be catastrophic. Had she been an ULCV (Ultra Large Container Vessel) it could have been a far different scenario with possible catastrophic results.

There is no greater challenge and threat to the environment than an “Act of God” at sea especially when it involves transport of oil and hazardous cargoes.  We are talking about the stuff of books, movies and legend but with real life consequences.   Getting to the nearest, safest port can make the difference between a bad (but manageable) and catastrophic situation.  So where does the world stand on Ports of Refuge (POR)?  After decades of witnessing unnecessary catastrophes and years of haggling, debate and politics; the international community through the IMO came to the sensible conclusion that pushing a vessel in distress away from one’s coast will not resolve the problem, it will make it worse.  

The MSC Flaminia incident finally set in motion some action through the EU, European Commission and the European Maritime Safety Agency.  An expert group was established (Cooperation Group on Places of Refuge). One of its primary tasks was to develop potential operational guidelines on places of refuge.  Earlier this year, at the 96th session of IMO’s MSC (Marine Safety Committee) Agenda item 24 addressed the topic. “This document reports on the work carried out by the competent authorities within the EU, together with the relevant industry associations, to develop a set of working guidelines for the accommodation of ships in need of assistance, requesting a place of refuge.” Emphasis is placed on enhanced cooperation and information sharing among all parties concerned.” An underlying principal of the guidelines – there should be “no rejection without inspection”; governments should not just outright reject offering a place of refuge for vessels in distress.  These operational guidelines were tested in 2015 and put into use in January 2016 under IMO Guidelines on places of refuge for ships in need of assistance in resolution A.949(23).  MSC 96/25/5 goes on to state “The operational guidelines, although non-mandatory in nature, support the more uniform application of the underlying EU legislation”, especially as regards neighboring states.  

The take away? The world still has no mandatory operational guidelines on Ports of Refuge, but this was a big step forward none the less as there was virtually nothing in place prior to this.  It may seem incredible to the reader that we cannot come to agreement internationally on something as basic as offering “refuge” to vessels in distress, given the alternative is possible environmental catastrophe. You are in good company if you do find it so, as some of the most prominent international maritime organizations have come out to rally behind and support POR’s (IFSMA, ICS, IUMI, BIMCO, ISU, ITF Seafarers, INTERTANKO, IMPA, NI and P&I Clubs).

I would be remiss if I didn’t add a sad footnote. Readers may recall that gCaptain recently posted new information on the Prestige disaster aftermath.  In a shameful political episode this past spring, the Spanish Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision absolving Capt. Mangouras of any wrong doing or action in the Prestige disaster. After repeatedly being refused any chance of saving his vessel by multiple countries and staying on his vessel with the Chief Engineer until literally just before she broke in two, the Prestige’s Master, Capt. Mangouras was thrown in prison by the Spanish Supreme Court.  Having acted in the finest traditions of the sea, under extraordinary conditions and tremendous pressure, Capt. Mangouras has been used as a scape goat by the highest court in one of the great sea-going nations of the world. In his eight decade of life he languishes, serving out a two-year sentence.  The message is loud and clear to every professional mariner around the world, it seems we do not matter. The irony? We are likely be the first and last chance of staving off any disasters…given just half of a half of a chance.

Any port in a storm indeed, we should bow our heads in shame.