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Gimme Shelter: why ports of refuge are a must in shipping

Gimme Shelter: why ports of refuge are a must in shipping
“Worse things happen at sea” the saying goes, but does anyone using that phrase envision possibly burning to death in a chemical fire, hundreds of miles out to sea, while bureaucrats squabble over whose problem it is?

In December, the International Salvage Union (ISU), International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and International Union of Maritime Insurers (IUMI) announced their intention to team up in order to lobby for definitive action on places of refuge.

The recent case of the Maritime Maisie, wherein a chemical tanker collided with a car carrier newbuild and was subsequently involved in a 19-day chemical fire served as very much a case in point. As a result of the stalemate between South Korean and Japanese authorities over which would harbour the stricken vessel, refuge was not provided, and the firefighters had to battle adverse weather conditions as well as the flames. Salvors reported that firefighting operations “had to stop from time to time as it was too dangerous”. Fortunately, no-one lost their life and the seafarers have been evacuated from the ship.

Says ISU: “…on the face of it, this seems to be a good example of maritime states not meeting their obligations under IMO Resolution A.949 as well as the 1989 Salvage Convention. If that is that case ISU would be disappointed.”

At time of writing, the Maisie remains out to sea, having been swept from Korean waters – off Busan, where the vessel collided with car carrier Gravity Highway while the latter was on sea trials from Hyundai Mipo Dockyard- to Japanese waters. Reports indicate her structure is weakened and she has developed a list from the water ingress.

For those concerned about the possible environmental damage of granting port of refuge it is hard to see how this state of affairs is good news.

There is no doubt that had a place of refuge been given, the fire would not have lasted as long as it did, and the damage would not have been as extensive. “[The Maisie] incident highlights the shipping industry’s concerns over some coastal states’ continuing reluctance to offer ships places of refuge,” an Intertanko spokesperson told Seatrade Global. “When ships are not granted such refuge… emergency cargo transfer and other measures to aid the stricken vessel may be hindered… jeopardising the safety of crew as well as ship.”

However, it could have been far worse - such as in the case of the 2002 Prestige oil spill, in which a refuge dispute between the Spanish, Portugese and French governments caused spillages of 72,000cu m of oil into the Atlantic Ocean, and the prosecution of Captain Apostolos Mangouras, who was later acquitted of criminal damage charges, despite having spent 85 days in a high-security prison.

More recently, the fire which in 2012 gutted MSC Flaminia and claimed three lives, as well as the explosion and subsequent fire on Stolt Valor in the same year, which left one crew member dead, were also subject to refuge disputes.

“Intertanko stresses the importance for all coastal states to have developed plans for places of refuge and urges governments to nominate appropriate waters/ports/anchorages sooner rather than later, and before a shipping incident develops. This approach is not without difficulties, but its overwhelming advantage is that it could make the difference between a major spill and no spill at all.”

The IMO’s viewpoint is seldom so clear-cut: “It is rarely possible to deal satisfactorily and effectively with a marine casualty in open sea conditions,” states Resolution A.949(23).“the longer a damaged ship is forced to remain at the mercy of the elements in the open sea, the greater the risk of the vessel’s condition deteriorating or the sea, weather or environmental situation changing and thereby becoming a greater potential hazard.

“Taking such a ship to a place of refuge would also have the advantage of limiting the extent of coastline threatened by damage or pollution.”

No-one wants an environmental disaster, but perhaps if local politicians and the mainstream media in their countries took a little time to understand how maritime casualties really unfold, they would better appreciate why granting a port of refuge is the right thing to do - both for the environment, and for the seafarers working onboard the ships that power world trade.