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Sunday, December 17, 2017

POINTS OF VIEW

Two years on from the casualty, the official flag state report on the sinking of the Prestige has finally been published. Recommendations focused on ship and shore control, places of refuge and detention of personnel, practices for survey, inspection and repair. Specifics include evaluating cover fastenings for deck openings, and checking the adequacy of current requirements for design strength of double hull tankers with respect to their survivability (in similar conditions to the Prestige).

One of the key recommendations of the Bahamas Maritime Authority is about who has control of the ship in such a situation. It writes of “the vital need for clarity about who is in control during an emergency” … in other words owners and salvage teams should be told what the control structure is, who is authorised to issue orders and what degree of control remains with the other parties. “Any decision by a coastal state to reduce the Master’s responsibility must be made clear to him and the degree of control left to his discretion spelled out to him. The power under which such a change of responsibility is taken should be stated to the Master before any orders are issued.”

What actually happened, says the report, was that after the immediate response where ship and shore both took correct and proper action, things started to go awry when “messages from the shore authorities to the Master of the Prestige appear to assume that whoever sent a message had authority to give orders to the Master.” However, at no time was the position explained to the Master (Spanish law does allow such orders to be given). It would seem that each shore authority which contacted the ship simply assumed that the Master should obey every order, continues the report.

The Master has overriding authority and responsibility to make decisions in respect to safety and pollution prevention, according to SOLAS and the ISM Code, adds the report, and if any shore authority wishes to take this responsibility away, it is most important that that authority explains clearly to the Master who is issuing orders and the extent to which the Master still has control over his ship.

Despite this, the report praises the Master for making every effort to comply with shore instructions, with shore surveyors, and for cooperating with shore authorities despite believing that many of the decisions being taken by the shore authorities were wrong. These shore decisions included refusal of refuge, a demand to restart the main engine despite warnings of possible damage that action might cause to the hull, delays in providing extra help to secure towing lines.

“No evidence has been discovered during this investigation to substantiate the charge of (the Master) disobeying an order from any shore authority,” concludes the report. He took all proper steps … he chose to stay on board to try and save his ship and try to minimise pollution … his actions subsequent to the remainder of the crew leaving were exemplary.”

Days before the report was published came the news that the vessel’s master will be allowed to return home from two years of enforced residence in Spain, accused of disobeying orders and helping to cause pollution, but not so far brought to trial.

Contact: Bill Box