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Ship master carries the can

Photo: Dubai Media Officer Twitter Fire following explosion at Jebel Ali Port on the Ocean Trader
Fire following explosion at Jebel Ali Port on the Ocean Trader
It is, some have suggested, just a symptom of the way society has changed. If you make a mistake, or take the wrong decision, which leads to what we used to term an “accident” it is likely to become the subject of criminal charges.

The surgeon who has employed the scalpel inappropriately, the truck driver who has let his mind wander, the ship master who has run a vessel aground or collided, will today face more than the sack. The law will demand its pound of flesh and it is perhaps difficult to think of why this should not be the case.

But there are some events where the threads of responsibility are so ridiculously tenuous that the law itself loses all respect, and in our maritime world the use of criminal sanctions seem often to have become completely promiscuous and bereft of any common sense. Just the other day we read of the suspended gaol sentence and $28,000 fines imposed by a court upon the Master and crew members, following an explosion in a container which had just been loaded aboard a feeder containership in the port of Jebel Ali.

The box, containing chemicals prone to overheating, had been stored on the quayside for nearly two weeks in the summer sun and there was just no way that the ship’s crew could have known this as the stevedores loaded it. To be fair, the authorities charged and ultimately fined others whose responsibility might have been clearer, but this was just one of the more egregious cases of the way that the innocent are being targeted by exceedingly blunt justice.

In a pre-container age, the master and mate really had the responsibility for the safe stowage of the cargo and were able to exercise their authority to the best of their professional judgement. As containerisation gathered pace, it became perfectly obvious that this could no longer be the case with the cargo planning and the authority surrounding it removed from the ship. But the responsibility has remained with the master, who will still face the music when something, over which he or she has no conceivable control, goes badly wrong.

And when it does, the P&I club will smoothly ensure that any bond is paid and the ship released to carry on trading, even though the master will remain, often for months on end, to face the charges which have been laid. It is not difficult to recall case after case where professionals have been held, almost like hostages, as the legal processes grind on and the injustice becomes compounded by time.

It might be said that the master, could be judged responsible for everything that went on aboard the ship, because traditionally this has been the case. But this surely has become completely outdated, at a time where the master has become almost a cipher, acting at the behest of owner or charterer. And as the industry becomes increasingly digitised, there will an increasing operational responsibility passing to the management ashore. We can already see this happening with operational management centres ashore, acting on data transmitted automatically from the ship to direct and control a growing range of technical matters, once the preserve of those aboard.

Who is the real authority, when a ship, whose course, speed, direction and conduct has been prescribed (not just advised) by shore control, after the storm turned out rather worse than had been anticipated and there has been a heavy loss of boxes over the side? Currently we are also seeing voyages of autonomous and semi-autonomous ships, perhaps on a trial basis, but an indication of where the future is heading. Somebody other than those aboard such a ship are taking the authority – will they too assume all liabilities and responsibility under law?

It is just too easy to trot out some untested formula about the supposed responsibilities of manufacturers of this clever equipment. In short, the world has changed, and it is time society’s perception of the liabilities and responsibilities of senior ships’ officers is given a commensurate update.