Hebei Spirit owner and manager clarify the cause of the recent accident in South Korea, while Master accused of criminal negligence

Liu Shibao, director of Hebei Spirit Shipping Co Ltd and owner of the VLCC Hebei Spirit, which was recently struck by a crane barge while at anchor in South Korea, and Bob Bishop, CEO of V.Ships, the vessel’s manager, took centre stage this week at a Hong Kong press conference which provided some significant insight into what happened, and what the consequences might be.


A simulated action replay showed how three tugs set out in weather conditions that put them at the limit of their ability to control the massive Samsung heavy-lift crane barge – demonstrated by the “slightly erratic” course of the barge. While good practice might have been to pass astern and downwind of the VLCC, which was anchored at a designated location, they said, the tugs maintained a course which took them uncomfortably close to the tanker. To distance his ship from the barge, the tanker master let out about 110 metres of anchor chain and moved astern – to have tried to pull up the anchor would actually have brought the tanker closer to the barge.


Tugs and barge proceeded westwards until they were actually well clear and past the tanker. However one of the tow lines suddenly broke and in just nine minutes the strong wind and sea had blown the barge back onto the fully laden VLCC.


Five holes were punched along the port side of the single-hull vessel by the barge’s hull, releasing 10,500 tonnes of crude oil into the sea. Fortunately the quick action of the ship using her rudder and engine prevented any penetration of the bunker tanks and engine room. The crane’s loose-swinging hooks swept along the tanker’s deck, damaging the fore mast and destroying the satellite communications unit on top of the accommodation block. Although the tanker was 98% full, she immediately started pumping oil from punctured tanks into free space in other cargo tanks and ballasted her starboard ballast tanks to tip the ship away and reduce the outflow.


After prolonged and often extensive interrogation, the master has now been indicted by the Korean authorities for being negligent in performing his lookout duty, failing to identify at an early stage the risk of collision, and failing to take proactive and effective measures to prevent the risk of collision. He is also accused of causing the crane barge to collide with the Hebei Spirit, of damaging the vessel and causing it to spill oil, and finally of “destruction of vessel due to criminal negligence while on duty”.


“The charges are far from the reality of what happened,” said Bishop. “We have 25,000 seafarers. They and others will be interested to know how the Master and Chief Officer of a VLCC anchored at a designated position and hit by a towed object, could possibly be indicted.”


Arthur Bowring, Chairman of the  International Shipping Federation’s Labour Affairs Committee, argued that the reverse burden of proof for shipping accidents is unjust, maintaining that basic human rights are that you should not held to be guilty until you are proved innocent. “We are disappointed at the indictment of these crew members,” he said.


INTERTANKO’s Managing Director, Dr Peter Swift, joined Arthur Bowring in referring to the IMO-ILO’s Guidelines on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers after a Maritime Accident, and expressed his dismay  that they did not appear to have been followed fully in this case. He further expressed his deep concern at the effect such actions by the authorities have on the seafaring community, adding: “The bringing of criminal charges against ship’s officers in such circumstances is demoralising for all our crews around the world and has a demonstrably negative impact on recruitment”. He applauded the support being given to the officers by their employers and looked forward to a speedy resolution of the matter. He also said it was important that the facts of the case should be properly understood and represented, and expressed his confidence in the Hong Kong administration, as the Flag State, conducting an efficient and proper investigation.


Nicola Mason, the local representative of the VLCC’s P&I Club Skuld, said she hoped that the two officers are found innocent in court. However, if they were to be found guilty, they could be fined up to USD150,000 for both, and might possibly face 6-12 months in prison, she said.


The two officers have been asked to remain in Korea but they are not in prison. V.Ships is providing them with an apartment and their families will be flown out to join them. Mason expects the court case to be concluded by April/May this year.


Contact: Bill Box or Peter Swift